Mapping the World’s Urban Population from 1500 – 2050
In 133 BC, Rome was the first city to hit a population of one million people.
While that number might seem small now, the truth is that modern megacities are just a blip in the long timeline of human history.
Today’s interactive data visualization from Our World in Data maps out how many people have lived in urban areas over time, as well as the powerful economic pull of cities after the Industrial Revolution.
Shifting Human Geography
The stages of urbanization can be roughly broken into two parts.
1500s – 1900s
Most people lived an agrarian life until the first Industrial Revolution. The urban population quadrupled over this lengthy timeframe, from 4.1% to 16.4%.
Urbanization accompanied the moves away from agricultural employment, but it was still a slow burn until the 20th century.
1900s – Present
The expansion of the global economy and population saw urbanization skyrocket along with it. The urban public leaped from 16% to 55% today, a trend which comes from both births within urban areas and rising human migration out of rural areas.
This turning point between the centuries becomes pretty clear when we look at the population shifts relative to each other:
What Defines An Urban Area?
While this widely cited data comes from the United Nations, many researchers suggest that the actual numbers are much more dramatic.
Why is there a discrepancy? It turns out that the definition of an urban population varies widely around the world. The UN figures are based on nationally-defined urban shares – but the thresholds and metrics used to calculate these are not uniform. Here are just a few examples:
|Argentina||Localities with 2,000 inhabitants or more.|
|Australia||Significant Urban Centres representing concentrations of urban development with 10,000 inhabitants or more.|
|Belgium||Communes with 5,000 inhabitants or more.|
|Canada||Areas with 1,000 inhabitants or more and at least 400 inhabitants per square kilometre.|
|Iceland||Localities with 200 inhabitants or more.|
|Japan||Cities defined as shi (A municipality that is 50,000 inhabitants or more); 60 per cent or more of the population engaged in urban type of business.|
|Netherlands||In the present publication, municipalities with 20,000 inhabitants or more.|
|United States of America||Territory that meets minimum population density requirements and with 2,500 inhabitants or more.|
Cities That Never Sleep
In 1950, two-thirds of the global population lived in rural areas, but this distribution will be reversed in a matter of decades. Almost 70% of the world will live in urban areas by 2050.
In total, 2.5 billion people could be added to global urban areas by 2050, and a whopping 90% of this increase will take place in Asia and Africa.
By the time the dust has settled, large portions of the urban population will be concentrated in megacities, which are areas defined as having 10 million or more inhabitants. These are projected to be the top 10 megacities by the middle of the 21st century:
|City||Country||2010 Population (millions)||2050 Population (millions)|
Animation: The Global Population Over 300 Years, by Country
This animated video shows how much the population has grown over the last three centuries, and which regions have driven this growth.
Animation: The Global Population Over 300 Years, by Country
Since the 1800s, our global population has grown from 984 million people to almost 8 billion—an increase of more than 700%.
Which regions around the world have led this growth, and what’s expected for the rest of the century? This animated visualization by James Eagle shows 300 years of population growth, including historical figures as well as projections up to the year 2100.
Asia’s Current Dominance
For centuries, more than half of the world’s population has been concentrated in Asia. At certain points throughout history, the region has made up nearly 70% of the world’s population.
Here’s a look at 2021 figures, and how large each region’s population is relative to each other:
|Rank||Region||% of Global Population (2021)|
China and India have been Asia’s largest population hubs, with China historically leading the front. In the 1950s China’s population was nearly double the size of India’s, but the gap has fluctuated over the years.
As China’s population growth continued, it was causing problems for the country as it struggled to scale up food production and infrastructure. By 1979, the Chinese government rolled out a one-child policy in an attempt to control the situation.
The program, which ended in 2016, had a number of unintended ramifications, but ultimately, it did succeed in slowing down the country’s population growth. And now, India is projected to overtake China as the world’s most populous country as early as 2023.
Africa’s Growing Piece of the Pie
Although Asia dominates the charts when it comes to overall population numbers currently, Africa’s growing population numbers are often overlooked.
While the continent’s total population is smaller than Asia’s, it will soon be home to the world’s largest working-age population, which could have a significant impact on the global economy in the years ahead.
This growth is being led by Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. With megacities like Lagos (metro population: 21 million) and over 217 million inhabitants in total, Nigeria is projected to be the world’s third most populous country by the year 2050. Nigeria’s rapid growth is largely thanks to its high birth rate, which is nearly double the global average.
Charted: The Working Hours of Americans at Different Income Levels
This graphic shows the average working hours between higher and lower-income groups in America, based on income percentile.
The Actual Working Hours of Different Income Levels
Do you really need to work 100-hour weeks for success?
In 2021, America’s top 10% of income earners made at least $129,181 a year—more than double the average individual income across the country.
When looking at differences between income groups, there are many preconceived notions about the work involved. But what are the actual average working hours for different income groups?
This graphic by Ruben Berge Mathisen uses the latest U.S. Census data to show the average working hours of Americans at different income levels.
Comparing Average Work Weeks
The data used for this graphic comes from the U.S. Census Bureau’s May 2022 Current Population Survey, which surveys more than 8,000 Americans from various socioeconomic backgrounds.
Importantly, the data reflects the average work hours that respondents in each income percentile “actually” work each week, and not what’s on their contract. This also includes overtime, other jobs, or side gigs.
According to the survey data, America’s top 10% income percentile works 4.4 hours more each week than those in the bottom 10%. And in surveys across other countries, though with hundreds of respondents instead of thousands, the discrepancy was similar:
Do the rich really work longer hours than the poor?
The graph below plots data from 27 countries.
— Ruben Mathisen (@rubenbmathisen) August 7, 2022
While both income and wealth gaps are generally widening globally, it’s interesting to see that higher earners aren’t necessarily working more hours to achieve their increasingly larger salaries.
In fact, the top 10% in the 27 countries shown in the graphic are actually working around 1 hour less each week than the bottom 10%, at least among full-time workers.
Zooming Out: Average Working Hours per Country
Similarities arise when comparing average working hours across different countries. For starters, people living in poorer countries typically work longer hours.
According to Our World in Data, the average worker in Cambodia works about 9.4 hours a day, while in Switzerland, people work an average of 6 hours a day.
While many factors contribute to this discrepancy in working hours, one large factor cited is tech innovation, or things like physical machines, processes, and systems that make work more efficient and productive. This allows wealthier countries (and industries) to increase their output without putting in as many hours.
For example, from 1948 to 2011, farm production per hour in the U.S. became 16x more productive, thanks to innovations like improved machinery, better fertilizers, and more efficient land management systems.
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