Mark your calendar. Today is the day that India holds more people than anywhere else on Earth, after two centuries of Chinese population supremacy.
Hot on the heels of the world surpassing 8 billion total people, India has surpassed China to become the world’s most-populous nation, according to fresh data.
India is now home to 1,428,600,000 people, according to newly released numbers from the United Nations, which you can find on its World Population Dashboard. China is home to a mere 1,425,700,000.
It’s a momentous shift. India’s economy is younger and still growing, while China is suffering from an ageing population and the low birthrate that’s a hangover from decades of the one-child policy, whose generations are now marrying and having their own children at less-than-replacement rate.
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Multinational companies are already keen to diversify production away from an overdependence on China due to geopolitical tensions as well as rising wages. Add to that equation the greater relative attraction of the Indian market, likely to grow at a faster pace than China for years to come.
So it is with impeccable timing that Apple is opening its first stores in India, with an outlet in Mumbai and then in New Delhi. India has also improved the attractiveness for international retailers with changes in the law that allow direct ownership of local stores, whereas companies used to have to work through a local partner. Apple has sold for 25 years into India through third parties.
Apple is now also making iPhones in India for sale to the local market, and is also ramping up production of its goods in Vietnam. The company will likely be making one-quarter of its products outside China by 2025, according to JPMorgan Chase, up from less than 5% now.
The official confirmation in the change in the population world order comes today, although of course demographics rely on estimates and censuses conducted over periods of time. The U.N. Population Fund has just released its State of World Population report for 2023, which you can find here.
India will begin to see its population shrink, too, and likely in fairly short order, within two to three decades. Already, 31 of its 36 states are seeing the population decline, but the remaining five states have such a high fertility rate that they offset the others.
India’s population growth reportedly peaked at 2.4% in the 1980s but has dropped to 1% as of 2020. However, the last Indian census was in 2011, and the country delayed the population count that was due to occur in 2021 due to the pandemic. The United Nations has updated the 2011 count based on fertility, mortality and migration rates.
The world passed 8 billion people in November 2022. To me, that’s too many. But the United Nations would rather cast the numbers in a positive light.
“For many of us, it represented a milestone that the human family should celebrate,” Natalia Kanem, the executive director of the U.N. Population Fund, writes in the new report, “a sign that people are living longer, healthier lives and enjoying more rights and greater choices than ever before.”
Kanem does make an excellent point that birthrates aren’t the be all and end all. Increased gender equality can offset problems in both low-birthrate nations, by encouraging women to enter the workforce, and in high-birthrate nations, by giving women more agency in family planning.
The United Nations says that around 24% of women and girls are “unable to say no to sex,” while 11% are unable to make decisions over contraception. Such families are unable to control unplanned pregnancies, while the poorest people may lack access to contraception even if they’re allowed to avail themselves of it.
World population growth is now at its slowest pace since 1950. Just eight nations will account for half of the projected growth in population by 2050.
China’s shrinking, ageing population is entering a world that nations such as Japan and Italy already inhabit. In fact, two-thirds of the world’s people live in places where the fertility rates are below the “replacement rate” of 2.1 births per woman. As mortality rates decrease, it makes sense that fertility rates fall, too.
In China, it is also a rising standard of living and rising incomes that are leading to a decline in the birthrate. Many Chinese families say they would rather focus their resources on a small number of children — often choosing to have only one child where they’re legally allowed and politically encouraged to have more — to give them a better start in life.
India’s fertility rate has fallen from 5.7 children per mother in 1950 to 2.2 births per woman today. So it is on the cusp of shifting into decline.
Often forgotten in this discussion is the effect of migration. A country with a shrinking population can quickly offset that effect by encouraging more workers to move there from abroad. Immigration is a dirty word in today’s politics. But it can be a boon to an economy that is struggling under an “inverted pyramid” of population, with a bulging older demographic slice supported by a tinier young generation.
We should also reconsider how we measure economic success. Figures for gross domestic product rely so much on growth that they “praise” a country that concretes over its entire wilderness to populate it with cities and factories. Gross domestic happiness is forgotten.
The U.N. report calls on governments to strengthen pension and healthcare systems in response to these demographic changes, as well as to promote exercise and healthy ageing, and protect migrant rights.