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The old shall inherit the earth

By Peter Curson and Rebekah Menzies - posted Friday, 31 August 2012

Recently the Population Reference Bureau released its 2012 World Population Data Sheet. This was the 50th annual summary of the world’s population that the Bureau has released and such annual data sheets have become a major resource for anyone interested in what is happening to the world’s population.

There is little doubt that our world is currently experiencing the greatest demographic upheaval in recorded history. Not only has the world’s population now exceeded 7 billion but there have been dramatic falls in mortality and fertility, and people everywhere are getting older and living longer. In addition, more people are on the move than ever before.

In some countries such as Russia and Japan, the population is actually in decline.  Declining fertility is a major part of the demographic upheaval that the world has experienced over the last 60 years.


The world’s total fertility rate has fallen from more than 5 to 2.5 births per woman over this period and most of the decline has taken place in the developing world where the fertility rate has plunged from 6.2 births per woman to 2.6. Sub-Saharan Africa stands apart but even here fertility has declined to 5.2.

Compare this with a fertility rate of 1.5 in China, 2.2 in Latin America, 1.6 in Europe and 1.9 in Australia. Taiwan has the lowest fertility rate in the world – a mere 0.9 with South Korea not far behind. In many parts of the world fertility now stands at the lowest levels ever recorded.

Family planning has played some part in all of this but so too have a raft of  major socio-economic changes such as improved education, greater opportunities for women, low infant and child mortality and more urban living.

Population growth has shifted away from developed countries and almost all the population growth during the next 50 years will take place in the developing world. By 2050 8 billion people or 86% of the world’s population will live in developing countries including 2.3 billion in Africa, and significantly three African countries (Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia) will have a combined population greater than that of the whole of Europe.

There is also little doubt that we now find ourselves in a rapidly greying world. The level of ageing populations is unprecedented in human history and it is a trend affecting most parts of the world. Today, in many countries of Europe more than 20% of the population are aged over 65. In Australia the figure is 14%.

Japan, in particular is precariously placed with very low fertility, increasing life expectancy and negligible immigration. All this will see the country become significantly older and smaller over the next 25-30 years. Japan’s population will fall from around 128 million today to barely 116 million by 2030, and the fall will be particularly marked for those in the working age groups. By 2030 Japan will be one of the oldest countries in the world with one-third of its population or 39 million people aged over 65.


Even China is experiencing rapid ageing. Today roughly 9% of China’s population are over 65. Within 15 years this will have increased to 16% and by 2050 25% of China’s population will be aged over 65.

Imagine a world where 2 billion people are aged over 65 with 400 million in China alone! Interestingly, China will be the first country to grow old without becoming rich. In 2010 there were 8 Chinese of working age to support each old person. By 2030 this will have declined to under 4 and by 2050 to only 2.4. Currently less than one-third of China’s workforce is earning some sort of retirement benefit and despite the beginnings of a national pension system, the majority of elderly Chinese are forced to rely on the support of their children. But in the context of a regime that for long pursued a one-child policy, many will find themselves without a son or someone to support them.

Equally noteworthy throughout the world is the fate of the “old-old” those aged over 80 whose needs and capacities are substantially different for those aged in their 60s and 70s. People aged over 80 are currently increasing at a rate more than double those aged over 65. By 2050 there may well be 400 million people aged over 80 in the world.

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About the Authors

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

Rebekah Menzies is a graduate of Otago University and an intern in the Centre for International Security at Sydney University.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Peter Curson
All articles by Rebekah Menzies

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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