Brief Review of World Demographic Trends - Summary

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Most recently updated January 2013.  May be used provided proper citation is given.  See note at bottom.

This is a summary of a set of reports about global demographic trends. In this report, we summarize world population trends, and characteristics which may help explain the population trends. The characteristics include net natural change (births, deaths and migration), infant mortality rate, fertility rate and age distributions.

This set of reports is meant to describe general world demographic trends, and are part of a larger project describing basic world social, political and economic trends, in ways that can be easily understood by anyone, and that can help to understand the world today. These reports are overviews and introductions, and hopefully lead people to more detailed examinations of the topics.


Main population trends:

Briefly, world population has grown over the last 60 years, from 2.5 billion in 1950 to almost 7 billion in 2010. However, growth varied by region, increasing the most in Africa, then in Latin America and the Caribbean, and Asia, and increasing the least in Europe. 

In addition, while population is still increasing in all regions, the increase has been slowing, and the slowing varied by region. For example, annual average growth rates in Asia declined from 2.1% during 1950-1955 to 1.1% during 2005-2010. On the other hand, European growth rates declined much more, from 1% during 1950-1955 to 0.2% during 2005-2010.  Sub-Saharan African growth rates in 2005-2010 (2.6%) were actually higher than they were in 1950-1955 (2.2%). However, this is because average annual growth rates in Sub-Saharan Africa increased to a high of 3% in the 1980s and have since been declining, to the level lower than the 1980s level, but still higher than the 1950s level.

As a consequence of the differing growth rates, and differing slow down of growth rates, the proportion of world population that is from each region has changed over time. The largest change was that Sub-Saharan Africa increased from 7.4% of world population in 1950 to 12.4% in 2010, while Europe declined from 21.6% to 10.7%.

Explaining the population trends:

Births, deaths and migration help explain the population trends. Briefly, the population in most regions is still increasing, because there are still more births than deaths. Europe is the exception in that there are more deaths than births in the last decade. However, population in Europe is still increasing, because net migration - into Europe - is larger than the difference between deaths and births.

Second, net population change is highest in Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean. The higher net population change in these areas corresponds to their higher population growth rates, and so their increasing percentage of the world population.

Third, fertility rates, and consequently births, in Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean, have been declining. So while the population is still growing, it is growing more slowly. On the other hand, births are still increasing in Africa. However, the fertility rates in Sub-Saharan Africa have been declining. So, like other regions, the population continues to increase, but it is increasing at a slower rate. In Europe, in the last 5 year period, deaths have been declining and fertility rates and births have been increasing, so population growth has been increasing in the past 5 year period. In Northern America, net population change has had very little change recently and so population growth in Northern America has also been very small.

Infant mortality rates (IMR) also helps to explain population change. IMR declined in all regions but the rate of decline varied considerably.  IMR was very high in Sub-Saharan Africa, declined the least, and by 2005-2010 was the highest of anywhere. IMR was the lowest in Europe and North America, declined substantially, and was still the lowest in 2005-2010. IMR also declined substantially in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and North Africa, and, by 2005-2010, were generally at levels comparable to Europe and North America in the 1950s.

Because IMR was high and didn't decline by much in Sub-Saharan Africa, the fertility rate didn't contribute as much to population as it would have if the IMR had been lower. That is, the highest world population growth is in Sub-Saharan Africa (see the first report), but if IMR in Sub-Saharan Africa had been lower, the population growth would have been even higher. Fertility rates are declining in Sub-Saharan Africa, but so are infant mortality rates, and so if the IMR declines faster than does the fertility rate then declining fertility rates will not result in lower numbers of infants and children.

Age distributions also help explaining population change. Basically, in all regions, the largest group is the adults (15-59 years old). In Asia, Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean, there are more children than there are seniors, while, recently, in Europe there are more seniors than children, and in Northern America there will soon be more seniors than children, In almost all regions, the proportion of the population who are children is declining while the proportion who are seniors is increasing. Sub-Saharan Africa is an exception. There are almost as many children as there are seniors, and the proportions of the population who are seniors and children have not yet changed.

Changes in age distributions have many implications for society. For example, a larger proportion of younger people means more people who have yet to attain adulthood and who can be expected to have more children, which means continued population growth.  So, Sub-Saharan Africa, which has the highest proportion of children, also has the highest population growth rates (as seen in previous reports), and can be expected to continue to have the highest population growth rates. Similarly, Europe and North America, which have the lowest proportion of children, also have the lowest population growth rates, which can be expected to continue to be low. Also, since most regions have declining proportions of children, most regions have declining population growth rates and will likely continue to have declining population growth rates.

Detailed descriptions of world demographic trends

Charts and tables


Chart 1
              population by region

Chart 2
World Population excluding Asia

Chart 3
percent growth by region

Chart 4

births - death + migration except Asia

Chart 5
births - deaths plus migration xcluding asia

Chart 6
total fertility rate

Chart 7

Chart 8
population growth, age 0-14

Chart 9
population growth, age 60+


Table 1
Summary of Population Trends
Latin America and the Caribbean
Northern Africa
Northern America
Sub-Saharan Africa
1950 1,403,388,587 547,287,120 167,368,224 52,982,395 171,614,868 186,102,610 2,528,743,804
2010 4,164,252,297 738,198,601 590,082,023 209,459,184 344,528,824 856,327,157 6,902,848,086
Population Growth
1950 to 2010 197% 35% 253% 295% 101% 360% 173%
Population Growth - Annual Average
1950 to 1955 2.1% 1.0% 2.9% 2.5% 1.8% 2.2% 1.9%
2005 to 2010 1.1% 0.2% 1.2% 1.8% 0.9% 2.6% 1.2%
Population Distribution
55.5% 21.6% 6.6% 2.1% 6.8% 7.4% 100%
 2010 60.3% 10.7% 8.5% 3.0% 5.0% 12.4%  100%

Table 2
Summary of Births, Deaths and Migration
Births, Deaths, Migration, 1950-1955

Asia     Europe     Latin America and the Caribbean Northern Africa Northern America Sub-Saharan Africa
Births 61,715,230 12,034,638 7,659,662 2,737,765 4,405,022 9,300,390
Deaths 32,582,744 6,045,153 2,807,779 1,323,535 1,687,511 5,257,911
Net Natural Change 29,132,486 5,989,485 4,851,883 1,414,230 2,717,511 4,042,479
Net Migration 48,342 -399,679 15,908 -98,534 351,521 -15,975
Net Population Change 29,180,828 5,589,806 4,867,791 1,315,696 3,069,032 4,026,504

Births, Deaths, Migration, 2005-2010

Asia     Europe     Latin America and the Caribbean Northern Africa Northern America Sub-Saharan Africa
Births 75,462,324 7,900,736 11,061,451 4,916,094 4,616,064 30,870,222
Deaths 30,042,557 8,217,617 3,406,242 1,223,663 2,766,714 10,710,112
Net Natural Change 45,419,767 -316,881 7,655,209 3,692,431 1,849,350 20,160,110
Net Migration -1,567,780 1,809,454 -1,046,346 -203,944 1,210,182 -397,368
Net Population Change 43,851,987 1,492,573 6,608,863 3,488,487 3,059,532 19,762,742

Table 3
Summary Table: Fertility and Infant Mortality Rates

Latin America and the
Sub-Saharan Africa
Fertility Rates
1950-1955 5.82 2.65 5.86 6.83 3.33 6.53 4.95
2005-2010 2.28 1.53 2.30 2.97 2.03 5.10 2.52
Infant Mortality Rates

Table 4
Summary Table: Percent of Population that are Children and Elderly

Asia Latin America and the Caribbean North Africa Sub-Saharan Africa Europe North America World
Percent of Population age 0-14
1950 37% 40% 41% 42% 26% 27% 34%
2010 26% 28% 32% 42% 15% 20% 27%
Percent of Population age 60+
1950 7% 6% 6% 5% 12% 12% 8%
2010 10% 10% 7% 5% 22% 19% 11%
All of the data used in this report are from the United Nations   They write, "All data and metadata provided on UNdata’s website are available free of charge and may be copied freely, duplicated and further distributed provided that UNdata is cited as the reference."   Thus, all charts and tables in our report may be used freely, provided the proper citation is given (Shackman et al, 2012, from data provided by UNData).  All text from this report may be used freely provided that the proper citation is given (Shackman et al. 2012). 

Using Demographic Data and Reports

This report, and all other reports about demographic trends, must be viewed with some degree of caution. There are two sources of concern: data quality and unit of analysis. Briefly, not all countries have recent data, and in some cases not all counties are included in the databases. Second, reports often describe trends by region or country, but there is often wide variation within regions or countries. Thus, most demographic reports can be viewed as general overviews, or broad descriptions of trends, but are not to be taken as describing, to the exact numbers, trends and conditions. While such reports are very useful, they should be used, as are intended here, as introductions and overviews, or in the context of more detailed reports.

Data quality: The main issue described here is about data availability. One problem is that, according to the UN World Population Prospect source notes (1), the most recent population data from some countries are quite old. The most recent census covering all of Cyprus was in 1973, although there were more recent census counts (up to 2006) in parts of the country. Similarly, the most recent census count in Eritria was in 1984, in Pakistan was in 1998, and in Uzbekistan was in 1989. Other countries also had only old census counts but used more recent health or social surveys to update their estimates. For example, Chad used a 1993 census count updated with a 2004 health survey, the Democratic Republic of Congo used a 1984 census updated with a 2007 health survey, and Somalia used a 1975 census updated with a 2002 social survey. The most recent data from many other countries was from 2001 census counts, which were more recent and so more likely to be accurate estimates of 2010 population, but not exact counts.

A related problem is that in many cases, countries or regions may not have data available. For example, one report indicates that for some regions of Asia, only 15% of the population were represented in mortality registration data. (2)

Thus, most reports have reasonably data. Conclusions from such data and reports should be viewed, though, with some degree of caution.

Units of analysis: A second caution about reports about demographic trends is about the units of analysis. In our reports, for example, we describe infant mortality rates by world region. But there is considerable variation within regions. For example, The following table shows infant mortality rates for 2005-2010 for several countries in Asia. As can be seen, there is wide variation in IMR, ranging from 71 in Pakistan to 3 in Japan.

Table A1
Infant Mortality Rate, 2005-2010, Asia

Viet Nam
World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision 

There is also considerable demographic variation even within countries. For example, IMR varies widely within Japan (3), caused by a number of factors such as per capita public health nurses, maternal education, centralized water supply and household income. Similarly, variationin IMR within countries happens due to variation in maternal health and other regional factors (4).

That is, regions and countries are often used for convenience in demographic reports. As above, reports using regions or countries as units of analysis can give general overviews of demographic conditions and trends, but should be used as overviews or introductions, or in the context of more detailed information.


United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision, New York, 2011 (comprehensive Excel tables). Country data.   

(2) Availability and quality of cause-of-death data for estimating the global burden of injuries, Kavi Bhalla, James E Harrison, Saeid Shahraz, Lois A Fingerhut & on behalf of the Global Burden of Disease Injury Expert Group.  Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2010;88:831-838C.  

(3) Mishina H, Hilton JF, Takayama JI. Trends and variations in infant mortality among 47 prefectures in Japan. J Eval Clin Pract. 2012 May 29. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2753.2012.01862.x. [Epub ahead of print]  

(4) Mario Sims, Tammy L. Sims, and Marino A. Bruce. Urban poverty and infant mortality rate disparities. J Natl Med Assoc. 2007 April; 99(4): 349–356.
PMCID: PMC2569641