The Real Demographic Scare: Aging Populations

U.N. Report Foresees a Very Different World by 2050

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UNITED NATIONS, MAR. 3, 2001 ( World population continues to grow, but only in a small number of countries, while in many others there is a shortage of young people. This is the key finding of the latest demographic projections, published this week by the Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations.

The United Nations calculates that the world´s population reached 6.1 billion in mid-2000 and is growing at a rate of 1.2%, equivalent to 77 million people each year. A 1998 estimate predicted a 1.33% annual increase.

The United Nations estimates that by 2050 world population could range anywhere from 7.9 billion to 10.9 billion. Just six countries -- India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Indonesia -- now account for half the annual growth in the number of people.

For some years the developed world has had below-replacement-rate birthrates. U.N. projections for 2050 calculate that populations will have declined in no fewer than 39 countries, in some cases dramatically: Japan and Germany by 14%; Italy and Hungary by 25%; the Russian Federation, Georgia and Ukraine by 28 to 40%.

The population of the Third World, by contrast, will rise, from 4.9 billion in 2000 to 8.2 billion in 2050, according to the medium variant of population projections for midcentury.

Fewer children will mean older populations. The number of people aged 60 or over will more than triple, increasing from 606 million today to nearly 2 billion by 2050. The number of those aged 80 or over is expected to be even more marked, passing from 69 million in 2000 to 379 million in 2050.

Aging will be particularly felt in the richer nations. Currently the number of people in these countries aged 60 or over is about 20% of the population. By 2050 it reach a full third of the population. Already the number of those over 60 in developed regions has exceeded the population of those 14 and under. By 2050 there will be two senior citizens for every child. In the less developed regions, the proportion of the population aged 60 or over will rise from 8% in 2000 to almost 20% in 2050.

The coming years will also be characterized by high levels of international migration, according to the U.N. projections. First World nations should see a net inflow of about 2 million a year from now until 2050. If the richer countries decide to close their doors to immigrants, their population would diminish almost immediately, starting in 2003, rather than in 2025.

Reactions to the report

The excesses of past alarmism about the "population bomb" are now fizzling out. The U.N. report did not attract a lot of press attention, and many of the reports focused on the aging of the developed world´s population and how the Third World will account for a growing share of people.

The New York Times´ report Feb. 28 led off noting that the United States by 2050 will be the only developed country among the 20 most populous nations. In 1950 at least half of the top 10 were industrial nations.

Joseph Chamie, director of the U.N. population division, noted, "After World War II, Europe accounted for 22% of the world population and Africa 8%. ... Today they are about the same, about 13%, but by 2050 Africa is expected to be three times larger than Europe."

A warning note about the U.N. figures was quoted by the Times in its report. Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said population projections had to be viewed skeptically.

"There is no scientific basis to long-range population prediction," he said, "because no one has figured out how to estimate how many babies [the] currently unborn babies are going to have. So when you look half a century out, you´re into science fiction." All demographers can ever do, he said, is provide an educated glimpse of what the world may look like in the future.

In Britain the Guardian newspaper March 1 focused on the "growing imbalance between the developed and developing world," with the 48 least developed countries expected to nearly triple their population, from 658 million to 1.8 billion. The U.N. figures suggest, noted the Guardian, that within 50 years nine out of every 10 people will be living in a developing country, and one in every six will be living in India.

Spanish papers were worried about the aging of Europe´s population. El Mundo on Feb. 28 reported the U.N. estimate that by 2050 19 countries or regions will have populations with more than 10% being over 80 years old. Spain itself, at the bottom of world fertility tables with 1.13 children per woman, will sees its population drop no less than 21.6% by 2050, from the current 39.9 million to 31.2 million. And 44% of its population by then will be 60 or over.

Aging the biggest problem

The problem of aging populations is growing in many regions. Recent press reports have highlighted the social and economic consequences of population growth having declined too suddenly.

* The Globe and Mail newspaper Feb. 7 reported comments by Canadian Auditor General Denis Desautels, who warned that the Department of Finance´s budget process still fails to clearly account for the intense pressure that an increasingly elderly population will put on the country´s finances in coming decades. By 2030, the elderly will make up about 22% of the population, compared with 12% now. Today there are five Canadians of working age for every Canadian over 65. In three decades, there will be half that many.

* The New York Times on Dec. 26 reported that the Japanese Finance Ministry has calculated the government faces total liabilities of about $7 trillion, assuming it pays all retirees what they are owed.

* Agence France-Presse on Feb. 15 quoted government figures in Russia who now consider the declining population to be a grave threat to national security. The country´s population has been declining steadily in recent years and in 1999 fell by 768,000, or 0.5%, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov told a government meeting.

* Papers delivered in January at a global aging conference in Switzerland, organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, warned of global labor shortages, falling savings rates, declining asset values and escalating debt as a likely result from the aging of the major industrial nations. Participants observed that exploding pension-age populations will combine with flat or declining labor forces to create the potential for significant fiscal shortfalls in most industrial nations by 2010.

Aging, and not a population boom, is now the main demographic problem. Whether this prompts governments and population control agencies to cut back family planning programs is another matter.