World population is now 8 billion!
Here’s how we reached this point and where we’re going.
In this week’s newsletter we finally reach 8 billion! We’ll explore what that means in a summary of six key numbers. And I recommend a Guardian article on India as a microcosm of the diversity of world population trends.
The number this week is…
But here’s a visual of how we got here and where we might be going. I actually think there’s a greater than 50% chance we don’t get to 10.4 billion because I think fertility will continue to fall quickly where it’s high and because I foresee persistent super low (below 1.5 children per woman) fertility in much of the world. I know a lot of future growth will be population momentum but I’d put us closer to right at 10 billion than the 10.4 billion the UN currently projects. I’d love to know what others think and why you think that in the comments.
This newsletter is about far more than just my latest book but if there’s ever a day when I ask if you’ll buy a copy for a friend or yourself, I think this is the day. And it’s on sale through Amazon!
The first number is…2.3
The average number of children born to a woman in her lifetime continues to hit a historic low each year. At 2.3, the global total fertility rate is now just a shade above replacement level, or the number of births needed to replace the population already born (typically considered around 2.1). Despite this downward trend, the total world population will grow by about 1 to 2 billion before it peaks. How is that possible?
Part of the reason is that fertility is still quite high in some places and we’re living longer so there are more of us. But much of our future population growth is actually baked in from the past, when fertility was higher. To illustrate, let’s look at Egypt’s fast-growing population.
Women in Egypt currently have 2.5 children on average in their lifetimes, but Egypt’s population is on track to grow by nearly 40% over the next three decades in large part because the cohort of potential mothers is large—not because fertility is particularly high. As this population pyramid shows, it wasn’t until after 2015 that the number of babies started to dwindle.
As today’s children age into their reproductive years over the next decades, Egypt’s overall population will grow even if average fertility continues to fall, as expected. With a life expectancy at birth of 75 years, the pyramid will grow wider at the top (older ages), too.
The second number is…6 Billion
The total world population is hitting 8 billion, but the 6 billion of us who live in middle-income countries, many of which have below-replacement fertility, are a key segment to watch when it comes to environmental impact. Access to rights-based family planning and reproductive health services remains important, especially for lower-middle-income countries that still have above-replacement fertility, 2.6 children per woman on average.
But it’s essential to shift focus away from how many people live in these countries and focus instead on how their quality of life is changing. Shifting diets (for example, meat consumption tends to increase with income) and increasing energy needs mean that the environmental impact of these billions of people will grow as their quality of life improves. Sustainable development is more imperative than ever.
The third number is…18 Years
The gap between average life expectancy at birth in low-income countries (65 years) versus high-income ones (83 years) is 18 years. As I argue in my new book, while the last century was one of exponential growth, this century is one of differential growth, with major disparities in birth, death, and even migration trends between lower- and higher-income countries.
Generally, in lower-income settings, improvements in life expectancy come from fewer infant and child deaths as public health infrastructure improves over time, but such improvements are slow to come in many countries. Civil violence, as in Afghanistan and Somalia, and natural disasters, as in Haiti and Pakistan, often mean women and children in these settings are unable to access health services, and high infant mortality rates are one consequence.
The fourth number is…42%
Another global divide is in age. Forty-two percent of the population in lower-income countries is under age 15. Globally, there are more people under age 15 than over age 65, but not in higher-income countries, where older people outnumber youth. Neither situation is inherently bad, but the disparity does mean lower- and higher-income countries face dissimilar challenges and opportunities.
As for challenges, in more youthful countries, the focus is often on how to feed, educate, and employ a fast-growing population with millions aging into the workforce annually. In countries with older populations, discussions center on how to maintain economic vitality as millions exit the workforce annually into retirement. But there are opportunities as well: Youthful countries have the potential to reap a demographic dividend—a boost in economic growth from higher proportions of people of working age—if the right government policies are in place, such as investments in human capital. Countries with older age structures are at the leading edge of innovations in automation and artificial intelligence, which help offset shrinking workforces.
The fifth number is…>50%
More than half of world population growth through 2050 will come from countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The region is on track to add nearly 1 billion people, assuming some fertility declines. Over 40% of that growth will come from just four countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Tanzania.
The sixth number is…2020
In 2020, the global population growth rate fell under 1% for the first time in modern history. Some global population losses from COVID-19 (postponed childbearing plus excess deaths) drove the rate downward, but the historic low mostly followed a long-term trend, as Figure 3 shows. We don’t know for certain how high world population will peak, but we do know that these “billion” milestones will grow farther apart as growth continues to slow.
A version of this ran on the Population Reference Bureau website.
I really appreciated this framing of India’s population in The Guardian because it’s what’s true for the planet as a whole right now. Our 8 billion includes both the oldest societies we’ve ever experienced AND incredibly young and growing ones. Challenges and opportunities for each are wildly different.
“Yet the story of India’s population boom is really two stories. In the north, led by just two states, the population is still rising. In the richer south, numbers are stabilising and in some areas declining. The deepening divisions between these regions mean the government must eventually grapple with a unique problem: the consequences of a baby boom and an ageing population, all inside one nation.”
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Jacksonville Florida has 23 billion square feet of land. If you gave everyone 2 square ft of space to stand on, the entire population of the Earth can fit into Jacksonville.
Really tired of the concerns of overpopulation.
With the correct infrastructure the Earth can easily sustain over fifty billion.
The area of United States of America in square feet is 103671742065706.34375.
Over 50 trillion people can stand side by side.
I’m just putting out these numbers so that people see the outrageous claims that the Earth is getting or is overpopulated.
Dear friends, Can we try to be a little less anthropocentric when discussing population? It may save us in the end. Please consider that we're just one among 9 million species.