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Assistant Secretary of the UN, Honorable Ministers, Honorable Commissioner, Parliamentarians, and distinguished delegates. Good morning to all and warm greetings to those with us online.\

This month the world population will reach 8 billion.

This achievement of human health and longevity – has triggered celebrations, but also fears about our common future. Depending on which media outlet you attend to – this milestone has prompted at least 2 very different demographic anxieties:

  • Both the familiar fear of too many people, and the unmanageable need for energy and food, health services, more schools and further stress to the environment.
  • Simultaneously and somewhat paradoxically, there is the fear of too few people – of a declining workforce, increasing numbers of older dependents, the closing of schools and the emptying of towns and villages.

Why are these seemingly contradicting anxieties happening simultaneously? Because, as we have heard from several speakers already this morning, the underlying hallmark of the world at 8 billion is one of demographic diversity – one world, very different demographic realities.

On one hand, we have countries in SS Africa, and several in South Asia, that continue to grow quickly, with high fertility rates, and population momentum. Consider that 8 countries alone will account for half of all population growth between now and 2050 (Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, DRC, Tanzania, Pakistan, India and the Philippines).

Simultaneously, more than 60% of people on the planet now live in countries with below replacement fertility (2.1 children per woman). And some of these countries already have a declining population. China’s population, for example, is projected to peak at 1.4 billion this year; in 2023 India will overtake it as the world’s largest population; and if the predictions of the WPP hold to 2100 – China’s population will decline to ~800 million by 2100. And they are not alone; according the UNDESA World Population Prospects (2022), 61 countries are projected to experience population decline between 2022 and 2050.

Hence, the world is characterized by very different realities. This is manifest in the fact that the median age of countries is further apart than it has ever been!

Historically, all countries were once young, life expectancy was universally low, and life was short for nearly everyone.

In the future - when a long life expectancy becomes a universal reality and development progress leads to lower fertility in, for example, Africa and Asia – then most countries will be older – and countries will likely be similar again in age structure.

For now though, we live in a unique period in human history where, for example, the median age in Europe is more than 40 years, while in SSA it is just over 17 years; demographic diversity on display.

Why emphasize this diversity? Because while the population movement has long focused on the policy needs of high fertility countries - today many low fertility countries are requesting policy guidance on how to assure sustainable development under demographic conditions that are unfamiliar. The Seoul Symposium has engaged these questions for 6 years now. This week, building on the Ministerial Conference in Sofia Bulgaria in 2021, we will review global experience with these new demographic trends – and ask what leads to demographic resilience, and what investments increase prosperity and well-being, irrespective of demographic trends?

First, every country must have population data to understand and project demographic change.

I fear this remains one of most under-appreciated preconditions for sustainable development – that because all countries are inherently different, they each need to understand their current demographic reality and their demographic future. Each country, each city and each district needs sound population projections to plan the numbers and locations of schools, health care facilities and the infrastructure of development.

In short - demographic resilience needs demographic intelligence.

This point was emphasized by Dr. Diene Keita in her opening remarks this morning – yet the shortfalls in funding and capacity for strengthening national population data systems are serious, and all the more risky given population diversity, and given that ageing and low fertility are taking us into unfamiliar terrain.

How are we doing on this? Not brilliantly. COVID delayed censuses in the peak years they are routinely undertaken (2020, 2021) – and as of this month – there are at least 55 countries that need to complete the census in 2023 or 2024 when this census round ends - and we have another 14 countries that still any proposed date for a census.

Allow me to recognize the KOSTAT-UNFPA partnership in this regard. A cornerstone of our shared Global Programme on Ageing and Low Fertility includes funding for census support around the world through UNFPA. Why? – because KOSTAT and UNFPA agree that demographic intelligence is a prerequisite for demographic resilience – yet we know that demographic research is under-resourced in many countries, and a neglected necessity for policy research.

Second, every country must be able to analyze how demographic change will affect the social and economic structure of society, and devote serious consideration to how best they can prepare and respond. And that means open and candid exchange about the temptations of demographic engineering and the risks of such approaches. For example, population ageing places stress on pension funds. And while demography is to blame for the stress, it does not necessarily follow that demographic engineering is the answer to that challenge. While theoretically an increase in fertility would slow population ageing and even reverse population decline, in practice it’s not that easy.

Even if ageing countries could magically increase fertility today, it would take twenty to thirty years before those children entered the labour market, and in the ensuing time - countries will have even more dependents. But the challenge is yet more profound, because history suggests that efforts to define and engineer an ideal population size and structure is likely to fail. Why?

  1. We do not agree on what defines an ideal population size. Is it the size of the population we need to meet the immediate labor demands of business, or ensure the solvency of pension funds in 20-30 years?
  2. Even if we did agree on an ideal population size and structure - we lack the policy instruments to achieve it. Pronatalist policies that have sought to incentive births across the world have typically had only tempo effects, but they haven’t resulted in a sustained increase in fertility.
  3. And more profoundly, the policy instruments in question not only instrumentalize the lives and choices of women, but some explicitly reverse hard-won rights for women.
  4. Some governments are reversing public access to contraceptives, others are cutting sex education from school curricula, or promoting fertility for some but not others, losing track of the universal nature of reproductive rights. In fact, curtailing sexual and reproductive health and rights is not even an effective response to anxieties about low and falling fertility! Making it harder to access family planning, cutting sex education from school curricula, or propagating gender stereotypes that imply a setback for women’s empowerment, will only increase unplanned and unwanted pregnancies. To date, we already know that these policies will fail to lift fertility in a sustainable manner, but they will reverse the conditions that actually lead to happier families and healthier children. And it is important to remind ourselves that women’s reproductive rights is not just a means to advance development – but women’s reproductive rights is itself a metric of development!

Therefore - every country must do their utmost to augment, not constrain sexual and reproductive health and rights in the face of low and falling fertility - In countries where women have more pregnancies than they desire – We have five decades of programme experience on what it takes to help women avoid unwanted and unplanned pregnancies – and to help governments to promote smaller
families through the promotion of reproductive rights and choices.

This includes years of optimizing modern contraceptives and the requisite services and public information to increase access. We know well the critical role played by child survival and parental confidence in child survival, the extraordinary power of girls and women’s education on women’s ability to claim their reproductive rights - and we know that once women can avoid unplanned pregnancies, not only does fertility invariably decline, but with adequate investments in education and jobs – a window of demographic dividend is possible.

Despite our collective knowledge and years of progress - these conditions are still not universal – and millions of women still have more pregnancies and children than they wish for. The SOWP of UNFPA in 2022 estimated that more than half of pregnancies worldwide are unplanned – so even with our decades of programme experience, it is a reminder that delivering a world where every pregnancy is wanted is not easy.

And when we turn to countries where people are having fewer children than they want ... the focus of this gathering - we must first acknowledge that we have far less knowledge to build on - because national experience is still accumulating. But that is not to say that demographers and policy researchers have been inactive – and many have been pursuing research to better understand the drivers of low fertility, and what interventions can enable couples to have the children they want – and close the gap between their ideal family size (which is often 2 children) – and the lower fertility that is actually happening. Some crystalizing lessons are increasingly clear.

First, every country needs to continue making headway towards gender equality – and not hold back from interrogating the status of gender equality in the workplace, and in the home – and address the sensitive question of whether to try to reset social norms. Comparing women’s life experience and fertility trends in wealthy and highly educated societies, a foremost sociologist1 has shown that extremely low fertility is more likely to occur in countries where career advancement for women is possible, but practically speaking – it requires that women make a choice between career and family. These choices are especially harsh and lead to very low fertility, where 2 further conditions prevail: gender inequalities at home mean women still shoulder the burden of household chores and the care of children, and private or state investments offer little to no support to working parents (childcare, parental leave, etc).

This triumvirate – gender inequality in the workplace, gender inequality at home, and little structural support for working families – characterizes the low fertility, for example, in Japan relative to Sweden.
In Sweden, where women are better represented in advanced careers, gender roles at home are more equal, and the state supports work-family balance - more employment for women has even led to higher fertility. Where women must choose between work and family life – many will give up the chance to have children – and. A heart-breaking note from recent research – and many such women identified “having a large family” as a dream – until they learned it wasn’t possible to do both.

Much further research has offered nuances to this basic analysis – with some placing greater emphasis on gender equality at home (relative to work) – as the defining obstacle to fertility – and others place more emphasis on affordable high quality childcare and parental leave as chief determinants - but the basic premise is sustained – it’s the unfinished agenda for gender equality that is underpinning very low fertility. There is more of such research in Asia and Western Europe than elsewhere – in part because very low fertility came earlier to these regions – but more such research is needed, because as low fertility expands to more countries we do see other factors at play. Survey data on young people and their plans for the future – (of which there is nowhere near enough!) – we do hear added reasons to be childless - e.g. economic inequality, housing and education costs, lack of confidence in government, limited childcare and even the climate crisis.

Very low fertility at the scale we are seeing is new and there is much to learn – and unique national causes will emerge - but gender equality appears to be as much a prerequisite for addressing the gap between wanted and actual fertility in low fertility settings as we have known for decades that it is in high fertility settings. We may be more accustomed to recognizing this relationship in developing countries where the rights of women are too often more blatantly denied (e.g. child marriage, educational inequalities, etc) – but it appears to be no less an obstacle to letting women realize their reproductive ideals in wealthy, developed countries. Two further and last observations about effective policies in conditions of low and declining fertility - country can invest in more inclusive societies, and reconsider migration.

We might already suggest that inclusiveness is a prerequisite for demographic resilience. And by inclusiveness here I mean opening the education, professional and career tent not only to women – but to all who seek opportunities for decent work.

This is especially critical for countries facing population decline. As we will hear tomorrow from other speakers and participants – the fear of a declining working age population, and ever rising older dependents is real, but possibly exaggerated. National experience shows that it’s possible to increase productivity through automation, robotics or in-migration, but equally valuable is the expansion of education and economic opportunities to more people, at all ages – and better capitalizing on the desires of many people to contribute to the economy who are unable to do so today.

For example, in many countries, women have a notably lower labor force participation rate than men. Countries can do much more in terms of structural investments to help women participate in the labor market by expanding the availability quality care facilities for children and older persons, and as I mentioned earlier – policies that address gender discrimination in the workplace may offer double advantages – boosting women’s labour force participation – while making it easier for them to have the children they may want. In many countries, older persons who have retired find it hard to participate in the local
labor markets. More can be done to help older persons engage for longer, if they are keen to do so. This may mean more flexible working arrangements, extending retirement ages, assuring better access to decent work for people with disabilities, and expanding lifelong learning - but above all it means investing in the capabilities of the many people - those who are currently stuck in marginal or vulnerable employment – or entirely outside the workforce.

The expansion of lifelong education and training opportunities is important for countries that are ageing – and countries with large young populations – so it is absolutely universal. This was a key message of the recent Transforming Education Summit – where governments agreed on the urgent need to expand educational opportunities for all to achieve sustainable development - and I would add – to achieve demographic resilience. The Summit emphasized educational access for the marginalized, including women and girls, persons with disabilities, indigenous and migrant populations – and those at older ages who wish to work; It was agreed that governments should give more attention to the quality of education; promote universal access to digital learning; more support for educators; and a major expansion of lifelong learning.

Lifelong learning is particularly important in a world that is ageing – and where millions who missed a decent childhood education still have decades of life ahead of them. Many of these are women who married very young. Wolfgang Lutz has reminded us that economic growth reflects education at all ages in a population – and if you focus only on the young – you will wait decades for results. And we will wait to see if the recommendations from the Education Summit will be reinforced by the next UN Commission on the Statius of Women, and the Commission on Population and Development – both of which address education in 2023.

Every country will must come to terms with and make the most of migration, Last –allow me to close with a comment on migration. From the perspective of inclusion, in many countries, immigrants who live in the country already find it almost impossible to participate in local labor markets, and secure decent work. Migrants in many countries are relegated to the most vulnerable, most risky, lowest paid and least secure work. Far more can be done to promote the accreditation of qualifications received abroad, for instance, and tear down other barriers to participation.

From a global perspective – the current combination of ageing countries on the one hand, and young countries on the other hand – may offer an opportunity for partnering, exchange and shared resilience! If ageing countries partner with young and high fertility countries to support economic migration – such migration would not only boost the working age population, stabilize pensions, but probably increase fertility. We know such bi-lateral arrangements are not simple and they seem particularly challenging these days... but we have seen several ageing countries start to open migration, this past summer this was true of Australia as well – and given the demographic diversity of the world today - migration may be an increasingly worthwhile consideration for demographic resilience.

In sum, for countries grappling with how to promote resilience in the midst of demographic change:

  1. Use population data to plan ahead;
  2. Understand the ways in which national trends will impact the economy, and carefully interrogate the human-rights implications of both short and long term policy responses
  3. Rethink policies focused on demographic engineering – and have confidence in the further realization of sexual and reproductive health and rights
  4. Relentlessly advance gender equality – see what can be done immediately interms of structural change – and whether a re-set of social gender norms in the home are needed
  5. Promote more inclusive societies, including through education and life-long learning and investment in human capital,
  6. And promote the inclusion of migrants in the world of work, and society at large.

Demographic resilience is a journey... and allow me to assure you that UNFPA is ready to work with governments every step of the way, from the collection and use of population data, to the formulation of policy responses and programmes.

Thank you for your attention.