World of Wonders

Peak Kid

Births have stabilized, so why is the global population still growing?

By Gaia Vince | September 30, 2015


The world has reached peak child, according to the latest data United Nations Population Division. The number of children under 15 has levelled off at two billion and will remain there, perhaps falling by the end of the century. The global population is still growing—we added one billion people over the past 12 years—but at a slower pace. Current estimates predict a stable population of around 11 billion or less by 2100, perhaps followed by a decline.

Most growth is and will continue to be in Africa, with Nigeria overtaking the United States as the world’s third most populous country, home to 413 million people before mid-century. The United States is continuing to grow, however, even as it slips into fourth place. India will surpass China as soon as 2022, with China peaking at 1.4 billion by 2028. India will peak at 1.75 billion sometime after 2050. By the end of the century, the world’s population will be roughly: one billion in Europe, one billion in the Americas, four billion in Africa, five billion in Asia.

So what explains the continued rise in population even as the number of children stays the same? We’re living longer. Global life expectancy is expected to rise from the current 70 to 77 in 2050 and 83 in 2100. There are 400 million 70-year-olds; by 2100, there will be two billion. The median age will rise from 30 to 42 (the current median age for Europeans). That’s an extraordinary demographic shift with far-reaching consequences.

In Europe, for example, where population is expected to decline to the extent that deaths will outnumber births by 32 million by 2050, immigration will have to double in order to maintain numbers. Or it won’t, in which case, the world’s greatest cities, industrial output, and cultural exchanges are likely to be in the global south.

As the proportion of children drops, child-labor and exploitation may also fall, as nations invest in education and nurture young people. However, ill treatment of the aged and senile may increase. Meanwhile, retirement age will go up and the global workforce will become older. Robots and machines will increasingly need to do manual work.

It will be a crowded world by the end of the century, with fewer resources to share and a shrinking area for wildlife. But it may finally become more equitable as poorest parts of the planet catch up with the richest, people have fewer children to support, and, perhaps as lifespans increase, they look for longer-term, more sustainable satisfaction.

It’s worth remembering that the UN figures are estimates. We could still shoot over 11 billion, or reach peak global population much faster. One way to do that would be to concentrate on educating and nurturing poor children now.

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