Demographic Winter or Overpopulation? UN Publishes New Forecast


In early July, the United Nations published its “World Population Prospects” for 2022. Since 1951, the UN has published twenty-seven reports of these official estimates and projections of the global population. This report is composed of 3 parts:

  • A description of the most likely trends in population size, growth and age structure from 1950 to 2050.
  • An assessment of the demographic drivers of population change – fertility, mortality, and immigration.
  • And an overview of population trends until 2100 and their potential implications.


A milestone of 8 billion inhabitants is announced for November 15, 2022, although the pace of growth is slowing down.


According to this report, the world’s population is projected to reach 8 billion by November 15, 2022. It also states that “the latest projections suggest that the global population could increase to around 8.5 billion in 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050 and 10.4 billion in 2100.” In 2020, population growth fell below 1% for the first time since 1950.


Projections are given for the two main components of demographic trends: fertility and mortality. Life expectancy at birth has continued to increase, rising to 72.9 years in 2019, thus representing an increase of almost 9 years compared to 1990. By 2050, life expectancy is projected to reach an average of 77.2 years. The life expectancy at birth is still higher for women regardless of the region, and exceeds that of men’s by an average of 5.4 years. In 2021, the average global fertility rate stood at 2.3 births per woman, falling from about 5 births per woman in 1950. It is projected to fall even further to 2.1 by the year 2050. Current demographic trends explain the projections for 2050. According to the report, policies already implemented in some countries to reduce the fertility rate will start to have a greater impact during the second half of the 21st century.


Demographic Trends with Robust Regional Differences


With 4.4 billion inhabitants, Asia accounts for 55% of the global population with China and India being its’ two most populous countries. By 2023 India’s population is projected to exceed that of China’s.  More than half of the projected increase in the global population between 2022 and 2050 is expected to be concentrated in just eight countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines and Tanzania. On the other hand, the report maintains that Europe and North America will begin experiencing population decline in the late 2030s, whereas the Chinese population is expected to decline as early as 2023. After years of imposing a coercive policy of low birth rates, the May 2021 announcement to provide government support for a third Chinese child is not expected to have much impact on declining growth rates. By 2050, the report estimates that populations will decline in as many as 61 countries, sometimes with high percentages. For example, Bulgaria, Lithuania or Serbia could experience losses of 20% or more.


A Demographic Winter to come for the West


For these countries, the UN forecast seems to confirm the so-called “demographic winter or collapse”. This means that at the end of the demographic transition, fertility rates will not stabilize with mortality rates, but rather continue their downward trend, leading to a higher percentage of elderly persons, which will ultimately result in an overall population decrease. The report predicts that 16% of the world’s population will be composed of over-65s compared to only 10% today, and that by 2050 they will be twice as numerous as children under 5. Various well-known people have addressed the subject of this demographic winter. Pope Francis, for example, has repeatedly expressed his concern about this phenomenon. And last spring, the multibillionaire Elon Musk tweeted that “the rapidly collapsing birth rate is by far the greatest threat to civilization.” The richest man on the planet believes he is “doing his part” since he is the father of nine children, according to the latest known information. His former girlfriend, singer Grimes, sought out a surrogate mother for their second child who was born last December, only weeks after the birth of twins that Elon Musk had with one of his employees, Shivon Zillis. A rather disjointed idea of fatherhood, to say the least.


Uncertain Population Forecasts for 2100


Finally, the report gives estimated forecasts for 2100, while underlining the inherent uncertainty in making predictions. A medium scenario is provided where the world’s population is between 8.9 and 12.4 billion. The report refers to the scenarios published in 2020 by the IHME (Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation), an institute partially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which forecast a peak population of 9.7 billion in 2064, followed by a decline to 8.8 billion (with a range of variation between 6.8 and 11.8 billion). The difference between these projections is mainly due to different fertility rates: 1.66 for the IHME and 1.84 for the UN. This type of forecast is notoriously tricky: in 1992, a UN report projected a population of 10 billion in 2050 (medium scenario).


Due caution is called for in view of the significant differences announced in these forecasts. National public authorities should be careful about the report’s call for reducing fertility in regions with high birth rates. A rather quantitative Malthusian vision is sometimes apparent when topics of growth or sustainable development are treated in the report. Nonetheless, some opposing viewpoints are being raised. Indeed, in a “JDD” newspaper interview, demographer Christophe Guilmoto asserts that “the real danger isn’t due to population growth, but rather to lifestyles”, because “the carbon footprint in poor countries with the largest population growth is lower than their inferred demographic index, since these countries are the ones which pollute the least”.


And even more profoundly, as the 16th century philosopher and humanist, Jean Bodin emphasized: mankind is our only true source of wealth.

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