Reaping the Dividend

Overcoming Pakistan's Demographic Challenges

May 04, 2011

Excerpted below is the introductory essay, "Pakistan's Demographics: Possibilities, Perils, and Prescriptions," by Michael Kugelman, to Reaping the Divided: Overcoming Pakistan's Demographic Challenges.

On July 11, 2010, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani delivered a speech in Islamabad to commemorate World Population Day. He announced that in order to highlight the crucial connection between demographics and economic growth, 2011 would be designated "Population Year" in Pakistan. "All hopes of development and economic prosperity would flounder if we as a nation lose the focus and do not keep [the] population issue in the spotlight," he declared.

Hopefully that spotlight comes with a long shelf life. Pakistan faces acute population challenges. If they are to be overcome, they will need to be illuminated for far more than a year.

Yet, there are exciting opportunities here as well. A long-term approach to managing the challenges presented by Pakistan's burgeoning population, if accompanied by effective policies and sustained implementation, could spark a monumental transformation: one that enables the country to harness the great promise of a large population that has usually been viewed as a hindrance to prosperity. Indeed, demographers contend that Pakistan's young, growing, and rapidly urbanizing population can potentially bring great benefits to the country. If birth rates fall substantially, and if young Pakistanis are properly educated and successfully absorbed into the labor force, then the nation could reap a "demographic dividend" that sparks economic growth, boosts social well-being, and promotes the rejuvenation of Pakistan.

The Young and the Rising

Because Pakistan has not conducted a census since 1998, estimating the country's total population size is a highly inexact science. The Pakistani government lists the current figure at about 175 million people, while the United Nations believes the number is closer to 185 million. However, while the precise figure may be in doubt, the population's rapid rise is not. Though no longer increasing at the 3 percent-plus rate seen in the 1980s, Pakistan's population is still growing at a 2 percent pace. According to the UN Population Division's latest mid-range demographic projections, released in 2009, the population will rise to 335 million by 2050. More than 60 million people are expected to be added in just the next 15 years.

This explosive increase, however, merely represents the best-case scenario, and will prevail only if the country's fertility rates drop from the current average of about four children per woman to two. Should fertility rates remain constant, the UN estimates the population could exceed 450 million by 2050, with a total population of nearly 300 million as early as 2030.

Pakistan's population is not only large and growing, but also very young, with a median age of 21. Currently, two-thirds of Pakistanis are less than 30 years old. As a percentage of total population, only Yemen has more people under the age of 24. Additionally, given that more than a third of Pakistanis are now 14 years old or younger, the country's population promises to remain youthful over the next few decades. In the 2020s, the 15-to-24 age bracket is expected to swell by 20 percent. Pakistan's under-24 population will still be in the majority come 2030. And as late as 2050, the median age is expected to be only 33.

Pakistan's demographic profile contrasts with what is happening in much of the rest of the world. Sub-replacement level fertility rates (about two births per woman) prevail not only throughout the developed world, but also across much of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. As one commentator has noted, "the twenty-first century's hallmark [demographic] trend appears to be a fertility implosion." South Asia, along with sub-Saharan Africa, is one of the last regional bastions of youthful, rapidly proliferating populations. Yet even within South Asia, Pakistan stands out. Excluding Afghanistan, of all the member states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation – Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka – Pakistan has the highest population growth, birth, and fertility rates; the youngest median age (tied with Nepal); and the largest percentage of people 14 years old or younger.

Continue reading "Pakistan's Demographics: Possibilities, Perils, and Prescriptions," or download the full report from the Asia Program.

Michael Kugelman is a program associate with the Asia Program.

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