Changing global age dynamics

14 Apr 2023


A number of articles have been highlighting the issues countries are facing as their aging dynamics change. The cause of the change is fairly simple: in most countries, fertility rates (births per woman) have been declining significantly, due to various factors. This has led to declines in natural reproduction rates (as measured by daughters per woman) and future reproductive capacity—both fewer babies, and less capacity to have babies in the future. At the same time, life expectancies have risen markedly. So, in any given year, there are fewer people under the age of 5, and more people in each of the ages over 5. In the chart above, we see the result graphed in absolute numbers (the lines are increments of 2 billion).

At first glance, we immediately see the enormous population disparity. The staggering numbers of people in Asia and Africa (versus the entire rest of the world—all of Europe, the Americas, and the Pacific) are really on display.

Thinking about those vast populations, is it really any wonder Africa and Asia have seen rapidly multiplying movements? They have so many more people, most of whom are physically needy and spiritually hungry. There’s far less atheism and agnosticism in Africa/Asia than in the West. Plus, many in the region have very little connection to Christianity (unlike in the West)—they have not already been ‘inoculated’ against Christianity as a faith. Instead, there are other faiths they have become disillusioned with, while still being spiritually hungry.

We also immediately see the population declines looming in all the world except Africa. It would be very dangerous to extend the chart past 2100—even projection from 2050 to 2100 is fraught with challenges—but it seems obvious that Africa’s population will eventually eclipse Asia’s, and both have already eclipsed the West.

What really shows up is how relatively youthful Africa is, and the aging of Asia and Europe (as seen in the dark red and green slices on the map). But while we can say Asia and the West are ‘relatively old,’ we ought to remember the vast numbers of people involved. For example, despite the dropping birth rate, Asia still has almost as many “Under 25s” (1.7 billion) as Europe+Americas+Pacific has people (1.8 billion). A lot of the hand-wringing is due to proportions, not absolute numbers: it will impact economic markets, but will it impact missional strategy?

Finally, this chart tells us that if we layer Western expectations on Africa & Asia, we will be sorely surprised. Everything in Africa and Asia will have to deal with much bigger scales and in many situations fewer resources. While Africa and Asia have declining birth rates, there are still a lot of young people in absolute terms. While there are quality of life issues for the elderly, there are a lot more people between the ages of 25 and 75 who have other questions.

There are no simple situations. One of the stories in the world is that we are majority urban—and that’s true, but only slightly. The number of rural dwellers is nearly the same as it has been for a very long time. So while we need to be shifting to incorporate urban ministry, that cannot be dramatically at the expense of rural ministry. The same goes for ministry across age gaps—just because fertility rates are declining doesn’t mean there are no more babies or young people. Just because the world is ‘aging,’ doesn’t mean everyone is now over 75.