It’s a Smaller World, After All

U.N. Population Projections Show a Continued Fall in Fertility

NEW YORK, MARCH 29, 2003 ( The latest U.N. estimates for world population reduced by 400 million its projection for the year 2050. The Population Division of the United Nations published its report “World Population Prospects: The 2002 Revision” explaining that the decline is due to the number of deaths from AIDS and lower-than-expected fertility.

Just two years ago the Population Division forecast a world population of 9.3 billion by midcentury. The new report, released Feb. 26, lowers that estimate to 8.9 billion. (The figure is the medium-level variant, which is considered the most probable estimate.) World population is now estimated at 6.3 billion.

The Population Division concedes that fertility levels in most developing countries will likely fall below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman during the coming century. In fact, the medium variant projection forecasts that by midcentury three out of every four countries in the less developed regions will be at below-replacement fertility. This is a well-established phenomenon in economically advanced countries, and the report now acknowledges the dramatic fall in fertility in other nations.

The U.N. Revision also forecasts a worsening of the impact of AIDS, even as it assumes that HIV infections will decline significantly after 2010. During this decade, AIDS-related deaths are expected to reach 46 million. By 2050 the cumulative total of such deaths could soar to 278 million. Outright reductions in population are projected for Botswana, Lesotho, South Africa and Swaziland.

Regional differences

Population growth will vary widely by region. Current growth in the more developed regions is an annual 0.25%, while that of the less developed regions is 1.46%. By 2050, the report predicts, population of the more developed regions will have been declining for 20 years, whereas the population of the less developed regions will still be rising by 0.4% annually.

The Population Division foresees a decline in the populations of 33 countries by midcentury. Among the most notable changes is a 14% reduction in Japan; a 22% drop in Italy; and 30% to 50% declines in Bulgaria, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.

The most populous nations will continue growing, even though their fertility levels will be low. Between 2000 and 2050, eight countries (in order of their growth: India, Pakistan, Nigeria, the United States, China, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Congo) are expected to account for half the world’s projected population increase.

In terms of regions, the report forecasts a population of 5.2 billion in Asia, compared with 3.8 billion today. Africa’s numbers could soar to 1.8 billion from the current 851 million. Latin America’s population is projected to increase to 768 million from 543 million. But Europe’s ranks will fall to 632 million from the current 726 million.

Life expectancy is expected to increase. Worldwide, life expectancy at birth is likely to rise from 65 years today to 74 years in 2045-2050. The increase will be smaller in the more developed regions, from 76 to 82, and greater in the less developed regions, from 63 to 73.

An aging population

Also on the horizon are older populations. The number of people over 60 years of age will triple, from 606 million in 2000 to nearly 1.9 billion by 2050. By then, eight out of every 10 older people will live in the less developed countries, compared with six out of 10 now.

The phenomenon of aging will be particularly strong, as a percentage of population, in the more developed nations. The 60-and-over crowd now constitutes 19% of their population. By 2050 that figure will rise to 32%. The number of older persons already surpasses the level of children (those aged 14 or younger). By midcentury, elderly people will outnumber children 2-to-1.

The median age — the age at which half the population is older and half is younger — is also expected to rise notably. Worldwide, median age rose by barely 3 years in the period 1950-2000, from 23.6 to 26.4 years. During the coming 50 years, the world’s median age will reach 37. In 17 developed countries, the median age will be 50 or more. Among these are Japan, Latvia and Slovenia, each with a median age of about 53 years. Just behind, with a median age of around 52, are the Czech Republic, Estonia, Italy, Singapore and Spain.

Challenge to old mentalities

The latest U.N. report has caused some to reconsider long-held fears about population growth. In a notable turnaround, the New York Times in a March 17 editorial admitted that “population growth rates are plummeting.”

The newspaper observed that only a generation ago, Paul Ehrlich in his book “The Population Bomb” warned that overpopulation would kill the planet. Now, the editorial noted that if the latest projections are true, they “could present a more affluent world with problems that are the mirror image of what Paul Ehrlich once worried about.”

Nevertheless, some countries still persist in coercive family planning programs. The National Catholic Register in its Feb. 9-15 issue reported on a harsh criticism of forced contraception, issued by Mexico’s National Commission for Human Rights. The commission on Dec. 16 lamented that health organizations in all 31 of Mexico’s states have been imposing contraceptive devices on the indigenous population and peasants, without their consent.

The report says it found that “medical personnel in public rural clinics force women to accept the use of intrauterine devices as a method of birth control” under threat of losing government aid. Men too were pressured to accept sterilization. The commission also noted that in a number of states, IUDs were implanted without women’s consent.

The Register said the latest birth control program is carried out by private health organizations, though it was planned by the National Population Council with the advice, finance and even participation of the local office of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA).

And while the United States has put a stop on government funding of the UNFPA, other countries have increased their support. The Associated Press reported March 6 that Sweden increased its 2003 donation by $2.4 million. Its 2002 donation of $22 million made it the fifth largest donor to UNFPA. The European Union is also a generous UNFPA supporter. It signed an agreement to give 22 million euros ($23.4 million) to UNFPA and 10 million euros to the International Planned Parenthood Foundation, the latter reported last Sept. 11.

As their populations start to decline, European countries are becoming, along with Japan, the main financial backers of UNFPA’s programs in Third World nations. Mistakes too can be exported.

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