Low fertility is a problem for countries. Many developed markets (DMs) are starting to struggle with ageing populations and their associated social and economic issues.

Meanwhile, it could be a problem even for emerging markets (EMs), which face a slowdown in the growth of their ‘working-age’ populations over the next 30 years.

Last year, we published two papers – Emerging market demographics ‘in focus’ – implications for growth and the rise of the global middle class and Emerging market demographics ‘in focus’ – implications for equilibrium real interest rates – that examined the issues in developing economies.

Our latest on the topic, Towards the peak: How the rise and fall of populations affects economic growth, seeks to advance the discussion by looking at things from a global perspective and asking what this may mean for investors.

Read the paper

Population divergence

The world’s population is expected to grow by a further 1.7 billion people to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, according to the latest United Nations data.

However, these numbers hide big differences between and within EMs and DMs. For example, the US’ population is expected to increase by some 37 million by 2050, while Germany’s could fall by some 4 million over the same period. Lower fertility in some European countries could be partially alleviated by immigration.

Meanwhile, the number of people in developing economies is expected to continue growing, driven mainly by countries in Africa and developing Asia. That said, the population of the largest emerging market, China, began shrinking in 2022.

Its impact on growth…

EMs will drive global economic growth – accounting for some 75% -- in the coming decades. China and developing Asia alone will be responsible for some 60% of that. Despite their own demographic challenges, EMs will likely grow between two and 2.5 times faster than DMs (see Chart 1).

Chart 1: Global GDP increasingly driven by Asia

Source: Haver, abrdn, as at February 2023

India and Indonesia are set to join China among the world’s top seven largest economies by 2050. What’s more, Nigeria will be just outside the top ten (No. 11), while the Philippines, Pakistan and Vietnam will occupy places within the top 25.

India and Indonesia are set to join China among the world’s top seven largest economies by 2050

On the other hand, big oil producers – Russia, Saudi Arabia and Norway – will slip down the rankings as the world transitions to low-carbon energy sources.

We found in our two previous papers that, while the percentage of 15-64-year-olds in EMs (often used as a proxy for the working-age population) is shrinking, the impact on growth isn’t as bad as feared because social changes mean that people start and stop work later.

What’s more, there’s a lot of scope for human capital – the economic value of a worker’s skills and experience – to grow in EMs as more people attain higher education levels.

That said, the next three decades will see labour playing a less important role in potential growth, as demographics hold back capital-stock growth. This means potential growth could fall close to zero in the Eurozone and Japan by 2050. But China’s ability to improve the quality of its workforce could help offset the effects of its ageing population.

…and impact on productivity

Productivity has been in gentle decline for many economies since the 2007/08 global financial crisis and we don’t see much hope for a return to the boom years of the 2000s. Commodity-exporting countries have experienced productivity decline for years, while institutional weakness and political instability pose risks in EMs.

The potential for demographics to create negative feedback loops, including for productivity, could result in additional risks. Ageing populations can strain the sustainability of social welfare models and public debt, which could reduce public spending in other areas and spur emigration. These risks are greatest in the ageing societies of China, Thailand and developed Asia. Other at-risk regions include Latin America (excluding Argentina, Mexico and Peru), central and eastern Europe, Japan and the Eurozone area.

Only a few markets could see productivity improve if a feedback loop operates between demographics and growth. Pakistan, the Philippines, Israel, Nigeria and South Africa are among these as they benefit from improving dependency ratios – due to relatively youthful populations and falling birth rates.

What this means for investors

Here are five things for investors to consider:

  • As emerging markets develop and the ranks of the middle class expand, the share of economic growth dedicated to consumption will rise, leading to notable changes in the relative size of consumer markets around the world.
  • China’s consumer market is already 50% the size of the US’. However, by 2050, it could be almost 10% larger; India’s consumer market could grow to the size of China’s current consumer market over the coming decades.
  • The outlook for Europe and developed Asia looks less promising, with slowing growth set to limit the scope for consumption to rise.
  • Consumer preferences will change. As salaries rise in low-income countries, people will spend less money as a proportion of income on food and clothing; more on housing, healthcare, transport and personal care.
  • Ageing populations everywhere will increasingly skew consumption towards the ‘silver economy’, amplifying these trends.