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Hans Rosling, population prophet: Five final thoughts

Hans Rosling, population prophet: Five final thoughts thumbnail

Hans Rosling, the Swedish professor who made global health statistics compelling viewing, died from cancer in February.

Co-founder of, which continues his work, he was enthusiastically trying to change old-fashioned notions of the world even as his illness took hold.

In his final BBC interview – for the BBC World Service series Economic Tectonics – the statistician highlighted five key ways that demographics are shaping the world around us.

Why bedrooms are driving economies

Image copyright Getty Images

Why do I as a professor from public health speaking about health and demography get invited to Goldman Sachs [and] all these big banks around the world?

Because I tell them I can see on my screen when economic growth comes, before you can see it.

In the past, economic growth was driving demographics, and now it’s the other way around.

First, I see decent life coming and I see children born-per-woman drop.

I see the two-child family, and I see the economic growth starting in Vietnam, in Thailand… not only in China.

And this change is coming, so if you want to know where to invest in Africa go and look at demographics.

Governments can’t run bedrooms. Bedrooms run the world.

If you have countries where the fertility rate is coming down, just segmentise the population.

Look at the most educated 20% in Ghana, in Tanzania, in Ethiopia: you will find two to three children per woman.

You will find an emerging China in Africa.

Go there to invest if you want to earn money, if you want to have nice pensions when you retire, place part of your capital there because there you will see fast growth.

Total fertility rates (with projections)
1917 1967 1992 2017 2040 2099
Afghanistan 7 7.7 7.7 4.1 2.2 1.8
Australia 3.1 2.8 1.9 1.9 1.9 1.9
Bangladesh 6.7 6.9 4.2 2.1 1.7 1.8
Brazil 5.9 5.5 2.6 1.8 1.7 1.8
China 5.5 5.3 2.2 1.7 1.7 1.9
Ethiopia 7.2 6.9 7.1 4.1 2.5 1.8
France 1.3 2.7 1.7 2 2 2
Germany 2.5 2.4 1.3 1.5 1.6 1.8
Ghana 6.4 7 5.4 3.6 2.7 1.9
India 5.7 5.7 3.7 2.4 2 1.8
Japan 5 2 1.5 1.5 1.7 1.8
South Africa 6.5 5.8 3.5 2.3 1.9 1.8
Sweden 2.9 2.3 2.1 1.9 2 2
Tanzania 6.7 6.8 6.1 4.9 3.6 2.2
UK 2.1 2.6 1.8 1.9 1.9 1.9
USA 3.3 2.6 2 2 2 2
Vietnam 4.7 6.5 3.3 1.7 1.6 1.8


Population growth in Africa

Africa is still growing, and there’s such a difference within Africa. Some African countries are doing great from different levels: Ghana, most of Ethiopia, Tanzania.

They are doing great: better schooling, better health, contraceptives being available.

Other tragic examples: Central African Republic, Congo, civil wars; north Nigeria, very risky, troublesome.

They are delayed. They need jobs. If they get jobs, you will get stable countries, and you will get economic growth.

But there’s an old vision of over-population and population causing disastrous environmental effects.

If we look into the middle of this century, and if Africa makes it – stability, economic growth, social progress, rights for women, stable government, they get two child families – then they will be a burden on the environment.

Population distribution (%) by continent: 1950-2100
1950 2000 2050 2100
Asia 55 61 54 43
Europe 22 12 7 6
Americas 13 14 13 12
Africa 9 13 25 39
Oceania 1 1 1 1

Source: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2013)

So an Africa that is successful will consume much more in 2050 than an Africa that is not successful.

That will be a problem further on even if you manage to get down the population growth rate and Nigeria will level off at half a billion instead of one billion, Africa will level off at two billion instead of four billion.

That doesn’t mean that the environmental actions can rest. It’s the other way around.

Then, it’s more urgent to take action because the rapidly successful two and a half billion in Africa, they will be a greater burden because they have money, they consume, they want bathrooms, they want refrigerators.

People living longer

The consequences of this are two possibilities – either those who work have to pay higher taxes or people have to work longer.

Our former prime minister was bold.

He told the Swedes you have to work until 75.

We can’t have a period between 65 and 75 where people play golf.

Look at this as an opportunity.

Many young couples work intensively to take care of kids, to have a professional life.

The grandparents can come in.

They can be more active, they are healthier, you know.

There’s a lot of ways in which this healthy old group of people can make a very valuable contribution to society.

Life expectancy (with projections)
1917 1967 1992 2015 2050 2099
Afghanistan 27 35.1 50.2 61.7 69.5 75.5
Australia 58.9 71.1 77.5 82.8 87.4 93.4
Bangladesh 23.4 59.5 61 71.4 80.6 87.5
Brazil 32 57.7 67.3 74.5 82.1 88.5
China 32 58.4 69.8 75.6 80.2 85.5
Ethiopia 29.7 42 47.8 64.8 75 81.5
France 42.6 71.6 77.5 82.1 87 92.7
Germany 40.1 71 76 81.1 85.7 91.4
Ghana 28 48.5 57.4 61.4 66.4 71.7
India 24.3 46.7 59.1 66.9 73.3 80.8
Japan 41.4 71.4 79.4 83.8 88.7 94.4
South Africa 33.5 51.7 62.3 57.6 68.8 77.8
Sweden 58.9 74.2 78.2 82.1 86.4 91.9
Tanzania 32.2 45.7 49.9 62.5 73.1 80.4
United Kingdom 45.6 72.2 76.5 80.9 85.3 90.6
United States 54 70.8 75.8 79.2 83.8 88.9
Vietnam 32 61.8 71.3 76.2 80.9 86.1

Source: The state retirement age for the vast majority of these countries is between 60 and 65

Whether it will be done non-monetary, to the tragedy of the minister of finance, or whether it’s done by working and bringing in taxes for the greedy minister of finance, that’s another thing. But it’s open.

It’s a new situation because these older people are healthier.

The period of life when you are disabled and sick and blind and cannot work, that has not increased, it has just been delayed.

There is a problem with diseases like dementia and so on that takes out many healthy years, you know, but mainly there is an opportunity in this and it’s just that the old systems have to change.

How Asian women are calling the shots

Image copyright Getty Images

What you see in Asia now is an amazing similarity from Japan, South Korea, the coast of China, Taiwan, Thailand.

They are panicking in Singapore because the babies per woman is diving down to one.

Taiwan, which we know as a country without [a] Communist party, they have one child per woman without any government policy, and China actually has 1.6.

So why don’t we get more babies there? I got the answer during a dinner in Hong Kong.

I had lectured for a bank, and at the dinner I ended up next to the young banker who was extremely successful.

She was 37 years old. She told me everything about financial trends in Asia and we got friendly with each other.

So at the dessert I asked her: “Do you have a family?”

“Oh no,” she said. “I’m just working. I’m working all the time.”

But I pushed on because I’m curious and said: “Do you want to have a family?”

And she leaned backwards, looked out of the window that was the Bay of Hong Kong outside, and then she said with a smile: “Yes, I’m thinking about children every day. It’s the idea of a husband I can’t stand.”

I like it when one phrase can catch a trend in a whole part of the world.

The educated, skilful women in Asia, from Japan to Singapore, in different political circumstances, they have been accepted and they made their way to the labour market, but they are still oppressed by old-fashioned values that they should take care of their husband and their parents-in-law.

Could migration solve the world’s problems?

Image copyright Getty Images

My best friend and former PhD student in Tanzania was annoyed by immigrants because a Kenyan got a job he hoped his son would get, because the Kenyan had quite good qualifications on their education system.

You have today immigration in Africa from Europe because African countries are needing skilled professional people.

Look at Portugal – the Portuguese are going back to Angola and Mozambique, so migration is at all skills levels.

Some very skilled people need to do their work in different parts of the world, and the people at the lowest levels will also go and seek opportunities.

Many people who have a big heart and haven’t thought so much they may think that Western Europe can solve the problems of the world by receiving all poor people and all refugees. That won’t work.

I think it’s good that we receive many refugees, but I’d rather have them coming with their families together rather than forcing them out on these dangerous trips where they lose all their money to criminal organisations.

If we can manage migration in the world, it can benefit the person who migrates with their family, the country from where they come and the country to where they go.

Economic Tectonics: Demography will be broadcast on the BBC World Service on 16 March from 02:06 GMT, You can listen or subscribe to the programme podcast.


16 Comments on "Hans Rosling, population prophet: Five final thoughts"

  1. Sissyfuss on Fri, 17th Mar 2017 2:00 pm 

    Professor Bartlett tried to explain this but few understood. If you think plummeting birth rates will solve overshoot you need negative birth rates to change them in a meaningful way. A 7% rate of a total population of 1 billion is 70 million. A 2% rate of 7 billion is 140 million. Throw in a lengthened life span and we are talking predicament.

  2. DerHundistlos on Fri, 17th Mar 2017 4:47 pm 

    “Hans Rosling the Swedish”, CORNUCOPIAN.

    Question: “Why do I as a professor from public health speaking about health and demography get invited to Goldman Sachs [and] all these big banks around the world?”

    ANSWER: Because I reaffirm their foolish and destructive world view.

  3. makati1 on Fri, 17th Mar 2017 6:38 pm 

    Derhund, EXACTLY! He told them what they wanted to hear and walked away with bundles of cash. He had no more of an idea of the future than you or I do. No one does. He just got paid for his bullshit. As any good liar would do, he peppered his predictions with a lot of “Could”, “If”, “Possibility”, and “I see” in the mix. Too bad he didn’t live to see the results, but that would not have changed them.

  4. ________________________________________ on Fri, 17th Mar 2017 10:51 pm 

    Autism, cancer, sterility, genetic degeneration caused by roundup will drive depopulation.

  5. DerHundistlos on Sat, 18th Mar 2017 12:35 am 

    More GREAT news:

    On his first day as America’s new Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, made the Trump administration’s #1 priority overturning President Obama’s ban on the use of lead ammunition in wildlife refuges.

    Can you imagine how much you must hate yourself to wish death and destruction upon the natural world?

  6. dkb on Sat, 18th Mar 2017 2:10 am 

    Since January 1, the human population has increased approximately 15,000,000.

    March 14, 73 days later, 15,000,000 more humans, 27,000,000 are newborns.

    730 days time, there will be 150,000,000 more people.

    Two years, every 20 years there will be 1.5 billion new people plus the current population of 7.5 billion, total is 9,000,000,000, in forty years there will be 10.5 billion humans.

    By 2077 there is going to be another 1.5 billion more, using an increase of 1.5 billion every 20 years, makes 12,000,000,000 people.

    Disposable diapers will sell, clothing will sell, food will sell. Houses will sell.

    Caterpillar will stay in business.

    General Mills will remain solvent.

    Procter and Gamble is a buy.

    Oil will still be flowing, the demand doesn’t go away.

    Should be some oil in 2077. If all goes well, then there should be no problem.

    Might not be 12,000,000,000 people though.

  7. Davy on Sat, 18th Mar 2017 5:02 am 

    “Autism, cancer, sterility, genetic degeneration caused by roundup will drive depopulation.”

    Let’s get something straight with you guys who have never farmed and are upset about roundup. Roundup is far better than the alternatives that were used previously. The ones previously were really nasty to groundwater and other species. They were really bad to us. I know this from the warning labels. Roundup is not good. It is being used too much and weeds are developing resistance. This is something humans will fail against. Nature’s ability to adapt will beat us. I don’t like chemicals. I use a little roundup on the fences in my grazing system. I use very little and hate when I use it. We are not going to get away from chemicals in agriculture until we go through a die “down” and get our populations down to around 1BIL or less. Notice I said die “down”. The reason is this process could be somehow managed instead it will likely be a dreadful die off.

    There is zero possibility of permaculture feeding 7BIL. Did you hear me “ZERO”. I am doing as much permaculture as I can do but I still use a small amount of chemicals and I have a diesel tractor. I have a diesel truck. I shop for animal products. Yes, I would like to get away from even this but to do this it will take a collapse. In the mean time I use the status quo to leave it. It will be over soon enough. I might not survive a collapse. I wish I lived in the early 19th century but instead I am here. Chemicals are here to stay until we decide to die down. It is a reality and roundup is better than many of the alternatives I used to use back in 2000-2004 when I had a 1000 acre soy and corn farm. Maybe something less toxic will come along but I doubt it. They all have tradeoff and consequences.

  8. dooma on Sat, 18th Mar 2017 5:51 am 

    I actually agree with you Davy. Although I am from a town in the country, many of my friends farm commercial crops of wheat, potato and beef.

    I remember the fertilizers they used on potatoes. It was so poisonous that people still test the soil for traces of it now 20+ years after it was used!

    I have friends who run a 5 acre permaculture setup and it is just enough to feed them and you are living mostly on greens. Forget meat.

    Most of the developed world is not even close to changing their diet. This will be to their own peril. What we need is a mass population reduction NOW, and to change our lifestyles.

  9. dooma on Sat, 18th Mar 2017 6:02 am 

    Although if you have a strong enough stomach, I recommend a visit to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City in Viet Nam. There you will see the consequences of dousing a country that grows most food in water, with a version of Roundup.

    But we are talking massive amounts of the chemical. It was never going to be a good outcome.

  10. makati1 on Sat, 18th Mar 2017 6:08 am 

    Dooma, we will not change our lifestyles until forced to by circumstances. The proliferation of unicorn fixes and hopium articles only make it more difficult to change minds and habits. When developed countries have to pay $50/K for ground beef, maybe they will change. Yes, it takes a lot of veggies to get the needed calories, but then, most Westerners consume many more than they actually need. An average of twice that of someone in ‘developing’ countries.

    As for poisons in food, I grew up in the days of DDT (50s). I can still smell it just by thinking about it. The orchard across the road from our house was sprayed with it several times each year when the fruit was developing. It could be smelled a mile away downwind. I’m still here so I guess it couldn’t have been too bad. lol

    BTW: Here in the Ps a kilo of lean ground beef is about what a laborer makes in 4 hours. They do not eat much beef.

  11. Davy on Sat, 18th Mar 2017 6:27 am 

    “Healthiest hearts in the world’ found”

    “The healthiest hearts in the world have been found in the Tsimane people in the forests of Bolivia, say researchers. Barely any Tsimane had signs of clogged up arteries – even well into old age – a study in the Lancet showed. “It’s an incredible population” with radically different diets and ways of living, said the researchers. They admit the rest of the world cannot revert to a hunter-gathering and early farming existence, but said there were lessons for all of us.”

  12. Cloggie on Sat, 18th Mar 2017 6:46 am 

    “Healthiest hearts in the world’ found”

    While there was little change in mortality for most of the life course over the period 1950-1989, overall life expectancy at birth improved by 10 years from 45 to 53 after 1990. In both periods, over half of all deaths were due to infectious disease, especially respiratory and gastrointestinal infections. Accidents and violence accounted for a quarter of all deaths.

    Although it is true that there is much to be improved in Western diets (way too much sugar and fat), the West has still among the highest life expectancy in the world, mostly thank to health care and hygiene. I’m pretty sure that the sudden increase in life expectancy of the Tsimane from 45 to 53 after 1990 had everything to do with exposure to beneficial Western influences, regardless of how healthy their hearts might be.

  13. Cloggie on Sat, 18th Mar 2017 6:52 am

    Japan and the West on top. America would probably be the same as Europe or Canada if you filter out minorities, who spoil the average.

    And this is the life expectancy of the entire population. The life expectancy of young folks in Europe is yet again 2-3 years higher than the figures in the link.

  14. Midnight Oil on Sat, 18th Mar 2017 8:10 am 

    Not that I wish this on anyone, Dr Rowling had a number of health issues that would have caused his death much sooner.
    1989, Rosling was diagnosed with hepatitis C. Over the years this progressed and Rosling developed liver cirrhosis. In the beginning of 2013 he was in early stages of liver failure. However, at the same time new hepatitis C drugs were released and Rosling went to Japan to buy the drugs needed for curing the infection. He expressed concerns in media over the restricted use of the new drugs due to high costs, stating that it is a crime to not give every person with hepatitis C access to the drugs. A year after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Rosling died on 7 February 2017 aged 68.

    RIP, Hans…if everyone had an expiration age of 68, that would help with the surge.
    After Trump rations medical care and only the wealthy will have access to treatment that Hans had, Trump will fix that.
    Stay Healthy and Thristy, My Friend

  15. dooma on Sat, 18th Mar 2017 6:12 pm 

    Yes Mak, red is eaten rather sparingly in Asia.

    I used to build aircraft with a Chinese mate, nice bloke, who told me that we (westerners) ate too much of it. WAY too much.

    This he believed caused many of the cancers in our society. I tend to agree with him.

  16. dooma on Sat, 18th Mar 2017 6:13 pm 

    Red meat that is….

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