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5 policies to sustain our demographically diverse world

How can countries plan for a demographically changing world?

How can countries plan for a demographically changing world? Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Natalia Kanem
Executive Director, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)
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Society and Equity

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • The world's population is 8 billion and growing, yet two-thirds of the world lives in a country with a low fertility rate.
  • These disparities have resulted in a world more demographically diverse than ever before.
  • With adequate planning and preparation, governments can unlock the potential within their changing demographics.

The world’s population is now 8 billion. In the coming decades, our population is set to rise, albeit at a slower rate, until it eventually plateaus and starts to decline around 2100.

Yet, growth is not the only story the statistics tell. More and more countries have started seeing population declines. In fact, more than 60% of the world’s population now lives in a country with a low fertility rate. These diverse trends — population growth in some countries and population decline in others — have resulted in a world more demographically diverse than ever before.

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These diverse demographic trends beg the question: as policymakers and leaders, how can we plan for a world in which the median age in Sub-Saharan Africa is 24 years younger than that of Europe? How should we counsel governments when the fertility rate in Niger is over six, while the fertility rate of South Korea is close to one?

In a world as diverse as ours, we can no longer rely on one-size-fits-all solutions. By empowering countries to use their demographic trends to their advantage, we can cultivate societies that are resilient to demographic changes, regardless of whether their populations are growing or declining.

How to unlock the demographic potential

Below is a list of five recommendations for policy-makers interested in unlocking the potential within their changing populations.

1. Analyze population data

The United Nations Population Fund, has seen the value of capturing, analyzing, and accounting for population data in policy-making. When policy-makers understand why, how, and where their populations are changing, they gain insight into both the current and future needs of a population. For instance, if a country’s population data show that a growing number of older people are living in rural areas, then rural transport may be a necessary consideration; if population ageing is accelerating quickly, then a revision in the pension system may be required. By investing in forward-looking solutions, we can create sustainable policies that prepare our societies for demographic changes as they happen.

2. Invest in family planning and reproductive choice

The best demographic goal a country can have is to ensure every pregnancy is intended and every birth is safe. Across the world, we see governments attempting to engineer population trends by incentivizing births, or cutting subsidies for family planning in order to increase population size. Such policies are not only ineffective, but they risk violating people’s human rights. Instead, policy-makers should empower populations to take charge of their own reproductive choices by ensuring access to contraception and information about sexual health, establishing healthcare systems that allow people to give birth safely, and supporting family life through subsidized childcare and affordable housing. We have seen time and again that investments in family planning and reproductive choice pay dividends, improving the health of children, and empowering women to pursue education, seek and keep better jobs, contribute to household income, lift families out of poverty and increase economic growth.

3. Plan for future needs in healthcare infrastructure

Demographic trends should inform public health policies. By understanding a population’s demographic trajectory, policy-makers can build healthcare systems that are prepared for their communities’ current and future healthcare needs. In countries with ageing populations, that might mean bolstering systems for long-term and chronic care and providing welfare programmes that allow older people to seek care without facing undue financial burden. Meanwhile, in countries with younger populations, that might involve investing in midwifery training, and in access to neonatal care and pediatrics.

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4. Educate everyone at all ages

As lifespans get longer, so do opportunities for continued education. Educational programmes can give those who did not have access to education when they were younger a second chance at entering the workforce and improving their socioeconomic status. These programmes can support a number of different demographics, including women who had to forgo their education, older people who want to re-enter the workforce, and immigrants who need new skill sets that match the vocational needs of a country. By investing in educational programming that targets different populations, we can ensure that people have the opportunity to thrive at every stage of their lives.

5. Prioritize inclusivity

Time and again, we have seen that the policies that work best are the ones that aim to bring more people into a country’s economic or social fold. This includes upending gender norms to make it easier for women to stay in the workforce, enabling older persons to stay economically active, or changing migration policies to give migrants a path to improve their economic and social status. Policies that prioritize inclusivity have long-lasting effects, not only improving outcomes in the near term, but also putting countries on the path to long-term prosperity.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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May 21, 2024

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