Eight Billion People Sharing a World Divided

Last month, the world’s population crossed eight billion people, and it is estimated that it will reach 10 billion by 2050. A major long-term transition is underway in the world’s demographic profile, with growing young populations in developing Asia and Africa rapidly replacing ageing ones in most developed countries and China.

Looking deeper, the world appears to be deeply divided and unequal. Elections last month in countries as diverse as the US, Brazil and Israel exemplify highly polarised electorates. And the recently concluded COP-27 meeting in Egypt revealed persistent divisions between countries, and not only in their approach to addressing climate change. Further, inequality between countries, but more so within them, is increasing, further polarising electorates and helping to empower populists.

Yet, for all our differences and divisions, the challenges and disruptions the world faces are at some level similar in nature, with people the world over looking to rebuild their lives after the pandemic, and shared concerns around inflation, falling living standards, conflicts and divided politics.

All of this signals a world that is in the midst of a major transition, or series of transitions, across economics, politics, society, technology, healthcare, education and other areas. Taken together, these transitions suggests a world transitioning from the industrial age to a system which is inclusive, sustainable, knowledge-based and technologically enabled. This month’s Sign looks at ten key aspects of this transition through a series of charts, examining how people’s lives have changed and are likely to change in the future.


Ten Signs of a World in Transition

There are multiple evident signs that the world is in a significant and prolonged transition across demographics, economics, politics, technology, healthcare, education and society. While the end-point of these transitions is still unclear, data already points to multiple significant changes to people’s lives over the past few decades, and even more pronounced changes over the coming ones as the world grows to ten billion people by 2050.

Ten macro-indicators, through a series of charts, reveal a fasincating story. Each of these indicators seems to indicate a ‘mini’ transition of its own, and each of these transitions is linked inextricably to the others. Taken together, they seem to indicate that the world is in the midst of a prolonged transition towards a more inclusive, sustainable, technology-enabled and knowledge-based economy. However, a number of these indicators also suggest the potential for a disruption or a reversal of the transition altogether.


1.Changes in Global Workforce are Driving Power Dynamic Shifts and Migration Patterns

  • 72% of the net 1.25 billion additions to the global working age population since 2000 have been in low- and lower middle-income countries (driven largely by South Asia and Africa).

  • Over the next 30 years, these changes will be even more pronounced, with low- and lower middle-income countries adding 1.2 billion to their working age population while the working age population in upper middle- and high-income countries shrinks by c.0.2 billion.


Implications for the Transition

  • Shift in economic and geopolitical power balance from the West to the Global South as some countries leverage their demographic dividends, e.g. India has risen from the 13th largest economy in 2000 to the 5th largest this year.

  • Increased migration to western countries where demand for both labour and skills is outpacing its supply, due to their own demographics.


2.Inequality Increasing, with Differences Within Countries Far Outweighing Those Among Countries

  • The world’s elite, the top-10%, now account for 52% of total income and 76% of total wealth, while the bottom 50% account for only 9% of total income and 2% of global wealth.

  • Since 1980, inequality is increasingly driven by differences within countries, rather than amongst countries, with poorer people in both developed and developing countries getting left behind.


Implications for the Transition

  • Rise of a global elite, while low-income people globally face similar day-to-day struggles.

  • The affluent class is capturing most of the economic gains in fast-growing developing countries as the economic share of low- and lower middle-income countries rises.

  • Increased political pressures in developed countries due to slow growth, increasing inequality and an influx of immigrants.


3.Economic Anxiety is High in Mature Economies, While Developing Countries are Far More Optimistic

  • 46% of people in developing countries feel like the financial situation of the average person has improved in the last 20 years, and are optimistic about the future, with 60% of people believing that the next generation will be financially better off.

  • Developed country populations are feeling stagnation, with only 33% of people believing that the average person is better off vs. 20 years ago, and are pessimistic about the future with only 30% believing that their children’s financial situation will be better than their own.


Implications for the Transition

  • Growing anxiety for those who feel they are being left behind in the developed world as the balance of economic power shifts to fast-growing developing economies.

  • Economic anxiety leads to concerns around trade and investment and has the potential to slow down the transition unless benefits of growth are more evenly distributed in developing countries, and workforces in developed countries are re-trained for the jobs of the future.


4.Political Polarisation has Increased Almost Everywhere, and Populists have Taken Advantage of the Dislocation

  • Democratic transitions and sustained wealth creation led to declining polarisation in the post-war period, particularly after the 1970s.

  • However, this trend reversed sharply after 2000, with political polarisation rising sharply across much of the world (except Oceania).

  • This has created the space for populist leaders to emerge, with the number of populists in power increasing nearly four-fold since 1990.


Implications for the Transition

  • Polarisation and rising populism can disrupt, reverse the transition, or create pockets of radicals, particularly when they occur in large economies.

  • Populism built around “cults of personality” leads societies towards autocracy, and has the potential to limit the growth of trade, investment, immigration, and the free flow and integrity of information, all of which have the potential of slowing down or reversing the transition.


5.While More and More People Live in Democracies, Rising Populism is Eroding Freedoms

  • Democratic transitions across the world since the 1970s saw a sharp downfall of autocratic regimes and a majority of the world’s population living in participatory democracies with broad political rights and civil liberties.

  • Over the last 20 years, while the proportion of the world living in autocratic regimes has been steady at c.40%, there has been a rising trend of democracies with eroding political and civil freedoms, rendering them only “partly free”, as defined by Freedom House, which now account for c.40% of the world population.

  • Only c.20% of the world population lives in (fully) free democracies currently.


Implications for the Transition

  • Populism is fundamentally reactionary, not forward looking and tries to turn back the clock, which is impossible to do, therefore populists often need to resort to nationalism or even autocracy to stay in power.

  • This makes it harder for countries to evolve or to work together to face common challenges.


6.The World’s Population is Getting More Educated, But Access and Affordability, Remain Major Global Issues

  • Over the last 30 years, the number of adults with a primary education has increased by 27% (to c.1bn), the number with some or complete secondary education has more than doubled (to c.2.9bn), and the number of adults with some college education has tripled (to c.0.8bn); while the share of adults with no or incomplete primary education reduced from 32% to 18% (c.1.0bn people).

  • By 2050, the number of people with some college education will double to 1.7bn, while the number of adults with no (or incomplete) primary education will shrink by c.34% to c.0.7bn.

  • However, there is still a big gap in access to an affordable and quality education across the world, with a majority of people across most emerging markets still lacking access to tertiary education.


Implications for the Transition

  • By 2050, 5.7 billion adults still forecast to have an incomplete education, and be ill-equipped to participate in the information economy, without radical solutions.

  • Quality standards between institutions vary widely and there is a bigger difference between the best and worst schools and colleges within countries, than amongst countries, creating a multi-tiered system, with access determined by income levels.


7.Most Humans Spend a Third to Two Thirds of their Waking Time on Devices Looking at a Screen

  • Rapid expansion of high-speed internet access with global internet penetration increasing from 7% in 2000 to 60% in 2020i, with cost-effective smartphones and exponentially reducing costs of data, have led to a connectivity revolution particularly in emerging markets.

  • Total screen time across the world now averages seven hours, or nearly half of a person’s waking hours, and is much higher in developing countries, going as high as 10-11 hours (or 2/3rd of a person’s time awake) in parts of Latin America, Africa and Asia.

  • While Asia has brought down the cost of connectivity significantly, below 2% of income, costs in Africa and other less developed countries are higher than the target affordability thresholds.


Implications for the Transition

  • The internet and digital technology has tremendous potential to drive economic, social and political transitions, by allowing people to participate in the formal economy, get access to information and content, and connect to other people.

  • However, digital technology also has the power to disrupt societies in unforeseen ways, for example by increasing political polarisation, existential cyber-security risks, or contributing to a ‘winner-takes-all’ economy which further drives inequality.


8.While Many People Have Access to Better Healthcare and More Effective Therapies, Affordability and Access Remain an Issue Both Amongst and Within Countries

  • Increased healthcare spending globally over the last 20 years is driving research and innovation, leading to the rapid development of new medicines and therapies; for example, the world has developed and deployed a Covid-19 vaccine in 1-2 years, and cancer survival rates in the US have increased from 50% in the 1970s to 67%.

  • Unfortunately, quality healthcare remains relatively inaccessible for most people in developing countries with US$100-300 per capita spending in low and lower middle-income countries, 95-98% lower than the US$6,200 per capita in high-income countries.

  • In developed countries too, for some, serious illnesses can drain savings and push households into debt.


Implications for the Transition

  • The elite in both developed and developing countries will have access to quality medicine and treatment, through medical tourism or private providers.

  • However for most people, quality healthcare remains out of reach, due to cost, e.g. the average cost of cancer care in the US is estimated to be US$42,000 in the initial year after diagnosis, and US$106,000 in the end-of-life stageii

  • Inclusive growth and resilience will require addressing issues around access and affordability in order to prevent adverse health outcomes and deaths, and lessons will have to be absorbed for the next pandemic.


9.A Broad Consensus Has Emerged on the Climate Emergency and the Need for Urgent Action, Except in Some of the Largest Polluting Countries

  • A broad global consensus has emerged in the last decade around the urgency of the climate crisis with a 2021 survey by the UN of 1.2m respondents across 50 countries (the largest such survey ever undertaken) finding that a majority of people believe in the climate emergency, and a significant proportion of these also believe in the need for comprehensive and immediate action.

  • Country level data, however, indicates that in some of the biggest polluters (e.g. US, China and India) the degree of concern and will for climate action is not as strong.


Implications for the Transition

  • Addressing the climate challenge is critical for the transition to a sustainable global economy, given the potentially catastrophic human and economic impact of climate change, particularly in developing countries which are the most vulnerable.

  • While much of the world is aligned on the need for action, the biggest carbon emitters are (predictably) not, with popular opinion divided along political lines in developed countries (like the US), and developing economies (like India and China) looking to balance their need for industrial growth and energy security against climate concerns.


10.Demographics is Changing the Relative Share of Religions, with a Large and Growing Share of Atheists in Some Countries, and Declining Religiosity Globally

  • Currently, 84% of the world’s population is affiliated with a religion, and global demographic change will result in nearly 2.4 billion more religiously-affiliated people affiliated between 2010 and 2050, with the share of Muslims increasing from 23% to 30% of the world population.

  • The level of religiosity varies considerably between and within countries, and is closely correlated to income, education levels, and age.

  • The share of religiously-unaffiliated people globally is expected to be large, and in many developed countries in particular, the number of atheists and agnostics is rising, for example in the US, the share of atheists and agnostics is expected to rise from 30% currently to 52% by 2070iii


Implications for the Transition

  • Intense religiosity in particular, has often been a persistent source of conflict between nations (and transnational actors), and of divisions within societies too.

  • Developing countries may become less religious as the balance of economic and geopolitical power shifts, and these countries become more educated and prosperous, as seen in the West.

  • Some developed countries may become even less religious, but this will be a function of various local factors and their respective demographic profiles.


Conclusions: The Transition to the Sustainable Information Age

Each of these, individually, is a major transition in the way people live, however when taken together they signal a major global transition underway to an inclusive, sustainable, technology-enabled and knowledge-based society. The analysis illustrates that this transition cannot be taken for granted. There are aspects of the transition, for example rising inequality and political polarisation, which have the potential to slow down or reverse the transition altogether, and one sees this at work in many parts of the world.

The pandemic has been a major inflection point. Its aftermath has seen war erupt between two major countries, political upheavals and transitions of power across several large countries, and unprecedented wealth creation and destruction in global markets. Looking forward, it seems the world has the potential to go in either direction, either reversing decades of progress or galvanising to address the core challenges that it faces.

The future will be shaped by innovation, particularly technological innovation, just as it has created the current industrial era. In fact technology plays a direct or indirect or indirect role in all of the major disruptions shaping  the world today. But technology is ultimately a tool and while it is necessary for the world to transition to an inclusive, sustainable and knowledge-based society if one wishes a more peaceful, prosperous and free world, it is not the deciding factor in determining whether the world actually does so.

This is much more a question of values, that is, what we as citizens of the world want for ourselves, for each other and our future. And while there are still large differences in values, the world is becoming more inclusive and less violent, with nation states largely having a monopoly over the use of force, global commerce increasing the costs of conflict for everyone, and improved literacy and communications promoting human empathyiv

Technology today is empowering individuals to levels unprecedented in history, arming billions of people with economic, political, financial, and physical power that was inconceiviable a generation or two ago. It is up to us as individuals, as  a community, and as a society as to how we use this power.


The Leader: Endnotes

  1. Source: World Bank
  2. Source: American Association of Cancer Research, Medical Care Costs Associated with Cancer Survivorship in the United States (2020)
  3. Source: Pew Research Center Modeling the Future of Religion in America, Sep-2022
  4. Source: Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined