Future of demographics

Editor’s Note: On Nov. 15, 2012, Western News celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special edition asking 40 Western researchers to share the 40 THINGS WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE NEXT 40 YEARS. This is one of those entries. To view the entire anniversary issue, visit the Western News archives.

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On a global scale, we currently face somewhat of a population paradox.

While global population is projected to continue growing rapidly, this increase will be highly uneven.  Some countries currently face the prospect of population decline, whereas others will continue to grow rapidly. Parts of world face a continued ‘population explosion’ whereas others a potential ‘population implosion.’

According to the medium variant projection of the United Nations (UN), the global population of about seven billion is projected to grow by an additional two billion. Most of the demographic growth over the next 40 years will occur in low income ‘high-fertility countries.’

This can be placed into its proper perspective by remembering it took all of human history through to the eve of the Industrial Revolution to reach our first billion and an additional 130 years, through 1930, to add a second. Currently, global population is increasing by roughly 210,000 souls daily or approximately 80 million persons a year (comparable to the population of Germany).

While the UN forecasts a gradual slowing in growth rates and a possible stabilization by midcentury, this is far from a fait accompli. While many nations are witnessing a slowdown in their population growth, the underlying global trend is one of extreme population growth.

While Canada’s population will grow, what happens elsewhere is of far greater importance.

India, currently the world’s second-most populous country, is expected to soon surpass China – up to a projected 1.7 billion by midcentury. China’s population, barring an abandonment of its highly controversial one-child policy, will likely stabilize at about 1.3-1.4 billion. Northern Africa is expected to increase by roughly one half; sub-Saharan Africa is projected to more than double; whereas Latin America’s population is expected to increase by about roughly a quarter.

At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, the UN projects Europe’s population will stabilize, if not shrink over the next several decades. The UN’s low and medium projections suggest declines of minus-14.5 per cent and minus-2.7 per cent respectively by 2052.

Currently, there are roughly two dozen countries worldwide that were witnessing negative growth, including many countries in Eastern Europe.

Russia’s population is shrinking, and is projected to decline by 10 per cent, or more, by midcentury. Several important economies, including Germany and Japan, have stabilized and may very well experience population decline and further population aging over the next several decades.

These numbers imply all sorts of social and economic challenges, as population decline also implies various unforeseen difficulties. From a policy point of view, both low growth (and population aging) and high growth (with youthful populations and high fertility) can imply major challenges.

North Americans are not expected to experience this same sort of decline, as for example, both Canada and the United States receive large numbers of immigrants, whereas Mexico continues to have a relatively high natural increase.

Fertility in the United States is now at replacement level, whereas the fertility rate in Canada is 1.67 children per women. Working with Statistics Canada’s mid-range projection, Canada’s population is expected to continue growing to about 42 million by 2052, up from just under 35 million currently. While this growth will hold implications for Canadians, this increased population is a mere drop in the bucket when it comes to global population growth.

Canada’s population is currently less than half of 1 per cent of the global total and this is not likely to change much into the future. If anything, this percentage may shrink.

Again, what happens elsewhere ‘demographically speaking’ will swamp what happens in Canada.

The consequences on how we accommodate this growth will be global, particularly given the planets capacity for food production, our continued reliance on fossil fuels and the alarming prospects for climate change. In my own lifetime, if I am lucky enough to live to 2052 (my 92nd birthday), I will have likely experienced a tripling of the world’s population, from only about three billion to potentially more than nine billion by the time of my death.

This is unprecedented, and clearly suggests that from a demographer’s point of view, the next 40 years will likely turn out to be quite ‘interesting.’  We are not immune to the impact of this growth even though Canada’s population, by world standards, continues to be relatively small with lower population densities, plenty of space and resources.

What happens elsewhere will be extremely important to Canada, and we can’t ignore the basic arithmetic on this issue.

Don Kerr is a Sociology professor at King’s University College.