Africa to own the world’s demographic future

ScreenHunter_07 Mar. 19 12.02

By Leith van Onselen

The Washington Post has published a terrific report drawing on the latest United Nations (UN) population projections for the world’s economies.

According to the Washington Post, Africa is expected to dominate population growth over the next 90 years as populations in many of the world’s developed economies and China shrink:

ScreenHunter_15 Jul. 23 12.23

[Africa’s] overall population is expected to more than quadruple over just 90 years, an astonishingly rapid growth that will make Africa more important than ever…

Asia will continue to grow but its population growth, already slowing, is expected to peak about 50 years from now then start declining…

Europe will continue to shrink, which is worsening its economic problems. South America’s population will rise until about 2050, at which point it will begin its own gradual population decline. North America is the least ambiguous success story: it will continue to grow at a slow, sustainable rate, surpassing South America’s overall population around 2070…

A look at projections for the five most populous nations is interesting. China’s population is soon expected to go into decline as the One Child Policy bites, whereas India’s is expected to grow strongly for another 50 years, and the United States’ and Indonesia’s populations are projected to grow steadily. The scariest proposition is Nigeria, whose population is expected to explode eight-fold this centrury:

ScreenHunter_16 Jul. 23 12.28

The two big stories here are China and Nigeria, the latter of which will have almost a billion people by 2100 and will be within range of surpassing China in population. Given that Nigeria is about the area of Texas, that’s a truly astounding possibility.

Nigeria, currently Africa’s most populous country, is poised for one of the world’s most rapid population booms ever. In just 100 years, maybe two or three generations, the population is expected to increase by a mind-boggling factor of eight. The country is already troubled by corruption, poverty and religious conflict. It’s difficult to imagine how a government that can barely serve its population right now will respond when the demand on resources, social services, schools and roads increases by a factor of eight…

Chinese leaders know their demographic crisis is coming. It’s not a mystery: the country’s massive working-age population is only allowed to have one child per couple, which means that when the current generation retires, there will be a rapidly growing pool of retirees just as the workforce starts to shrink. Those aging retirees will be an enormous burden on the Chinese economy, which is just beginning to slow down. As China ages and shrinks, its workforce will get smaller at precisely the moment that it needs them most. Make no mistake, China will continue to be an enormous, important and most likely very successful country, but its demographics are going to quickly shift from a big help to a major hindrance. Keep this in mind the next time someone tells you that China is about to take over the world.

According to the Washington Post, rise of Africa’s population will emerge as one of the world’s biggest challenges:

Right now, many African countries aren’t particularly adept at either governance or resource management. If they don’t improve, exploding population growth could only worsen resource competition – and we’re talking here about basics like food, water and electricity – which in turn makes political instability and conflict more likely. The fact that there will be a “youth bulge” of young people makes that instability and conflict more likely.

It’s a big, entirely foreseeable danger. Whether Africa is able to prepare for its coming population boom may well be one of the most important long-term challenges the world faces right now…

ScreenHunter_17 Jul. 23 12.38

Take a look at Tanzania, which is today one of the poorest countries in the world. As of 2000, it had 34 million people; California’s population was the same that year. Today, Tanzania has about 45 million people. By 2100, its population is projected to be 276 million – almost the size of the entire United States today, and by then one of the largest countries in the world. The stories of other African countries may be similar: Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo are projected to be almost as large…

If [Africa] remains as poor and troubled as it is today, it doesn’t bode well: water and food resources will only get scarcer as it’s divided among more and more people, as will whatever money the government makes exporting natural resources. That typically leads to instability and a higher risk of conflict…

In the developed world, the United States is expected to maintain its dominance on the back of ongoing population growth, which is expected to outpace its peers:

ScreenHunter_18 Jul. 23 12.44

And finally, the most important chart of them all: dependency ratios for the world’s various regions:

ScreenHunter_19 Jul. 23 12.46

The “dependency ratio” is the ratio of people under age 15 or over age 64 to the number of people age 15 to 64. The idea is that people who are very young or very old are dependent on others to provide for them. If the “dependency ratio” is 40 percent, that means that there are 40 children or elderly to every 100 working age people. Another way of putting it is that 40 out of every 140 people is a child or elderly person. The higher this ratio, the more people depend on the government, the higher the rest of society’s burden for supporting them.

Right now, Africa’s dependency ratio is high. Really high: about 80 percent. This means that only 56 percent of Africans are working-age…

But as the birth rate slows and those young dependents enter the work force, the dependency ratio is going to fall, dropping to 60 percent by 2055.

That’s huge. It increases the share of the population that can contribute and lowers the share that uses resources without contributing…

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is going to see the opposite trend, and that’s bad news. As birth rates fall, people age and life expectancy rises, we’re going to see dependency ratios increase not just across the developed world but across, save for Africa, basically all of it.

Europe will get the worst of it, with the average dependency ratio hitting an Africa-style 76 percent in 2055. A generation later, South America’s is expected to reach a deeply worrying 82 percent by 2100. Asia has a few decades to prepare: its dependency ratio, currently low, will stay low until it starts to rise around 2050.

If you are interested in this sort of thing, I highly recommend that you check-out the full Washington Post report, which contains a host of other charts and analysis relating to the world’s demographic future.

[email protected]

Leith van Onselen


  1. I’m stating the obvious here, but with global agricultural productivity having plateaued since the early 90s, I don’t see how this kind of situation can be sustained.

    Add the fact that aquifers are already being depleted at alarming rates globally, then this can only be described as a nightmare scenario.

    • It is very hard to view this in a positive light. Perhaps it will mean a great wave of African emigration, both sanctioned and otherwise, to richer nations and those facing demographic decline themselves.

      The Great Big Melting Pot.

  2. i can’t really know how they can project these growth rates. If the resources dont exist to support them, then they can’t grow at this rate … and if the resources do exist, then can it be such a bad thing?

  3. reusachtigeMEMBER

    The Africans will starve or flee elsewhere before then. The developed countries will clearly help pay for this.

    • Flee to where? Europe? No chance – no opportunities or social benefits there for migrants. The middle east? Good luck with that, not exactly a welcoming group of nations. The US, India or China? Yeh sure, never going to happen.

      I guess it’s going to have to be Oz. It’s a long way from Africa to Australia… oops, I mean PNG by boat.

    • fewlishMEMBER

      Its horrible to think about, but don’t forget that when these guys go to war, they REALLY go to war.

      In my mind for these numbers to be more correct you have to account for the odd 5M (or more) going missing every decade or so.

  4. Africa is actually a very underpopulated continent in relation to its natural resources. The problem is that colonial hangover, politics, corruption and tribalism stands square in the road of exploitation of those resources for the good of the people.

    That being the case and very unlikely to change any time soon, its tough to see these forecasts being anywhere near accurate. Unfortunately its far more likely to end in mass war before this can come about, and Nigeria would be a great example of this with its tinderbox North/South Muslim/Christian setup.

  5. Global population is likely to peak around 2050. I support a view that population will peak and then should decline slowly.
    The % growth rate has been declining since 1962.
    Half the nations on the home planet have less than replacement (2.1) fertility.

    I suspect the growth in African nations to also be 1/3 due to the ‘demographic momentum’ increased lonjevity or more people living longer.

  6. Whoever came up with this forecast has not taken into account population dynamics described by the Logistic model of Lotka-Volterra which incorporates the population carrying capacity. In addition to this we have predators in the form of different bugs and viruses of which AIDS is still number 1.

    • Is the population carrying capacity of Africa not actually many times higher than its population currently is? The current “carrying capacity” problems are entirely political and cultural.

      If Africa sorted out its cultural and political issues there is no reason it couldn’t be another Asia.