Although we are heading eventually towards convergence at the end of this century, our demographic destinies are currently diverging.
The latest United Nations population report is a fascinating window into our shifting world that will have 8 billion inhabitants by end-year. This has huge implications for how we live with each other.
The fast-progressing climate crisis shows that humanity’s footprint is dangerously overshooting planetary carrying capacity. Population stabilisation is vital to sustain our future. The UN projects this will not happen till 2080 and by then there will be 9.7 billion of us.
Women are having fewer children at 2.3, projected to decline to 2.1 by mid-century. It is worth celebrating that more of us are living longer; life expectancy has reached 72.8 years and will reach 77.2 years by 2050.
Although we are heading eventually towards convergence at the end of this century, our demographic destinies are currently diverging. This points towards an unbalanced world with greater inequality and instability born out of the differing composition of our populations.
People in the least developed countries live 7 years less than the global average because poverty loads the dice against them. Meanwhile, their fertility remains high, for example, at 4.6 children per woman of child-bearing age in sub-Saharan Africa.
Nations with youthful populations struggle to meet their education, health, employment, and other basic needs. As their prospects for the Sustainable Development Goals get dimmer, social and political instability are heightened at a time when the world is at its least peaceful since the Second World War.
But there is a silver lining for sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Asia and Americas, where a bulging working population (25-64 years) means brighter prospects for economic growth. This demographic dividend contrasts with the demographic decline among 61 countries with falling populations, mostly in Europe and North America.
Objects for pity
The world population is generally ageing. By 2050, one in six will be over 65 years, outnumbering children under five. The over-80s will treble to 459 million. The current dependency ratio is 55 percent, which means, one non-working old or young person is supported by the labour of two. As fewer people enter the working-age cohort and more retire while living longer, dependency increases.
This has serious economic implications. A richer country needs to spend a fifth of its GDP on pensions, medical and social care for the elderly. Meanwhile, the reducing supply of labour is pressured to work harder and more productively while delaying retirement. These seed inter-generational conflict. The retirement crisis is already causing unrest in countries such as France.
Historically, population imbalances were resolved through migration as surplus people moved to where they were more needed. Similarly, people facing poverty or catastrophe from conflict or disaster fled to somewhere better or safer.
The World Migration Report estimates that 281 million (one in thirty) are migrants bringing positive societal consequences. High-income countries with shrinking populations and workforces rely on migrants to keep going. But rising xenophobia has triggered a strong anti-migration movement, with serious political impacts such as Britain’s exit from the European Union.
It is against such tumultuous trends that a momentous milestone is approaching. Next year, for the first time ever, India will surpass China as the most populous country. Each currently hovers around 1.4 billion, but India will increase to 1.7 billion as China shrinks to 1.3 billion by 2050.
Large, impoverished populations used to drag down their nations which were objects for pity and charity from others. Not now, as both rise up the World Bank middle-income table. China is the world’s second-largest economy at US$17.7 trillion and India sixth at US$3.2 trillion, climbing to first and third place respectively by 2040.
A world where more than one in three is an increasingly-prosperous Chinese or Indian, inevitably shakes the world order, economically, politically, and militarily. Also culturally, as Indians constitute the largest global diaspora at 18 million and the Chinese contribute 10 million. Several Indian-origin and some Chinese-descent leaders have even headed other states and governments, and countless others occupy top positions in national and global institutions shaping our world.
Of course, both great nations face huge domestic challenges, be it the discontent of still-poor millions or the disgruntlement of citizens, especially minorities, around identity and inclusion. Growing inequalities and human rights gaps may yet be their undoing.
Turmoil among the teeming billions of China and India has geopolitical significance, as this would spill over into all domains of international relations. Hence the wisdom with which Chinese and Indian leaders govern their peoples matters for the world’s well-being. At the same time, rivalry between the two neighbouring giants that has brought them into armed conflict on several occasions, is a serious risk to global peace.
Dealing with the multiple dimensions of China and India is a top concern in world chanceries. Some – especially developing nations of Africa and Asia – seek to play off one against the other, either to avoid being crushed economically by them or to extract maximum self-advantage from one or other. Underlying is raw politics around power: do you rule with Chinese control characteristics or the free-wheeling and chaotic Indian way? The ageing and faltering democracies of the Western Alliance face the same issue as they try to recalibrate against resurgent China and India.
From a geopolitical angle, a China-India conflict poses a threat to regional stability. It is in their own interests to avoid that by proactively managing their differences. Meanwhile, we have learnt from history that domination by any great power - whether the earlier Soviet one or the current American one – risks the shared aspiration for a peaceful and prosperous world. Similarly, any future hegemony by China or India would be equally undesirable. Instead, peaceful competition between them is safer, not least as a naturally-evolving explement on what ideas are best for running the world.
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