It is believed that our species, the Homo sapiens, originated hundreds of thousands of years ago in Africa. Now, the continent may also hold the key to humanity’s future. This is what population studies suggest that anticipate what the world will be like at the end of this century.
To estimate what the world population will look like in 2100, experts make projections based on a number of factors, mainly the so-called global fertility rate (known by the acronym TFT), which is an average of the number of live births per woman.
For a population to grow, or at least to remain stable, it is necessary at least a rate of 2.1, that is, the average number of births is 2.1 children per woman.
This index is known as the “replacement fertility rate”. The idea behind it is simple: as women make up almost half of the population, if each of them has at least two babies, the world’s population will not decrease.
The replacement rate is 2.1 children and not just 2, as it takes into account that not all babies born reach adulthood and that, in addition, there is a slight tendency for more boys to be born than girls.
According to United Nations Population Division statistics, women around the world had 5 children on average in 1950.
This has caused the planet’s population to triple in less than a century – soon, we will be 8 billion people.
However, factors such as the creation and dissemination of better contraceptive methods and the greater participation of women in the labor market in many countries, among other things, caused the TFT to fall to less than half. In 2022, the world’s women will have 2.4 children on average.
In many places, the number is lower.
“Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in countries where fertility is below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman, and a large part of this population lives in countries with very low and declining fertility levels”, explains Sabrina Jurán, who is a member of the United Nations Population Fund (Unfpa).
This has led experts to project that the world’s population will peak in a few decades and then begin to decline.
Population expected to shrink in the next century
There are some estimates of when we will reach peak population and how many of us will be alive at that time, but all predictions agree that humanity will shrink in the next century.
The UN estimates that the world will reach the brink of 11 billion people by 2100 before then.
Other studies carried out in Austria and the United States suggest that the decline will start sooner, in just half a century, and that the population will not reach 10 billion.
The most recent projection, carried out in 2020 by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluations (IHME) at the University of Washington, in the United States, in a study published in the scientific journal The Lancet, indicates that, by the end of this century, 183 of the 195 countries in world will have a fertility rate below the levels needed to replace their population.
At first glance, this population decline may seem like good news, after all, a less overpopulated world could be more sustainable.
But behind the numbers there is a very complex reality: with fewer and fewer young people and an increasingly aging population, how will countries keep their economies active? And how will humanity survive?
It is in this context that many look to the African continent, in particular to the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, as the immense region in the center and south of the continent is known, which includes 54 countries.
Contrary to what happens in the rest of the world, its population is growing exponentially. This point on the planet is considered the cradle of humanity.
Projections indicate that the region’s population will double by 2050, reaching 2.5 billion people. In practice, this means that in less than 30 years, a quarter of humanity could potentially be African.
Africa’s population growth is twice as fast as South Asia’s and nearly three times as fast as Latin America’s.
What drives this growth is a unique feature of this region: in most African countries, at least 70% of citizens are under the age of 30. This is in stark contrast to the situation in the rest of the world, where the population is rapidly aging.
At this point, Jurán highlights the case of Latin America and the Caribbean, regions with “the fastest aging population in the world”.
Africa’s population explosion led the UN to conclude that the continent “will play a central role in shaping the size and distribution of the world’s population in the coming decades.”
Some experts warn that this disparity between Africa and the rest of the continents will cause profound changes in the world we know today.
In your recent book 8 Billion and Counting: How Sex, Death, and Migration Shape Our World (8 Billion and Counting: How Sex, Death and Migration Shape Our World), researcher Jennifer D. Sciubba, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, points out that in sub-Saharan Africa the birth rate is 4 70 children per woman, almost double the world rate.
Meanwhile, in most of Europe, East and Southeast Asia, Oceania, North America and much of Latin America, the fertility rate has already fallen below replacement level.
According to Sciubba, this is creating the biggest demographic gap in history. On the one hand, he says, are the countries that led the world economy during the last century and are now becoming aging societies. On the other hand, there are the poorest and least powerful nations on the planet, where the majority of the population is young.
The author emphasizes that this division will be a key factor to boost political, economic and social relations in the next two decades.
For his part, François Soudan, editor of the French weekly Jeune Afrique, warned of this phenomenon in an article entitled “The future of humanity will be less white and more and more African”.
“By 2100, one in three people on the planet will be born in sub-Saharan Africa. Nigeria will surpass China in population, becoming the second largest country after India,” he said in the text published in The Africa Report, citing the work. of the IHME.
That study projects that while nations like Japan, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Thailand and South Korea will see their populations halved by the end of the century, the population of sub-Saharan Africa will triple.
UN projections are even higher, predicting that the African population will reach 4.3 billion by 2100, equivalent to almost 40% of the world’s population.
For Soudan, the fact that the average age on the African continent is “19 years old, against 42 in Europe” will inevitably lead to a migratory phenomenon.
“The only potential way out for Europe, where retirees outnumber workers by a factor of two and where deaths outnumber births, is to rely on a steady stream of immigrants, with most newcomers coming from the only continent that still has a growing population: Africa”, he said.
According to the estimates he cited, to keep its population at current levels, Europe needs to integrate “between 2 and 3 million immigrants” a year.
The latest data published by the European Commission shows that 1.92 million people immigrated to European Union (EU) countries in 2020, but 960,000 people left the region.
“Without migration, the European population would have been reduced by half a million in 2019, as 4.2 million children were born and 4.7 million people died in the European Union”, clarifies the EU.
“The reality is that, in pure capitalist logic, European governments should encourage immigration, and even woo immigrants with cash bonuses,” says Soudan. Instead, he says, European countries create “a myriad of obstacles to immigration.”
According to Sciubba’s book, today only between 2% and 4% of the world’s population lives outside their country of origin, something that could change drastically in the future. “Over time, we will have many more people of African descent in many other countries,” says Christopher Murray, director of the IHME and co-author of the study published in The Lancet.
Blessing or Curse?
But what impact will it have for Africa to be the main source of youth in an increasingly aging world?
Experts are divided. Some believe that the “most neglected continent on the planet” could use its advantage over countries with declining populations to increase economic and geopolitical power.
In this sense, they cite the strong increase in Chinese investments in the African continent, with the construction of ports, airports, highways and schools, among other infrastructures.
“The weight of (population) numbers must lead to a reinvention of African countries and their populations,” said Edward Paice, director of the Africa Research Institute and author of Earthquake of Youth: Why African Demography Should Matter (Youth Earthquake: Why African Demographics Will Matter).
In an opinion column published last January in the British newspaper The Guardian, Paice urged the international community to put aside its “stereotypical representations” and “marginalization” of Africa.
The expert anticipated that the continent’s demographic importance “will affect geopolitics, global trade, technological development, the future of the world’s dominant religions, migration patterns and almost every aspect of life.”
Instead, the more pessimistic ones warn that without more education, development and, above all, massive job creation, the exponential growth of the African population could lead to worse levels of unemployment, poverty, conflict and religious radicalization.
One of the most alarmist views is that of Malcolm Potts, a professor at the School of Public Health at the University of California, USA. In 2013, he predicted that the area known as the Sahel, the northern part of Sub-Saharan Africa, “could become the first part of planet Earth suffering from large-scale famine and escalating conflict as a growing human population overtakes natural resources in decline.”
For François Soudan, in the end, “Africa’s fate will largely depend on what the continent’s leaders do today.”
“If Africa is to keep its society dynamic, bold and creative. That is, those most likely to venture down the risky path of emigration – and reap the benefits of its demographic dividend outside the realm of political discourse, then the continent must emphasize education, job training programs and forward-looking job creation policies, as well as better family planning,” he concludes.
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