Demographic trends differ across the globe, with some countries experiencing high fertility rates and others societal aging. Future development models will have to adapt to these contradictory and increasingly marked trends.

Scene from a children’s playground, Beijing, 2012. Photo: WANG ZHAO / AFP
Scene from a children’s playground, Beijing, 2012. Photo: WANG ZHAO / AFP

To soften the potentially destructive repercussions of the challenges, humanity will face in the coming decades, we need to rebuild political, institutional, and financial mechanisms and governance on a global scale. This will require taking into account the diverse effects of demographic changes on our modes of production and consumption, as well as the impact those changes will have on strengthening public policies in all countries.

These demographic changes can be viewed not only as causes: they are also revealing trends that help us to think out how to create a new, wide-ranging pact for sustainable development.


Worldwide demographic trends: aging vs. high fertility rates

According to the UN report World Population Prospects 2019, 16% of the world’s population will be over aged 65 in 2050. This figure, up from 9% today, represents 1.57 billion people. The aging trend is already at work. It will be found not only in Europe and North America, but also in China, Indonesia, and Brazil, where 1 out of 4 persons will be aged 65 and over.

In contrast to those continents or countries whose gross national income is already high or is expected to be so in 2050, it is estimated that only 0.5 to 1.2 out of 10 persons will be aged 65 and over in countries qualified as low-income (around $1,000 per year) or middle-income, especially in Africa. The phenomenon of aging societies thus has correlations with economic development and health and social protection, which feed off each other.


The global fertility rate is also projected to shift, from 2.5 to 2.2 children per woman between 2019 and 2050. This will confirm the downward trend observed for decades and the increase in the number of countries with declining populations. A study in The Lancet predicts that, by 2050, 151 of 195 countries will have fertility rates below the replacement level of 2.1. However, this overall downward trend should not hide the fact that major disparities exist.

Anthropological and societal upheavals

This twofold, highly contrasting shift in the world’s age pyramid will have in-depth repercussions. It will affect current and future forms of economic development and the way in which the growing issue of inequality is addressed. Additionally, it will affect family and community structures, intergenerational links, social organizations, and even institutions and governance bodies both locally and globally.

Major demographic challenges will arise not only for the countries facing stabilization or gradual decline in their populations, but also for those facing very sustained population growth, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.

In these countries or sub-regions (such as the Sahel), the strong population growth between now and 2050 raises the question of how to respond swiftly and effectively to meet the massive needs of local populations. These needs are above all nutritional in nature but also concern education, vocational training, and jobs. In the Sahel, the under-20 age group will double by 2050 and their level of dependence on people in the labor force will remain high. In other words, for the demographic dividend to materialize, public measures and policies targeting young people must be anticipated starting now and be backed up by extremely bold investments. And this needs to be done in countries that lack the fiscal resources to pay for it.


Meanwhile, sub-Saharan Africa has largely begun its epidemiological transition. Chronic diseases there have increased and are already reaching   The challenge of strengthening health systems will be crucial in providing a preventive and therapeutic response that can meet the new public health challenges in Africa.

In aging societies, the imbalances between the working and retired segments of the population will make the latter increasingly dependent. The exact opposite will happen in young countries experiencing high population growth.

We are also observing a paradoxical situation in which some countries will not benefit from a demographic dividend for many years to come, while others have already largely consumed it. Beyond the common imperatives of health and social protection, two quite radically different types of social demands are emerging. One is an exponentially increasing social demand for education and jobs. The other is a more demographically limited social demand for retirement benefits, autonomy, and for the means to cope with marginalization and dependency.


Global demographic changes: getting back to proactive public policies

All the countries of the world will at least have to implement specific public policies, and in some cases reform their institutional systems to deal with these changes. In aging societies, the economic dynamism of the initial demographic dividend will decline and will have to be compensated by public policies that will differ according to the degree and pace of aging in each country, as well as to its societal customs. These policies could include savings incentives to promote productive investment, greater participation by women in the labor market, pension system reforms, strengthening of social protection systems, and development of far-reaching and open migratory policies with significant integration of incoming migration flows.

Other challenges include power grabbing, withdrawal, rejection of innovation, and other intergenerational obstacles. But these countries are being hit hard by the global explosion in inequality. For this reason, more radical measures are needed to reach a sustainable societal balance. In particular, genuine determination is needed to achieve social justice that would promote a strongly redistributive approach, both through the use of progressive fiscal policies and through the sharing of wealth. This is what was done in several European countries and even in the United States from the end of World War I until the end of the 1970s.

Societies of the South, with their predominantly young populations, face multiple risks of economic, social, and political destabilization. Indeed, the weight of the informal economy, unemployment, and all forms of disqualification affecting young people fuel frustration, violence, and social and political instability. These threats in turn compromise the conditions for fair and sustainable development and participation in citizenship mechanisms.


Sustainable development: the international community at a crossroads

Under these conditions, what can we do to avoid an environment of permanent tension, or even of confrontations between countries from being the norm? How can we ensure that the effects of the demographic “great divide” do not further add to the exacerbation of economic globalization? And what conditions are needed to replace competition with international cooperation? Indeed, by shifting away from the power processes of the current institutional system, international cooperation would make it possible to “enter into a functional system driven by the needs and requirements of the international social order”.

Unlike in past centuries, when collapse or survival of societies depended on their own decision, on their own scale, the choices that are made in a globalized world affect whether humanity is perpetuated or comes to an end. There has been a lack of foresight in development choices, thereby leading the world to extreme imbalances (of which COVID-19 is only the tip of the iceberg), and especially in choices that benefit economic growth. This is what the latest Human Development Report of the UNDP tells us. Indeed, this report considers that return to “business as usual” would lead to a future of perpetual crisis management rather than of human development.

Humanity has entered the Anthropocene, meaning it is now humans who determine the future of the planet. In theory, we have the power to diminish the scale of global, ecological, and social imbalances. And this is important, considering that these imbalances interact to make each other worse under the current conditions, in which democracies are eroded and authoritarianism regimes are disturbingly on the rise.

On this last point, freeing ourselves entirely from a libertarian and/or totalitarian vision of the world seems vital when we consider that the vast majority of the world’s population lives under the grip of these forms of governance (e.g., Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Xi Jinping’s China, Sissi’s Egypt, Trump’s United States, Modi’s India, Putin’s Russia, Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia, Khamenei’s Iran). The social democracies of the West still seem to be doing little to curb this worldwide trend of decline in the rule of law and human rights.

The aforementioned UNDP report considers that the resilience of systems is reaching its limits and is close to the breaking point. In response, it calls for a transformation that is fair but requires a reversal in values if we are to survive the Anthropocene. In this new approach, development would use economic growth as a means rather than an end, and across the world fair distribution of resources and wealth would take precedence, as would protection of nature.


Reinventing a world in common

For the more than 40 years since 1980, inequality has been growing. The World Inequality Database has just released updated data on inequality, covering 173 countries and 97% of the world’s population. They show that the share of total income among the poorest 50% of each country’s population ranges from 5 to 25%. In each case, the share of the richest 10% (30 to 70% of total income) is therefore always higher than that of the poorest 50%. And the gap is even wider if we look at the distribution of assets.

The world is thus at a crossroads, where it must reinvent itself and choose a “world in common”. A proactive approach could help in implementing those choices. Here are three examples:

  1. Make reduction of inequality the core aspect of all public policies, using an approach that calls for a fair transition, in which ecological issues in the broad sense and social justice issues are systematically combined.
  2. Reform the current multilateral system, which reflects the post-war and colonial-era balance of power much more than the reality of the contemporary world.
  3. Ensure that human rights and the rule of law are respected, promoted, and preserved.


To give shape to these proposals, the international community must address the contradictions in the Agenda 2030. Indeed, while the Sustainable Development Goals do seek to promote justice, fairness, reduction of inequality, human rights, and the eradication of poverty, they do not sufficiently stress the urgency of real global redistribution and the measures that could support it. This is probably because the Agenda 2030 is too closely linked to a market-economy approach and to a model that calls for growth and a lesser role for States in promoting public interest. This approach is rarely compatible with the goals of justice, reduction of inequality, and preservation of the planet’s ecosystems and commons.

In this way, it is possible to achieve a new international pact for sustainable development, which would be adapted to global demographic dynamics. But, for this, it must give priority to true global justice and also challenge the dominant economic paradigm. Such a pact would help mitigate the cataclysms the world will have to face in the future, while at the same time help stimulate the emergence of social ties across the world.



The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

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