Two trends are transforming the world. In most countries, rich and poor, people are living longer and women are having fewer children. The ageing of the world’s population is unprecedented. The sixty age and over group may become 1/4 of the world’s expected population by 2050, a tripling of up to 2 billion. Yet if present fertility trends continue, by 2050, the world’s population will stop increasing and will level off at 9 billion, up from the current 6.7 billion.
This levelling off depends on the assumption that the drop in the fertility rate will continue.Clearly, international family planning programs are vitally needed. About 200 million women living in families in less developed countries lack safe and effective family planning services, resulting in unintended pregnancies, and many maternal and infant deaths. Family planning is inextricably connected to the fertility rate and its effects on population growth. Small changes in the fertility rate will have very large effects on population numbers years later. As an example, if the fertility rate only remains the same, rather than continuing to drop, world population will rise to nearly 12 billion instead of the projected 9 billion.
Every 2 years the UN revises its estimates.This updating is of great importance because demography has enormous implications for the way people live, implications which are often overlooked. Most of the total growth will be in the poorer parts of the world, a jump from today’s 5.4 billion to about 8 billion. Yet in the developed world—our world—population will remain largely unchanged, about 1.2 billion. This number would have dropped further if not for immigration, badly needed both for labor and to financially support the growing elder population. Yet, increasingly, immigrants are resented, particularly in Europe, less used to the mixing of different cultures.
Even with immigration, by 2050 in 46 richer countries, including Germany, Italy and Japan, the total number of people is expected to be lower than it is today. Population is shrinking. For the first time in history, the number of children under 15 will be less than the number of people over sixty. A different world.
In the US the crossover of more elderly than young will come in 2015, much sooner than in the developing world, where it is predicted to happen in 2045. The labor force, social security, pensions and most importantly health systems will be greatly affected. Enough numbers of young people will be needed to help pay for these services.
The balance between the fertility rate and the survival rate is a partnership dance that can be helped to go smoothly by policies geared to a planet for all ages. As a bad example, the Bush administration has in recent years reduced its support for international family planning programs. The 2008 budget has even deeper cuts, with burdensome and unnecessary restrictions. Congress may restore these cuts, and this should receive strong support.
For those countries worried about population decline, the Executive Director of UNFPA, the UN Population Fund, points out that the struggle between the demands of career and child rearing can be eased by paid parental leave, flexible work schedules, and good, available day care.
A world for all ages can be had if we choose.
Phyllis Ehrenfeld, Representative to the United Nations for the National Service Conference of the American Ethical Union.
Sylvain Ehrenfeld, Representative to the United Nations for the International Humanist & Ethical Union.