Pop. 2050.

People from Thomas Malthus to Paul Ehrlich used to fear that population growth would outrun resources. These fears proved groundless by the end of the 20th century. Projecting from current trends, the United Nations foresees a world population of 9.3 billion by 2050, with growth slowing to stability at 11 billion by 2200. Other reliable estimates set the “carrying capacity” of the earth (its resource base) at something better than ten billion people. Many estimates hold that the earth could support 11 to 14 billion people. In short, a huge crush on resources seems unlikely to imperil human survival.

Instead, by the start of the 21st Century it was being predicted that “the most important changes in world population over the next fifty years are less likely to be in the total number of people than in their age and geographic distribution.”

For example, the anticipated overall slowing of population growth means that populations will age. In 2002 the median age of the world’s population was 26.5 years; by 2050 it will be something like 36.5 years. In the more-developed regions, long life-spans combined with a previous drop in the number of children below replacement level (2.2 children/family) will create very distinctly aged population patterns. The absolute and relative size of the working populations will shrink. Fewer working people will have to support more elderly dependent people, but fewer children. Unless there is substantial immigration from non-European areas, Europe’s 2050 population will be smaller than its 2000 population and only 57 percent will be of working age (15-65). Italy may be regarded as an extreme case: by 2050 the Italian population will shrink by 25 percent and only 3 Italians will be working for every two over 65 years. In both Russia and the former Soviet-bloc territories population is plunging as people have fewer children, many die younger than one would expect, and others emigrate.

Other areas of the world still face surging population growth: in China the birth rate is double the death rate, in India and Nigeria the birth rate is almost triple the death rate, in Pakistan the birth rate is more than triple the death rate. In general, almost all of Africa, the Arab world, and South Asia can anticipate population growth by 2050 that ranges from at least 50 to over 100 percent. Eight of ten of the fastest growing countries are Islamic-majority countries. Afghan women bear on average 6.8 children, while the population of the Gaza Strips is projected to quadruple by 2050. But it is not just Islam that reports rapid population growth: sixteen million more Indians were born than died in 2002 (20 percent of the world’s population growth); and the population of Africa is projected to increase by 150 percent between 2000 and 2050. This is in spite of the AIDS epidemic, which reduced life expectancy in Africa from 60 years (early 1990s) to 36 years (2002).

In contrast to developed Western countries (including Japan), in less-developed regions, the continuing comparatively high number of children will create distinctly youthful population patterns. The absolute and relative size of the working populations will grow. More working people will have to support more children, but not as many aged people.   (Retirement homes and elementary schools may become the key institutions in two different societies.)

More importantly, it is difficult to see how “developed” societies are going to do without a large influx of workers from “developing” countries. What school-teachers call “cultural competencies” are going to start to count more and more. “Controlling the border” will take on a different meaning.


Don Peck, “The World in Numbers: Population 2050,” Atlantic, October 2002, pp. 40-41.

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