A recent report on the state of the global population and put out by the BBC set off alarm bells. The report spoke of huge declines in births and concerns about “enormous social change” likely to occur.
The study referred to was that done by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics Evaluation (IHME) that appeared in the Lancet. The study reported that by 2064 the global population is expected to peak at 9.7 billion and then drop to 8.8 billion by 2100.
Is this something we should be concerned about? Can we continue in our usual fashion? Will we still be in line to receive those Grande Vegas casino bonuses? Knowing how forecasts are made will help us understand why there is no need for us to start panicking just yet.
In order to figure out the way in which the global population will change over the next 100 years, it is necessary to make predictions about two major factors concerning population change. One is mortality, and the other is fertility. Combining the two allows us to make a prediction about levels of growth or decline.
Making a long- term forecast regarding population growth is very difficult owing to many social and economic changes and technological progress that may take place which may have an impact. But, of course, world population forecasts are something to be taken into account. For example, they help us to prepare and coordinate for such things as climate change. The United Nations for instance produces world population forecasts on a regular basis.
Assessing fertility rates
The most important factor, of three, in influencing global population change is fertility.
The total fertility rate, the number of children each woman would give birth to in her lifetime, has been declining globally and this fact has been known to demographers for many years. Fertility rates for 2020 show that around 90 different countries and regions had fertility rates lower than 2.1. That figure represents the number of children women need to have to replace themselves and their spouses. This includes those children who may not survive into adulthood.
In southern and eastern Europe there are some countries that have even lower fertility rates, and since 1990 they have reached below 1.3 or even lower. In Japan and South Korea and other places in East Asia we saw incredibly low fertility rates during most of the 2000s. Korea’s present fertility rate stands at 1.1. These incredibly low fertility rates have been showing themselves in these areas for some years.
One of the main factors pinpointed by the IHME forecasts is that they base fertility rates on women’s education and their use of contraceptive methods. The major difference between the IHME forecasts and other population forecasts is the rapid decline and the expected level of fertility rates in poorer countries.
Focusing on education and contraception does make sense because we know that as women become more independent and have access to more education so they are able to make choices about having children. Education and access to contraception do lead to reduced fertility rates. Nevertheless, it is not clear cut to make solid predictions about fertility based on education and contraception.
The United Nations concentrates on making predictions on fertility and mortality alone. According to their predictions, the world population will peak at 11 billion in 2100 which is considerably higher than that predicted by the IHME.
What is expected to happen in Africa
Some look to the experts to understand future projections. Researchers at the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital did a survey in 2014 of approximately 550 international population specialists and experts in the field. Their estimates were based on the results of this survey. Basically, listening to the experts and their informed opinions.
According to this, they predicted that around 2070 the global population would peak at 9.4 billion and then there would be a decline by 2100 to around 9 billion. These figures are similar to those of the IHME. However, these experts did point out that the speed in which girl’s education increases globally may impact the future world population, and especially in Africa.
The IHME also predicts population growth in Africa and suggests that Nigeria will be one of the most populated countries in the world. But these predictions are based on strongly held expectations or assumptions. The IHME is expecting Africa to reach higher education levels and therefore the need for contraception which would result in fertility rates below the level of replacement.
However, many experts in the field of demography note the fact that there has been a slow- down in the declining fertility rates. This may be due to the fact that girl’s education has stalled and the upsurge in religious beliefs and patriarchy. It is still unclear as to whether fertility rates will decline in Africa.
Demographers looking at the political and development issues in the region say that fertility is likely to remain high.
A good measure of uncertainty
Most experts in the field of demography realize that it is important to be realistic and to include some level of uncertainty into their predictions for future populations. The IHME has shown some different but possible situations but these, offering uncertainty, don’t grab such attention and therefore are not the focus of attention.
The alarmist scenario put out by the media concerning declining fertility doesn’t allow for the positive elements involved. Things like increasing female education and independence. Neither does it take into account that such scaremongering can encourage governments to introduce policies and regulations that can challenge reproductive rights.
It is important to take a step back and look at these studies with a critical eye and it is important that the media be more cautious and less alarmist in its coverage.