How is the working-age population currently distributed?
Though the great majority of countries have working-age populations comprising between 60% and 70% of the total, there is a large disparity between the highest working-age percentage (85%) and the lowest (47%). Most developed economies have working-age populations above 60%. Japan is well-known to have a very ageing population, with the highest proportion of people over the age of 65 at over 25%, yet still 61% of their overall population is working age. Only a small number of countries have working-age populations higher than 70%, and it is worth noting that, with the exception of South Korea and China, the high proportion of working-age adults in each of these countries is due largely to migrant workers, including the Gulf States, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
At the other end of the spectrum, the 45 countries with a low share (<60%) of working-age population are universally countries with young populations. These countries, including Kenya, Niger, and Mali, all have under-15 population shares of at least 40%. For example, in Niger the working-age cohort is only 47% of the population, and the remaining 53% consists of 50% under the age of 15 and just 3% over the age of 65. These youth bulges tend to have a much larger impact on the dependency ratio than the impact (to date) of an ageing population in more developed countries.
How might these demographics shift?
In the past decade, we have passed a major demographic landmark. Globally, the working-age share of the population peaked in 2012, and it has been in decline ever since. Before this inflection point, when the working-age share of the population was increasing, we would expect to have seen a boost to GDP per capita globally – a ‘demographic tailwind’, so to speak. After 2012, with a ‘demographic headwind’ of a declining working-age share, we would expect to see GDP per capita growth constrained, as the output of the available workforce is distributed more thinly across a growing proportion of dependents, both young and old.
There are some stark trends in projections for the change in the working-age demographic across the world, if we use a zero-migration model. We see that by 2030, the working-age population of some countries would have increased by as much as 80% since 2015, with most of the largest increases in sub-Saharan Africa; Mali, Chad, Uganda, and Niger are each set to face working-age population increases of over 70%. To keep up with the number of new entrants to the workforce, 11 million new jobs will have to be created every year through to 2030 in sub-Saharan Africa alone.
The majority of the most substantial structural decreases in working-age population percentages will be found in Europe, with countries such as Serbia, the Netherlands, Slovenia, and Austria facing declines of over 20% from 2015-2030, and Germany’s working-age population set to shrink by over 30%. Though the magnitudes of these decreases are less than those of the increases projected in sub-Saharan Africa, they are significant nonetheless. Additionally, our analysis highlights that a demographic change of this nature is projected across the breadth of Europe, rather than just in Western Europe, the more commonly cited example.
Other measurement considerations
Rather than using the total population as a denominator, we have chosen to use the working-age population. One could argue that we could go further and use just those in work – in effect, a measure of labour productivity. Though doing this would be a valid and useful measure as it captures the current capabilities of a workforce, it would fail to capture the economic wellbeing of all members of society.
From the point of view of national policy, it is far more useful to also consider those who are excluded from the labour market or do not participate for family or other reasons, because their wellbeing is equally important.