India Will Soon be the World’s Most Populous Nation

Photo of a large crowd of people in India
Photo by Austin Curtis on Unsplash

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Move over, China. For the first time in more than three centuries, there’s a new top dog in the global order… in terms of population, at least.

India is set to become the world’s most populous nation by mid-year, according to new data released by the United Nations. With a staggering 1,428,600,000 residents and counting, the Southeast Asian subcontinent is home to nearly 18% of the global population. But can the country’s economy support its population growth?

Baby Boom

Some perspective: India’s population exceeds all of Africa, Europe, and the combined populations of North and South America. And it should retain the top spot for decades to come. Over half its people are under the age of 30, so with India’s world-leading 23 million babies last year, the UN expects its total population to hit almost 1.7 billion by 2050. China, on the other hand, witnessed a decrease in newborns last year (9.6 million) for the first time since the 1960s, and will see its population contract to around 1.3 billion by the mid-century mark.

But size isn’t everything, and China’s economy far outpaces its neighbor to the southwest. With a gross domestic product of roughly $3.7 trillion, India just this year overtook the United Kingdom (population: ~67 million) to become the world’s fifth-largest economy, according to the International Monetary Fund. Germany and Japan sit just ahead with economies of roughly $4.4 trillion a piece, while China sits at No. 2 at $19.4 trillion and the good ol’ US of A holds the top spot at $26.8 trillion.

But India’s economic growth isn’t nearly fast enough to employ the millions of young people pouring into India’s workforce:

  • The nation’s unemployment rate ticked up slightly to 7.45% in February, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. Young people are particularly afflicted; in December, over 40% of those ages 20 to 24 were without a job, and over 10% of 25 to 29-year-olds were unemployed.
  • “A lot of the growth in India is driven by finance, insurance, real estate, business process outsourcing, telecoms and IT,” Amit Basole, professor of economics at Azim Premji University in Bangalore, told the Financial Times in March. “These are the high-growth sectors, but they are not job creators.”

Manufactured Success: To boost employment, India has taken a page from China and is hoping to become a manufacturing super-hub. But it’s starting well behind the eight-ball. The manufacturing sector employs roughly 35 million people in the nation, and is growing slowly despite loosening labor laws and billions in government incentives. Rory Green, chief China economist at TS Lombard, told the FT that even if China’s economy completely stalled out and India’s exploded by 10% each year, it’d still take the latter nation roughly 20 years to surpass the former.