End of the population pyramid: 1 billion more Africans are coming

By 2050, there will be an additional 2.2-billion people in the world. The world population will be 9.5-billion (or about 30% more than we are today).

This is a surfer’s dream: catching a great wave, far from the shore, and riding it for long beautiful moments as it builds up and gathers momentum, until the very end, when it breaks right on the beach. This is how my generation, born in the 1970s (when the Beach Boys released their iconic Surf’s Up album), should feel, because we are riding on a global "demographic wave". 

From a demographic standpoint, this generation is different from the previous one in two fundamental ways: it is both less fertile and more durable. We all live longer than our parents - dramatically so in emerging economies - and smaller families are becoming the norm. This is also why we will soon need to say goodbye to the "population pyramid", one of the defining concepts for any high-school or university student of our time. The next generation of students will instead learn about the "population barrel". Already today, the pyramid is gone. The distribution of world population has the shape of a bell (Figure 1 below).

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Source: Calculations by Emi Suzuki based on WDI 2014 and UN World Population Prospects 2012 Revision

This may seem counter-intuitive. Given that population growth is at near record levels, with world population adding by 80-million each year, why is the pyramid is not expanding symmetrically? The reason is that today’s rapid population growth is driven by longevity, rather than by high fertility: there are more and more adults in the world. This is why we can experience both declining fertility and rapid population growth at the same time. By 2050, there will be an additional 2.2-billion people in the world, bringing the total to approximately 9.5 billion (or about 30% more than we are today). Roughly speaking, Africa and Asia will each grow by a billion, while the rest of world will add some 200-million. Collectively we will be significantly older too. To get at the bottom of this phenomenon, we can project the breakdown of these additional 2.2-billion by age group, both in absolute terms and compared with their current size. Here are the results (see also figure 2):

  • Children and teenagers (0-19 years) will remain the largest group but only grow modestly from 2.5 billion to 2.7 billion (an increase of 8%);
  • Young adults and parents (20-39 years) will only see modest changes (the biggest shifts in this group have already happened over the past 30 years) growing from 2.2 to 2.6 billion (a 14% increase); 
  • The new "middle aged" (40-59 years) will experience major growth. Rising from 1.7 billion today to 2.2 billion in 2050, this group will add more than half a billion people (a 38% increase);
  • Grandparents (60-79 years) will gain the most and more than double in size from 760 million to 1.6 billion (a 100% increase); and 
  • The new "oldies" (80+) are also expected to rise sharply but from a very low base. From 120 million today, they should add another 380 million by 2050 (plus 211%). 

Figure 2 - The world is growing older

Source: Calculations by Emi Suzuki based on WDI 2014 and UN World Population Prospects 2012 Revision

The bulk of future population growth - more than 1.4-billion - will happen in the middle of the distribution. Those born in my generation and the ones right after will be between 40 and 79 years by 2050: they will fill up the top half of the barrel. And if they stay healthy enough, they will then join a small but growing group of octogenarians still listening to the Beach Boys and, why not, surfing their retirement away!

The writer is the World Bank’s country sector leader for the private and financial sector for the Western Balkans. Previously, he served as the World Bank"s lead economist in its Nairobi office and blogs on the Bank’s  Future Development blog. Twitter: @wolfgangfengler

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