Economic Progress

A visual guide to global demographics through population pyramids

Population pyramids are a powerful tool for understanding the demographic trends of a population.

Population pyramids are a powerful tool for understanding the demographic trends of a population. Image: Pexels/LT Chan

Niccolo Conte
Writer, Visual Capitalist
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Economic Progress

  • Population pyramids are a visual representation of the demographic distribution of a population.
  • Demographic data can reveal insights into a population's fertility, mortality, and how events and policies have shaped it.
  • The world's population is ageing as birth rates fall and life expectancies rise.
  • This will have a significant impact on economies, societies, and cultures.
Comparing Population Pyramids
Comparing population pyramids. Image: Data: United Nations; Infographic: Visual Capitalist

Understanding and comparing population pyramids

Demographic data can reveal all kinds of insights about a population, from the country’s fertility and mortality rates to how certain events and policies have shaped the makeup of a population.

Population pyramids are one of the best ways to visualize population data, and comparing the pyramids of various countries and regions side-by-side can reveal unexpected insights and differences between groups.

This graphic uses population data from the United Nations to compare the demographics of some select nations and regions of the world, showcasing how much age distributions can vary.

Three types of population pyramids

Although population pyramids can come in all shapes and sizes, most generally fall into three distinct categories:

  • Expansive Pyramids: Recognized by their traditional “pyramid-like” shape with a broad base and narrow top, expansive pyramids reflect a population with a high birth rate along with a high mortality rate which is most common in developing countries.
  • Constrictive Pyramids: With a narrow base and thicker middle and top sections of the pyramid, constrictive pyramids often occur in developed economies whose populations have low birth rates and long life expectancies.
  • Stationary Pyramids: These pyramids showcase an evenly distributed population across age groups, often found in newly-developed countries which have stable birth and mortality rates.

Each population pyramid is essentially a visual snapshot of a nation’s current demographic breakdown, shaped by fluctuating birth and mortality rates as well as changes to immigration and social policies.

Understanding the inherent risks associated with different pyramid types can help give insight into the challenges these populations face.

The risks of different population pyramid types

Each type of population pyramid structure has unique challenges and advantages often characterized by the country or region’s current stage of economic development.

Populations with expansive pyramids, such as the one representing the continent of Africa, have the advantage of a larger youth and working-aged population, however this advantage can be rendered null if job growth, education, and health care aren’t prioritized.

Countries with constrictive pyramids like Japan face the challenge of supporting their outsized aging population with a diminishing working-aged population. While immigration and increasing birth rates can help in both the short and long term, due to the working population being outnumbered, countries with constrictive pyramids must find ways to increase their productivity to avoid potential declines in economic growth.

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China and India’s demographics compared

After the world’s population reached eight billion people last year, 2023 brought a new population milestone as India overtook China as the world’s most populous country.

When you compare the two nations’ population pyramids, you can see how India’s population has a strong base of young and working-aged people compared to China’s more constrictive population pyramid that also features a higher median age.

This demographic difference is largely shaped by China’s one-child policy which since 2021 was loosened to be a three-child policy. As a result, China’s total fertility rate is around 1.2 today, in contrast to India’s total fertility rate of 2.0.

While India is set to ride the productivity boom of its large working-age population, the country will have to ensure it can keep its population pyramid stable as the majority of the population ages and total fertility rates continue to decline.

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

Related topics:
Economic ProgressAgeing and Longevity
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