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Arlington Institute Report on Global Demographic Shifts
Paul Alois, February 2007
In the last two centuries the human population has increased at an exponential rate. Historically, humans have had high death rates coupled with high birthrates, resulting in a very low net increase in total population. Between 0 AD and 1800 AD the total number of people on the planet only increased by 325%, from 300 million to 980 million. In the two hundred years since the total number of people on the planet has increased by 670%, and today there are over 6.5 billion people on the Earth. The advent of vaccinations, hygiene, refrigeration, medical science, and numerous other modern inventions dramatically increased life expectancy and decreased infant mortality. Furthermore, most projections suggest that by 2050 the global population will be at over 9 billion.
With astronomical numbers like these being widely cited in the media, the emergence of a new demographic trend has largely been ignored. Today, worldwide fertility rates are at an all time low, and in the decades following 2050 the global population is actually expected to stabilize and possibly decrease. The two factors driving this new pattern are the emergence of women’s rights on a global scale and the expectation among parents that all their children will survive to maturity.
Fertility rates, the best indicators of long term population changes, refer to the average number of children a woman will have. In order for a given population to replace itself, its fertility rate must be at 2.1 or higher. Graph 1 illustrates the decline of fertility rates that has occurred in the last fifty years, and shows projections for the next fifty years.
Furthermore, between 2005 and 2050 the median age of the global population is expected to increase from 28 to 39. Graph 2 shows projected changes in median age by region.
As the world continues to have fewer children, and median ages continue to rise, enormous adjustments will have to take place on a society wide basis.
In the coming century one of the greatest problems facing human beings is the question of how to redesign social, economic, and political institutions to adapt to this new world. The systems currently in place were designed in a world where perpetual population growth was considered to be inevitable, and as the global population begins to decline these systems will literally fall apart. While a decreasing population has the potential to be an enormously positive development, the challenge is creating a world where it can be.
This article may be reprinted or copied for non-commercial purposes as long as proper citation standards are observed.
 Adapted from United Nations Population Division, World Population Prospects, http://esa.un.org/unpp
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