Apr 20, 2023 - World

Global balance of population and power is shifting

Share of population in age range, by country
Data: United Nations Population Fund; Chart: Rahul Mukherjee/Axios

The distribution of people across our planet is changing pretty dramatically, with populations booming in sub-Saharan Africa and shrinking in parts of Europe and East Asia, including China.

Driving the news: According to a new UN report, India will surpass China as the world’s most populous nation by the middle of this year, if it hasn't already.

  • China’s population declined last year for the first time in six decades. Decades of strict population control measures helped push China’s fertility rate (1.2) to the lowest in the world other than Singapore and South Korea. Beijing is now encouraging people to have more children.
  • China also has very little inward migration. Less than 0.1% of the population is foreign-born vs. 15% in the U.S. — a big part of the reason the U.S. workforce is expected to continue to grow as China’s shrinks.
  • China will increasingly face a similar challenge to Japan — where the population peaked 15 years ago, and the government is turning to automation and foreign workers to help care for the elderly and stoke the economy — at a much larger scale.

The flipside: India’s working-age population is expanding, a potential “demographic dividend” for an economy that’s already the fastest-growing in the G20, and could be the third-largest in the world by 2030.

  • Companies including Apple are increasing manufacturing in India, often at the expense of China. The UN report had already led to a flurry of stories analyzing whether India could become the more economically powerful Asian giant.
  • Yes, but: The economy is still not creating nearly enough jobs for all the young people entering the workforce. More than 80% of Indians polled in the UN report said India’s population was already too high, with 63% saying economic issues tied to population growth were a top concern.
  • While India’s population is expected to keep growing in the 2060s, the fertility rate has gradually fallen over several decades to 2.0 per woman, below the global average of 2.3.

Zoom out: Population growth around the world has slowed significantly due to factors including increased education and access to contraception for young women, per the report.

  • The UN expects the global population to climb from 8 billion today to 9.7 billion by 2050, but then peak at around 10.4 billion in the 2080s.
  • Europe is the only region whose population will shrink between now and 2050. Eastern European countries including Bulgaria and Moldova have among the fastest-shrinking populations in the world, due to large-scale emigration and low birth rates.
  • By contrast, half of all global population growth over that period is expected to come in eight countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo; Egypt; Ethiopia; India; Nigeria; Pakistan; the Philippines and Tanzania.

The population of sub-Saharan Africa is growing far faster than any other region, and is expected to nearly double to 2.1 billion by 2050.

  • The region’s demographics look markedly different from every other region. In Nigeria, for example, 43% of the population is under 15 while just 3% is over 65, while the fertility rate per woman is 5.1.

There's another big reason the global population is growing: people are living longer, healthier lives.

  • Life expectancy has jumped from 64 to 73 globally since 1990, and 52 to 64 in Africa. Those trends are expected to continue.
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