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Seven Billion? What It Looks Like in Nine Countries


In Kano, Nigeria, people queuing up to vote in a legislative election this spring. Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, with a huge cohort of young people. JOE PENNEY

The world may look more diverse than ever as it hits the seven billion population mark, though scratch below the teeming surface and you discover similarities in rich and poor countries alike. Problems of urban density, youth unemployment, elderly care and scarcer resources are shared across all economic and regional spectrums.

By interviewing people in nine countries – China, India, Egypt, Ethiopia, Finland, Mexico, Macedonia, Mozambique and Nigeria – a new report from the United Nations Population Fund examines how managing the challenges of bursting populations and ensuring prosperity for everyone can be daunting yet solvable.

The report, titled “People and Possibilities in a World of 7 Billion,” published this week, offers rich material through “snapshots” of ordinary people’s lives in the nine countries. Through attractively illustrated chapters that cover youth, senior citizens, migration, urban living, fertility rates, global resources and policy recommendations to stabilize a planet of seven billion, the report is important for both general readers who want to understand how the world is operating and for academics and other experts who need reliable, in-depth information to enhance what they know.

Barbara Crossette, a former New York Times correspondent and a contributor to The Nation and to PassBlue, traveled to eight of the nine countries earlier this year to report on conditions. Her work in the report is supplemented with data from the UN Population Division.

What you’ll learn in the early pages is that the globe is facing a large youth cohort and a ballooning older population. One in two people resides in a city; young people in rural areas must leave behind older family members to get jobs. People are living longer across all datelines. High fertility persists in poor countries; low birth rates occur in rich countries.

Gaps between the wealthy and the poor are widening. China is the most populous country in the world (1.4 billion), followed by India (1.2 billion). Sub-Saharan Africa’s population will double or triple in the next 40 years, making poverty there more inescapable. Women carry the most burdens everywhere, so if their lives are improved through education, proper health care, access to birth control and jobs, a whole country can be put on sound economic footing, the report says.

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The chapter on youth emphasizes the value of paying attention to the needs of this age group, since it makes up almost half the global population. Besides women, youths are also integral to economic development, so capturing their talents and energy in government policies is crucial. But the picture of their lifestyles and hopes is hardly rosy: many have no jobs; those that do have low wages. Young women have more trouble than young men finding employment; access to birth control can be scattershot, yet it is vital for quality of life, especially for women.

Today’s young women and men, however, are smart and aware. They are demanding better schooling and good health care and jobs to support themselves and their families. In many countries in the global north, young people are marrying later and having fewer children; that trend is emerging in many developing nations, too. The trend is linked not only to more education and job opportunities over all, but also to more access to reproductive health information, including contraceptives.

In Ethiopia, some programs are striving to better youths’ lives, but conditions remain precarious in a country where 39 percent of the 83 million people subsist below the international poverty level of $1.25 a day. Those figures may be why, the report says, fertility rates are down and youth are putting off marriage and starting families, especially those in urban centers, such as Addis Ababa, the capital. Like their peers elsewhere, young Ethiopians in cities find that they have little family support for child care and that raising children decently requires a steady income. Meanwhile, child marriage, long a blight in rural Ethiopia, is decreasing, leading to healthier futures for girls.

It is the world’s booming aging population, the fastest-growing sector of census tallies, which seems to present the most challenges in decision-making circles. From the poor to the well off, humans are living longer, straining resources and services as well as their own families. One positive aspect of this bulging population is a spur of growth in gerontology, an industry where mental health support is especially acute.

Solutions for coping with an enormous aging population are being met haphazardly in each country, with exceptions, like pockets of China, India, Mexico and Finland. Some governments, like India and Finland, are encouraging outside groups like charities, for example, to supplement efforts, as generations of families drift apart and no one is left to care for the elderly. The trend of encouraging help outside the government is viewed skeptically by some experts, as it implies that the responsibilities and costs are being foisted to others.

Of the nine countries surveyed, Finland has the highest percentage of people over 80 years old. The country appears to have elderly issues under control, with senior-care centers and other social services met by local governments. But in a fairly homogeneous, prosperous society of about five million, the country must also contend with fewer younger people around to help care for their elders. The younger generation has low fertility rates, is marrying later (if at all), living alone and staying in the workforce longer. As in many developed countries, the report says, the question is where the money will come from to sustain the huge increases that are expected to swell the older-people ranks as the baby boomers retire.

In China, the percentage of elderly in the national population is steadily climbing, as people live longer because of good health care services and from many residing with their families, though in rural areas that is less so. The government prefers to have older generations staying with their relatives to reduce its costs for housing and other services. In one particularly progressive province, grants are given to those in their 70s and up, with the money delivered in person to those over 90.

But even China is concerned that it will not have enough financial resources to support the rising tide of older people at the current standards of living. It is an issue that China shares with many Western countries, and the government is working with the private sector in some cases on programs and committees on aging.

Beyond problems of youth and the elderly, the report devotes extensive chapters to migration, city planning, sharing natural resources and fertility. Cuts in fertility rates, for one, can influence economic growth and cut poverty, but in countries with low fertility, as in Finland, it can result in fewer young people to fill jobs and propel the economy.

The report ends upbeat – suggesting that with so many people, lots of ideas can emerge to handle the problems everyone faces. “Population is about people, supporting rights and human dignity and creating conditions for each one of us to live on a healthy planet and reach our full potential,” Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the UN Population Fund and a Nigerian, concludes.

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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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