Press Conference on '2008 Revision of the World Population Prospects'

11 March 2009

Press Conference on '2008 Revision of the World Population Prospects'

11 March 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


Governments must plan ahead to ensure gainful employment for the world’s 1 billion young people and 1.7 billion school-aged children who would one day be of working age, urged analysts at the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, based on revised projections on world population prospects released today.

That advice -- aimed chiefly at developing countries, where most of the world’s youngest people lived -- came from Hania Zlotnik, Director of the Population Division, and Gerhard Heilig, Chief of the Population Estimates and Projection Section, who gave a press conference at Headquarters this afternoon to discuss the implications of their latest report on world population trends.

The 2008 Revision of the World Population Prospects projected that the number of people in the world would surpass 9 billion by 2050, Ms. Zlotnik explained.  According to a press release by the Population Division, the world population is currently at 6.8 billion people.

She said China had been successful in providing productive employment for its population so far, but was likely to face problems as the world economic crisis deepened.  India, too, faced great challenges, with its enormous population of working-aged individuals and a birth rate of close to three children per woman -- much higher than China’s. 

But she said it was the world’s 49 least developed countries that stood to bear the biggest burden, because more than half their population was currently below 25 years old.  “It’s those countries that need the greatest attention,” she said, adding that they “continue to be wracked by conflict”, so it was very difficult to establish and implement good population policies there. 

Uncertainties brought on by the global economic crisis might encourage more people to continue working past the age of retirement, translating into fewer jobs for younger people, she added.  Without proper planning, developing countries might face difficulties supporting their population as its aged.

She explained that predictions made by the Population Division were based on the assumption that the average number of children born to a woman during her lifetime -- the fertility rate -- would decline from 2.5 children to 2 children, and that people would lead longer lives.  However, those projections did not factor in the possibility that programmes affecting birth and death rates -- such as AIDS treatment programmes, action plans to reduce child mortality, family planning campaigns -- might shrink because of the economic and financial crisis.

Population trends were deeply affected by rates of migration, which might also change as a result of the economic crisis, although it was difficult to tell what those changes might be, she continued.  At the moment, 2.4 million migrants were projected to arrive in developed countries, helping to keep the population steady despite a low fertility rate.

She declined to say whether there was a correlation between economic growth and low fertility rates, saying the issue was still highly debated among population experts.  But the belief that the two were linked was an important element in the decision of some Governments to shift resources from the young to those in the productive ages.  “There is a very strong correlation -- it doesn’t necessarily mean causation -- at this moment between high fertility and poor performance economically.”

Other projections in world population prospects were based on the assumption that the number of AIDS patients receiving antiretroviral therapy would grow as the years progressed, and that efforts to control the further spread of HIV would grow more successful over time.  She told one journalist that life expectancy in Zimbabwe was projected to increase from the current 44 years to about 68 or 69 years, as a result of improved AIDS treatment and fewer cases of mother-to-child transmission. 

Ms. Zlotnik fielded a variety of questions from journalists, including concerning the ratio of men to women in the world.  When one correspondent pointed out that there were more men than women in certain countries, she explained that sex selectivity at birth was the most likely cause, since the ratio between men and women across countries tended to vary within a narrow band of 103 boys for every 100 girls, to about 106 boys.

“The culture is very much valuing boys to the detriment of girls.  As demographers, we’re waiting to see how the imbalance in population will change the culture,” she said.  Still, she pointed out, women had a much higher life expectancy than men, even though they were more vulnerable to AIDS than men.

Asked to explain why countries differed in their rate of population growth, Ms. Zlotnik said a high population growth rate was linked to a lack of education and poor access to family planning resources, particularly contraception.  To control overpopulation, Governments must be prepared to admit a problem and to act quickly to stem the tide, such as in Bangladesh, which now enjoyed a fertility rate of 2.4 children per woman.

On whether the world’s population would stabilize around a particular number, she said if fertility rates remained at 2 children per women and life expectancy reached 100 years, “we get to a possible stabilization of 10 billion people”.  But she quickly added that small adjustments to those assumptions, even by a theoretical “quarter of a child”, could lead to a wildly different number. 

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.