On 11th July 2019, World Population Day, the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS), a very highly respected and professional organisation, tweeted:
- The world population will grow by 11% from 7.7bn in 2019 to 8.5bn in 2030.
- The UK population is projected to increase from an estimated 66 million in 2016 to 70 million in 2030.
The media in general continued with these two themes.
How much better informed about the world and the UK are we from this tweet?
Appreciating that twitter restricts every tweet to 280 characters which includes any links to detailed reports, the answer is not as well as you might think, particularly if this is the only piece of news you had time to read or hear.
- Firstly, the projection for the UK population is over two years old 1 and there have been other more recent news reports 2 concerning the fall in migration from the EU, so is there a more up to date current and future projection?
- Secondly, the current and projected world population figures from the UN would, at first glance, seem to be out of control.
We think that the more media we consume, the more we will understand about the world around us, but we are wrong!
Our media, governments, charities and other organisations rely on drama to grab our attention and it can only do this by focussing on extremes. Negative stories are more dramatic than neutral or positive ones. They, like us, are predisposed to over-simplify, to imply certainty where none exists, and to divide all kinds of things into two distinct and often conflicting groups with a huge gap between them, when in reality most things are in the middle.
In the excellent book ‘Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World, and Why Things are Better Than You Think’, (2018) 3, Hans Rosling explains why our cultural and psychological biases lead us to perform worse than chimpanzees in a multichoice questionnaire on some basic facts about the world and how we understand it.
If we take a look at the UN report 4 a different and much more positive picture emerges.
- Population growth is at a slower pace than at any time since the 1950s.
- The average number of children per woman has been falling since the 1990s and now stands at an average of 2.5 and is projected to fall to 2.2 by 2050.
- Life expectancy at birth for the world’s population reached 72.6 years in 2019, an improvement of more than 8 years since 1990.
- It is the momentum of the current population having children and living longer that is driving the increase.
- The UN are projecting that the world population reaches a peak around 10.9bn in 2100.
It's important to realise that the world keeps changing. We cannot assume that our existing knowledge is correct, or that our consumption of media will keep us properly informed or up to date. We tend to be biased towards jumping to the conclusion of straight line projections of ever increasing numbers. By realising that we may not know what we think we know, will help us to dismantle some of the imaginary boxes we impose on our thinking and not miss important opportunities.
For the UK, the ONS have confirmed that we will have to wait until October 2019, for the 2018 issue of the National Population Projections to know if any of the projections have changed since 2016. However, due to difficulty in projecting migration and the underlying uncertainty surrounding future demographic trends, in October 2017 the ONS published nine alternative projections 5 which provide an indication of uncertainty and sensitivity to alternative assumptions including EU migration figures.
We like simple headlines and stories expressed with confidence and implied certainty, the reality is that future projections of complex systems are inherently difficult, and that they are only valid based on the model and assumptions made at a point in time. They are also unable to take account of ‘Black Swans’ 6, which by their very nature are unpredictable outlier events that have an extreme impact.
Why we need to warm up to be creative
At Technology Wellbeing we have developed a pre-innovation workshop to assist companies and individuals to think differently and open up their minds to see more possibilities.
See the article ‘Why we need to warm up to be creative’
Bibliography / Acknowledgements
‘National Population Projections: 2016 - Based Statistical Bulletin’, (2017), Office for National Statistics. ↩
‘Net migration from EU to UK Falls 70% Since Brexit Vote’, (28 Feb 2019), Helen Warrell, Financial Times ↩
*‘Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World, and Why Things are Better Than You Think’, (2018), Factfulness AB, Hodder & Stoughton. ↩
‘World Population Prospectus 2019, Highlights’, (2019), United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. ↩
‘Compendium Variants’, (2017), Office for National Statistics. ↩
‘The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable’, (2007), Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Penguin Books. ↩