Today marks a milestone.
For the first time in human history, there are 8 billion people living on our planet, according to the United Nations projections.
Every year, the world population expands by over 70 million. And it is important to note here that 80% of this expansion occurs in the world's least developed countries, or more broadly speaking, countries in the Global South.
Challenges and issues associated with overpopulation, or born out of it, are abundant. If we are to look at just the last 70 years, the exponential growth trend draws an alarming picture. The growing population is, in fact, one of the biggest contributing factors to poverty and the climate crisis.
nd, it is anticipated that the world population will increase by another 2 billion by the year 2050.
The global picture is varied
Two different realities are concurrent.
Since 2010, the United Nations reported that the population of 27 countries or areas throughout the world have decreased by 1% or more. This decline is the result of consistently low fertility rates, which have been prevalent, particularly in China, Japan and the Nordic countries.
The worldwide fertility rate has dropped to 2.5 births per woman from 3.2 in just the last 30 years. And this trend is expected to continue. In fact, the global population growth rate has dropped below 1% a year (having reached a record high of well over 2% in the late 1960s) as a consequence of declining birth rates.
The global picture, on the other hand, is more contradictory than it has ever been. According to estimates provided by the UN, approximately 60% of the world's population lives in countries with fertility rates lower than the replacement level (2.1 births per woman).
However, these decreases look pale in comparison to the growth seen in other parts of the world. For instance, by the middle of this century, it is projected that people living in sub-Saharan Africa would be twice as many as today.
According to a study that was published in 2018, only eight countries will account for half of the projected increase worldwide by 2050. These countries are India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Tanzania, Egypt and DR Congo.
Meanwhile, India would overtake China as the country with the most people in 2023.
Woes of the age factor
Another concerning trend emerging from the demographics of our population is an ageing population.
The average lifespan of people across the globe is increasing. Average people live well into their 60s and beyond now. And nearly every country in the world is seeing a rise in the total number and percentage of elderly people in its population.
In the year 2018, another significant milestone was reached. For the first time ever, the number of persons over the age of 65 surpassed the number of children under the age of 5.
People are having fewer children and living for longer periods of time as a result of decreasing fertility rates and increasing life expectancy.
While this may seem idyllic, or beneficial in many different ways, it is actually problematic for the global economy because it would translate to a high dependency ratio (stemming from fewer people of working or economically active age and more older people to support and provide social services).
By 2050, one in every four people living in Europe or North America would be over 65.
The rate of ageing is much faster now than at any other time. By mid-century, low- and middle-income countries will be home to 80% of the elderly population. Due to this demographic change, countries face challenges in their social systems – healthcare and welfare programmes.
Moreover, the phenomenon of the ageing population is already prevalent in high-income countries like Japan, and presently, the change is underway in low- and middle-income countries.
In the year 2050, it is projected that the average life expectancy would increase from 72.6 years to 77.1 years.
However, life expectancy remains 7.4 years lower for people in the poorest countries. According to the UN, this is mostly due to the high rates of infant and maternal mortality, as well as epidemics like HIV and violent conflicts.
The population density in several of these countries is nearing unsustainable levels. Exacerbated effects of climate change, depletion of natural resources, pollution, overcrowding, malnutrition and pandemic diseases are some of the already emerging social and environmental problems from overpopulation.
A skilled labour shortage is coming
The birth rates in many wealthy and middle-income countries continue to drop below the crucial "replacement level" – 2.1 births per woman. In order to keep the population stable, a country needs a birth rate of at least 2.1.
For Japan, the current rate is 1.3. China and South Korea have birth rates of 1.2 and 0.8 respectively. In a short amount of time, practically every country on earth will drop below this threshold where they break even.
Even if a decrease in the world's population would be beneficial for the environment, adapting our economic and social structures to the new reality would be an extremely difficult task. People have been the single most significant factor in driving economic expansion throughout the course of the last few centuries.
Already, we are seeing the early stages of this severe lack of available skilled labour across a wide range of businesses.
This will place a significant amount of pressure on working-age people to improve their productivity to support a growing ageing population and simultaneously maintain economic growth.
To address the issue of a lack of available workers, we may either increase the number of persons in the labour force or improve the efficiency with which we do our jobs.
The United States, with its successful immigration policy, serves as a prominent example of how to increase employment rates despite falling birth rates. On the flip side, Japan's restrictive immigration policy is perhaps a contributing factor to its uptick in the ageing population.
However, Japan proves to be a good example of how to cope with a dwindling and ageing population by being more productive via automation and digitalisation.
Bangladesh population: Dual blows of ageing and lack of skills
Bangladesh's population census of 2022 can be viewed positively and negatively, simultaneously.
The census data shows that population growth has slowed down significantly in the last few decades. In the latest census, the growth rate is 1.22% which came down from 1.46% in 2011.
This suggests a significant accomplishment – partly attributed to comprehensive family-planning initiatives.
The census revealed, among other things, that the number of people aged 60 and older is on the rise. The proportion of the population that is over the age of 60 now accounts for 9.28% from 7.47% in 2011.
In numbers, this age group accounts for 15 million.
While the data indicates that the country's life expectancy is increasing, so are the risks. The United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) estimates that by 2050, the population of Bangladesh will include 3.6 crore individuals elderly people, representing 22% of the entire population.
But Bangladesh is hardly prepared for the challenges of an ageing population.
The country lacks the basic medical care and welfare systems that are needed to serve the elderly population. At the moment, Bangladesh does not have a healthcare system that is specialised enough to accommodate the country's expanding senior citizens.
Regrettably, there are not a lot of facilities (including but not limited to retirement homes) for our senior citizens where they can reside and get proper treatment. As this group is not economically active, many low-and mid-income families suffer to bear the additional burden.
In spite of its demographic dividend, Bangladesh has a shortage of skilled graduates.
A 2021 CPD study shows that the industry failed to hire the required number of skilled manpower, with as many as 46% of private firms having trouble filling open positions.
Even though the country has a large number of graduates – as many as 20 lakhs every year – it remains incapable of filling vacancies in the job market. A telling sign of the skill gap perhaps and the egregious failures of the education system.
At times, even foreign nationals are employed to meet the local demand.
Bangladesh's ever-expanding ageing populace and lack of skilled manpower have become the main issue related to our demography that coincides with global population trends.
Millions of workers need reskilling
Today's workforce is under additional strain stemming from the technological advancements that occur at warp speed. They are simply being left behind.
According to a study by accounting firm PwC, 1 billion people need to be reskilled by 2030. Tech-related skills along with specialised interpersonal skills, such as those linked to sales, human resources, caregiving etc. will be in great demand.
The PwC study also found that by the middle of the 2030s, around 30% of employment would be in danger of becoming automated. Meanwhile, a lack of skilled workforce is the primary concern for 79% of CEOs, the study (based on 29 countries) found.
There is a significant mismatch.
In the next two decades, some form of tech skills will be needed in 90% of employment. New needs are emerging at a much higher speed than actual skilled people, which is falling to make sense of the growing population worldwide. The opposite trends of population growth in the advanced and least-developed countries are another reason.
Is an indefinite population increase beneficial?
Some economists tend to claim that unrestricted population expansion is advantageous since it increases gross domestic product. They also contend that because population expansion and technological advancement go hand in hand, some of the issues raised by an increase in population will be addressed by the technical advancements that result from it.
However, numerous flaws exist in the pro-growth economic philosophy. Nature is not a subsidiary of the economy, rather it is the other way around. Higher average wages or a few percent extra GDP cannot rationalise continued environmental destruction, which in turn causes human suffering.