On Nov. 15 the United Nations (UN) officially marked an important milestone; the global population of humans on Earth surpassed 8 billion.
The statistic is not considered to be exact. The milestone may have been reached weeks or months ago or, we may not have reached the mark as of yet, however, roughly speaking Nov. 15, 2022 is now considered the official day the milestone was reached.
According to the UN’s World Population Prospects 2022 Earth’s population is expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030 and 9.7 billion by 2050. By the 2080s, 10.4 billion people will inhabit the planet, a number that is expected to plateau until 2100 when the population is expected to begin shrinking.
Between the years 1804 and 1927 the global population grew from one billion to two billion and it took another 33 years to reach three billion. Since then, the globe adds an additional one billion people every 12.6 years or so.
However, these projections are not accepted by all population experts.
Darrell Bricker, CEO at Ipsos Public Affairs and a fellow at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), “This is the last time we’re probably going to have a conversation about reaching another billion marker.”
Bricker, who co-wrote Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline believes the world’s population will be “somewhere between eight and nine billion” by the end of the century.
“The reason that it’s not going to increase more than that is because … China now is recording its lowest birth rate in history. India has just dropped below replacement rate for its birth rate. That’s 36 per cent of the entire global population that are now not replacing or not at replacement level birth rates,” he argues.
Once the world’s population reaches nine billion Bricker believes it will begin to drop even lower.
The chief of population estimates and the projections section in the UN’s population division, Patrick Gerland, stands by his numbers however does agree that the population will plateau some time in the near future.
“If you look at some of the results from some of the alternative projections that some other research groups have produced, the alternative kind of future scenarios that different researchers have produced tend to be even more conservative, to expect this overall decline to happen a bit earlier, and eventually a bit faster than we anticipate,” he admitted adding that the 10.4-billion projection is more of an upper range than a lower one.
Birth rates declining practically everywhere
Birth rates in industrialized nations have been declining for some time and declines are also being registered in areas of the planet where high birth rates have been the norm.
In Canada, the annual growth rate has dropped from around three percent in the late 1950s to roughly 0.7 percent in 2020 and in the U.S. it went from more than two percent in the late 1950s to around 0.2 percent in 2020.
In Africa, where the birth rate is the highest, birth rates have dropped from 6.5 live births per woman between 1950 and 1980 to roughly 4.4 live births per woman today.
When considering birth rates though, all eyes are on China and India.
China, with a population of roughly 1.4 billion people and India with a slightly lower population are both experiencing sharp declines in fertility rates.
Bricker argues that “The single biggest factor [for population leveling off] is declining fertility rates. If you go back to places like India, their reproduction peaked somewhere in about the 1970s. And it’s been declining ever since.”
China, a country notorious for its now shelved one-child policy has an annual population growth rate that is stagnant at zero percent, down significantly from 3.5 percent in 1963.
“These kinds of transformational changes have happened within one generation. So the story is basically that many, many, many countries and regions face a certain type of problem that are already starting to become more [challenging because] of the population aging,” Gerland told the CBC.
According to the UN report, the global fertility rate is currently at 2.3 births per woman, down significantly from five births per woman in 1950. This rate is expected to drop to 2.1 by 2050.
A 2.1 birth rate is the lowest rate needed to maintain a population.
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Raising the alarm over declining birth rates
While overpopulation dominated the conversation for years, the declining birth rates being experienced across the globe have prompted many to raise the alarm.
Elon Musk, for example, claims that “population collapse” poses a higher risk to humanity than climate change.
At a conference in May, 2022 Musk said that humanity needs to “at least maintain our numbers” and that “We don’t necessarily need to grow dramatically, but let’s not gradually dwindle away until civilization ends with all of us in adult diapers.”
The following August Musk tweeted, “population collapse due to low birth rates is a much bigger risk to civilization than global warming.”
However, Musk’s alarms have been widely contested. Professor Alice Reid, director of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure told Business Insider in September this year, “Although there are countries have declining populations as a result of below replacement fertility, overall the world’s population is still growing and is likely to do so until the end of the century.”
Reid said that a phenomena known as “population momentum” will be the reason population growth will be the norm for decades to come.
Population momentum explains why a population will continue to grow even when fertility rates decline. It occurs when mortality rates drop, the young survive childhood and an aging population lives longer.
According to Wikipedia, “Population momentum occurs because it is not only the number of children per woman that determines population growth, but also the number of women in reproductive age. Eventually, when the fertility rate reaches the replacement rate and the population size of women in the reproductive age bracket stabilizes, the population achieves equilibrium and population momentum comes to an end.”
Supporting an aging population
The more immediate concern for many nations is not so much a growing population but an aging one.
According to a report by the National Institute On Aging, published in partnership with the U.S. Department of State entitled Why Population Aging Matters, “For the first time in history, and probably for the rest of human history, people age 65 and over will outnumber children under 5.”
The report predicts that by 2030 one billion people — one in every eight of earth’s inhabitants — will be 65-years-old or older.
These figures present unique challenges for a country’s infrastructure and economy.
Older people work less, pay less taxes and place more of a demand on a country’s health care infrastructure. Finding enough people to care for the elderly is also a major challenge, one that reared its ugly head during the COVID-19 pandemic which saw the elderly, even in developed nations, succumb to the disease in large part due to under staffing in care homes and inadequate preparedness for the pandemic.
An aging population places a severe burden on a nation’s economy.
“When you’re dealing with a population that’s aging, you’re dealing basically with people who’ve gone through the consumptive part of their life,” Bricker said.
“The only thing they’re going to be consuming now — more — is probably health-care services and leisure services. Are they going to be buying a lot of new cars? No. Are they going to be buying that new big family home where they’re going to have all sorts of cribs and baby walkers and all sorts of other things to buy? The answer’s no,” Broker added.
“I think that we’re kind of sleepwalking into a future that’s going to be very difficult to manage,” he said. “And that there are going to be all sorts of challenges that we need to start thinking about today.”