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Global and regional population trends

Population trends

Early recognition of demographic developments is a prerequisite for effective support to global social, economic and environmental development. Despite national and regional variation, certain demographic megatrends can be observed:

The world’s population is growing

The world’s population is expected to grow from over 7.6 billion today to 9.8 billion by 2050 (UN, 2017). This growth will be unevenly distributed between regions and individual countries. With the exception of Europe, where population figures have already begun to decline, the number of inhabitants in all other parts of the world will continue to grow, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Here the population will more than double by mid-century, from one billion at present to an estimated 2.2 billion people. Factors contributing to population growth are falling death rates and a relatively slow reduction in fertility.

The world’s population is ageing

As birth rates decline and more people live longer, the number of people aged 60 and over is expected to increase worldwide from the current figure of 13% to 21% by 2050. Asia alone, where the number of people aged 60 and over is expected to grow by 674 million from 2017 to 2050, will be responsible for 60% of this global increase. Europe is currently the continent where ageing of the population is most advanced.

The world’s population is moving

Urbanisation will increase worldwide from 55% in 2018 to 68% in 2050 (UN, 2018). As young people in particular move from rural areas to the cities, some 2.5 billion more people than today will live in urban areas. 90% of this growth will take place in Africa and Asia, where in some countries the population is still largely rural. By contrast, the industrialised and emerging countries, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, are already largely urbanised. The world counts an increasing number of megacities of over 10 million inhabitants.

International migration is also on the rise. In 2017, over 60% of all international migrants lived in Europe and Asia: In Europe fully half came from a country in the same region – in Asia it was over 80% (UNDESA, 2017). Emigration of working-age adults from Eastern Europe is particularly pronounced, accelerating the ageing process in this region.

Refugees are increasing in number with the global rise in the number of conflicts and crises, including in relation to climate change. Worldwide in 2017 a total of 68.5 million people were displaced, around half of them children (UNHCR, 2018). More than eight out of ten refugees were hosted in emerging and developing countries rather than in industrialised states.

Each country goes through a demographic transition

The demographic transition is a process of gradual change in fertility and mortality, bringing about a transformation of population growth rates and the age structure of the population. Depending on the evolution of birth and death rates, the pace of the demographic transition is different in each region and country. The transition is from a situation of high fertility and mortality, characterised by a large proportion of children and a small proportion of older people, to one of low birth rates and low death rates, leading to a higher proportion of seniors and a smaller share of children. Most industrialised countries started the transition in the course of the second half of the 19th century and are now confronted with the challenges of an ageing society. Many emerging and developing nations are currently at different stages in the demographic transition.

The four stages of the demographic transition
The four stages of the demographic transition

Countries aim for a demographic dividend

demographic bonus(a propitious age structure) can emerge in the course of a society’s transition once working-age adults outnumber people who are not of working age (children under 15 and seniors over 64) approximately three to two. Under the right conditions, including a healthy, educated population, appropriate work opportunities and investments, this reduced dependency ratiocan lead to a significant economic benefit known as a demographic dividend. It is estimated that up to a third of income growth in East Asia – including the ‘Asian Tigers’ Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea – between 1965 and 1995 can be attributed to effective use of the demographic bonus. These countries then experienced a second demographic dividend: This occurs when workers save enough during their active years to finance their own retirement, sparing the government and younger generations from funding their elders’ pension systems.

Global comparison of age structures
Global comparison of age structures

Sub-Saharan Africa has not yet entered the window of opportunity for the demographic dividend – usually a 30- to 50-year period when working-age adults are the majority of the population. However, in anticipation of this bonus, the African Union made the demographic dividend its annual theme in 2017 and adopted the regional roadmap Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through Investments in Youth. The roadmap envisages stepping up support for young people in Africa in the areas of employment and entrepreneurship; education and skills development; health and well-being; and rights, governance and youth empowerment.

For more information on global and regional population trends, please refer to Chapter 2 of the handbook.


Useful population databases include:

  • UN (2017), World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision. The World Population Prospects are the official United Nations population estimates and projections. The UN Population Division prepares a new revision of key population, fertility, mortality and migration indicators every two years.
  • UN (2018), World Urbanization Prospects: The 2018 Revision. The UN Population Division also produces estimates and projections of the urban and rural populations of all countries in the world – the World Urbanization Prospects. New revisions are published every four years.
  • UNDESA (2017), International Migration Report 2017. The International Migration Report is a biennial UN publication analysing global migration trends and reviewing recent developments on migration at the UN.
  • UNHCR (2018), Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2017 . UNHCR’s Global Trends report is an annual publication that examines recent developments in forced displacement around the world. 
  • UN (2015), World Population Policies Database. In the World Population Policies Database, the UN Population Division provides a comprehensive overview on government attitudes and policies towards demographic trends.
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