Late last week Joseph Chamie, an independent consulting demographer and a former director of the United Nations Population Division, wrote an interesting opinion piece entitled ‘The historic reversal of populations’.

The “historic reversal” to which Chamie refers is the demographic turning point when children in a population become fewer than its elderly. He writes:

Throughout human history children were substantially more numerous than the elderly. Even a half century ago, the world’s population of 3.3 billion had on average more than seven children under 15 years of age for each elderly person aged 65 and over. Africa’s population in 1965 topped other major regions with more than 14 children per elderly person, followed by Asia and Latin America with more than 11 children per elderly person and Europe and Northern America at around 3 children per elderly person.

The following United Nations Population Division Table summarises the reversal, with Italy being the first country to have experienced the change in 1995 and almost every country in the world to follow suit in the coming years:

Thus the change is a momentous one which brings with it social, political and economic change, much of it hard to solve. The cause?  Chamie summarises it succinctly:

The two key factors bringing about the Historic Reversal of population age structures are declining fertility rates and rising life expectancies. In every corner of the world, women are bearing fewer children than in the past. Whereas the average global fertility rate in 1965 was five births per woman, today it has fallen to half that level, with 75 countries or close to half the world’s population experiencing rates below the replacement level of about two births per woman.

What options do governments have to deal with the problems this reversal brings, including the lack of working age population?

Governments may choose to increase taxes, redirect government revenue, reduce benefits or privatize old age pension schemes … Other options include raising below replacement fertility levels and increasing the immigration of workers. However, even if fertility rates were to rise, which seem unlikely in the near term, it would take a couple of decades before the additional children could join the work force.

Chamie’s worry is that governments are not acting fast enough for the good of future generations:

Insofar as none of the options to sustain old age pension programs are popular among voters and most elected officials, the needed policy changes are often postponed coupled with nebulous pledges to “save” old age pension systems. While this may be politically expedient and temporarily calm public anxiety, postponements make needed changes and adjustments even more pressing, difficult and costly in the future.

As a result of low birth rates, improved chances of survival and longer life, the Historic Reversal appears certain to happen in most countries during the 21st century. What remains uncertain, and appears somewhat worrisome at this point in time, is whether governments and the general public will respond effectively, responsibly and in a timely manner to the Historic Reversal and the many challenges being brought about by population ageing.


The great problem of democracy (though there is no known better system) is that politicians and citizens need to act for the true well-being of generations present and future – not just respectively the largest voter base or their own best personal interests.  Hopefully they heed Joseph Chamie’s advice and do so.



Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...