China has long been the world’s most populous country but in 2023, that is set to change – if it hasn’t already. India, which for many years had a significantly smaller population than its northern neighbour, is set to overtake China, possibly in April. This shake-up at the top of the world’s population rankings is a reflection of the two countries’ differing economic and demographic trajectories, and will have long-term consequences for the domestic and global economies. After all, China’s huge population has long been a crucial source of both labor and demand – will this baton now be handed to India?
What’s driving India’s population growth?
In the 1951 census, India’s population was 361 million – in the ensuing 70 years, it has grown by more than 1 billion and is currently estimated to be 1.4 billion. One of the most significant factors behind this population growth is the vast number of young people in the country: people under 25 years of age account for more than 40% of India’s population, and one in five under 25s globally are Indian. To give an idea of the comparative youthfulness of India’s population, the mean age in the country is 28, while in the US it’s 38, and 39 in China – both countries have rapidly aging populations. The sheer quantity of young Indians is a huge workforce and source of consumption and will be the key to India’s economic success, if they are leveraged properly.
What’s behind the decline in China’s population?
In January, China’s National Bureau of Statistics announced that, for the first time in decades, the country’s population had fallen – by 850,000 in 2022. This decline has its roots in the strict one-child policy that was imposed in 1980, which limited the number of children that a couple could have to below the average of 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population. The fall was accelerated by China’s zero-covid policy, with couples delaying having children, or deciding against it altogether. This population shift threatens to end its role as the capital of global manufacturing; its seemingly never-ending supply of cheap labor is starting to run out, and the country is unlikely to return to its pre-pandemic economic growth rates.
What are the implications for India?
India’s leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are positioning the reordering of the world’s top population rankings as a reason to invest in Indian manufacturing. The population boom that the country is experiencing is causing its working—age demographic to bulge, which means that there is a huge opportunity to create jobs and ramp up manufacturing. However, India’s leaders must take advantage of this opportunity by creating those jobs (unemployment is currently high), preparing workers and improving infrastructure. The majority of India’s industry is in the wealthier south and west of the country, but more babies are being born in the north, making high-quality transport and telecommunication links crucial for when those babies grow up and enter the workforce. The government also needs to address the regulations, low productivity and bureaucracy that make investing in India slower and more difficult than it needs to be.
If the country’s leadership does get that right, however, then the opportunities are seemingly endless. More workers procuring more goods and services will have larger incomes, which will in turn allow them to fuel consumption and investment. The Confederation of Indian Industry has forecast that India could become a $40 trillion economy by 2047 if it effectively leverages its youthful population.
More immediately, India’s position as the most populous country in the world will call into question the fact that it does not currently have a permanent position on the UN Security Council.
An exciting opportunity for brands
India presents an exciting opportunity for brands, whether they are already present in the market or looking to enter it. So what are the factors that make it so appealing?
An increasingly young and aspirational customer base
We’ve seen above how India’s population is growing, and how youthful it is: that in itself is a huge tick for brands seeing to embed themselves in the market. But what’s even more important is their growing aspirations. They are more confident than their elders and – should the government make good of the employment opportunity – will have more disposable income as well. As internet penetration increases (it is expected to lead to more than a billion internet users in the country by 2030), it will drive aspiration and the desire to invest in more comfortable living – those who are connected have a greater sense of what is desirable, and are willing to spend in order to get it. What’s more, Indians have long shown a high propensity to adopt new technologies, for example bypassing landlines and going straight to mobile phones, and embracing mobile payments. E-commerce is taking share from traditional retail at very high speeds. This increased wealth, connectivity and aspiration will bolster an already-growing middle class, which is expected to grow to 547 million people by 2025, creating a large, solid consumer base.
A dynamic media landscape
The media landscape that serves India’s huge population is dynamic and diverse, and is rapidly evolving in line with increasing smartphone penetration and internet connectivity. TV remains king in terms of both consumer consumption and advertising dollars; there are around 900 national and regional TV channels, attracting an average minute audience of around 1.6 trillion. There was a slight decline in 2021 over 2020, but the 2020 peak was likely driven by pandemic-induced lockdowns.
Online media has experienced huge growth in India in recent years, in line with increasing internet penetration. Global players such as Meta, Google, Amazon and Netflix are all present (although TikTok has been banned, along with 300 other Chinese apps), and there are several key domestic companies such as Hotstar, JioTV and Voot.
Media inflation in India has stayed relatively consistent over the last five years, other than the shock that it experienced in 2020 – Offline media types were particularly affected. This year, TV inflation is expected to remain similar to 2022 levels, while Online and OOH will likely rise above their 2022 positions. You can discover more about media inflation in India and around the world in our recent Inflation Report, which provides forecasts for media inflation and explores the economic and global context for those forecasts.
An improving business environment
India has long been notorious for its red-tape heavy bureaucracy and burdensome regulations. However, the government has recognised this as a barrier to international investment and is working to lighten the bureaucratic load, with measures such as the simplification of foreign direct investment (FDI) regulations and raising foreign equity caps for insurance and defence. These improvements led to India jumping 14 places to 63rd place on the World Bank’s Doing Business study in 2020.
India clearly presents a huge opportunity, both for brands already in the market and those seeking to enter it. Advertisers eager to seize this opportunity will need to embrace the idiosyncrasies of the Indian market. This is a vast country (significantly larger than Western Europe) with 22 official languages (and hundreds of other languages spoken as mother tongues), wildly different cultures and varying rates of urbanization and progress. Winning in this exciting, dynamic market will mean embracing these differences and speaking to the growing aspirations of young people, both urban and rural. The challenge is great, but the opportunity is far, far greater.
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