Near halving of some populations likely in next 50 years

A total of 39 industrialized countries will probably see their populations shrink by the year 2050, even as the world's population is predicted to grow from the current 6.1 billion to between 7.9 and 10.9 billion, according to new data issued by the United Nations Population Division. The countries expected to grow smaller in population size include many prosperous nations, such as Austria, Finland, Germany, Japan and Sweden (see Table). The predicted declines average 18%, ranging from under 1% (Netherlands) to as high as 46.1% (Estonia). Most countries will likely see a fall between 10% and 29%.

The anticipated declines are due to a combination of factors, including changes in fertility and mortality and in migration and emigration patterns, says Dr Hania Zlotnik, chief of the population estimate and projection section in the UN Population Division. "There is not one single reason they are losing population," she says. "But in most of them, fertility tends to be very low. That's the main driving force."

With falling fertility rates and rising life expectancies, the result is an ageing of the population, she adds. According to the UN report, people aged 60 and older now make up 20% of the population in more developed regions. By 2050, they will constitute 33% of those populations, with a ratio of two older people for every child under the age of 15.

"The whole social and economic structure of those countries will have to change to one that is geared toward the elderly," says Zlotnick. "Will it still be valid to stop working at 60? What about health care? What will happen to family relationships when people have fewer relatives and no siblings and when there are more elderly relatives with few younger people to provide social support?"

Mr Joseph Chamie, director of the UN Population Division, adds that all sorts of products and services will have to change to meet the needs of a population with a greater ratio of older to younger people. "Shoes, clothing, bathroom accessories will all change. Classroom and maternity wards will shrink in size and geriatric wards will increase. Voting patterns will be affected." We could even see changes in creativity, he says. "There may be changes in art, literature, and music, with fewer young people in relation to the proportion of older people."

Although the 39 countries will probably see declines in population, overall, the total population of all of more developed regions, currently at 1.2 billion, is not expected to change significantly by 2050. And the declines will not do much to offset the expected growth in the developing regions, which are predicted to expand from a current 4.9 billion to 8.2 billion, accounting for the bulk of the predicted total world population increase.

Updated versions of the UN report, World Population Prospects, have been issued every few years since 1950. One of the earliest reports, in 1953, predicted that the world's population would reach 6.2 billion in 2000, vs the present actual number of 6.1 billion. For further information, consult World Population Prospects, The 2000 Revisions, Highlights, at

Catherine Dold,
Boulder, Colorado, USA

World Health Organization Genebra - Genebra - Switzerland