How did Mexico get to be the world’s 11th most populous country?

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Jun 112011

Mexico is currently the world’s 11th most populous country. While it has not always held this position, Mexico has been among the world’s population leaders for the last two thousand years. provides data on the estimated population occupying the areas of current countries for various years starting in the year one, when India (62 million) and China (60 million) had more than half of world’s total population of 231 million. No other country had more than eight million. Mexico ranked 17th with an estimated two million inhabitants. According to available data eight countries have always been more populous than Mexico: China, India, Bangladesh, Russia, Pakistan, Japan and Indonesia.

The next data point is the year 1500, when Mexico ranked 13th with an estimated population of seven million. This estimate seems reasonable, though some feel that Mexico’s population might have been as large as 15 million which would have made Mexico the third most populous country on the planet behind only China and India. Between year 1 and 1500, Mexico surpassed Turkey, Spain, Egypt, Iran, and the Ukraine; but was passed by Germany.

Mexico’s total population plunged after the Spanish arrived bringing small pox, other diseases and major social disruption. By 1600, Mexico’s population was down to 2.5 million, but it was still the most populous country in the New World, according to data provided by It ranked 22nd tied with Austria and behind such countries as Czechoslovakia, Poland, Sudan, and Yugoslavia.

In 1700 Mexico’s population was 4.5 million, ranking it 18th. By 1820 the USA had moved past Mexico’s population of 6.6 million to become the most populous country in the New World. Mexico maintained its 19th ranking until 1870 when Brazil surpassed Mexico’s population of 9.2 million to become the most populous country in Latin America. It is interesting that there were relatively few changes in the ranks of the top 20 countries during the 170 year period between 1700 and 1870, except for the USA which went from 40th to 4th.

Since 1870 Mexico’s population has surpassed that of nine different European countries. By 1900 Mexico had 11.7 million inhabitants moving it past Czechoslovakia and Turkey into the 18th spot. (Note that Gapminder population figures are higher than the Mexican census figures, perhaps because they attempted to correct for census under-counting; for the purposes of this analysis we use the Gapminder figures.) Mexico maintained its 18th rank until 1950 when its population of 28.5 million edged it past Spain and war torn Poland into 16th place. In 1970 its population reached 52.8 million putting Mexico in 14th place ahead of France and the Ukraine. By 1980 Mexico’s population of 68.3 million pushed it past Italy and Britain into 12th place. A decade later its population of 84.9 million moved Mexico past Germany into the 11th spot, where it has remained.

What will happen in future decades? Mexico’s position will change, but only slightly. In 2020, Mexico’s population may reach 125 million moving it past Japan into 10th place (Population forecasts for 2020 to 2050 are from the U.S. Bureau of Census). By 2030, Mexico, with a population of about 135 million, will have passed Russia, but fallen behind Ethiopia and the Philippines, putting it back in the 11th spot.

Mexico’s estimated population of 144 million in 2050 will place it 12th behind the Congo (World Population Prospects: the 2010 Revision). According to the United Nations, by 2100 Mexico’s population will decrease to 127 million moving it to the 20th spot, behind Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Iraq, Zambia, Niger, Malawi, and Sudan. Obviously, the accuracy of such a long term forecasts is very speculative. For example, given global climate change and possible food scarcities, some doubt if the sub-Saharan African countries can grow as rapidly during the last half of the 21st century as projected by the United Nations.

Marriage declining among Mexican couples

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May 312011

Mexican couples still prefer marriage over the alternatives, but not as strongly as in the past. According to the 2010 census, 40.5% Mexicans age 12 and over were married, down from 44.5% in 2000 and 45.8% in 2009. The 11% decline since 1990 does not sound like much, but is significant when the data are investigated more deeply.

Because the data include all Mexicans over age 12, it is not surprising that 35.2% were single in 2010, compared to 37.2% in 2000 and 40.6% in 1990. The 13% drop since 1990 in the percentage for singles is mostly a result of the relative decline in the total number of teenagers, most of whom are unmarried, as a consequence of the decline in fertility over the past few decades.

The most impressive growth was for “free union” couples, those living together but not married. In terms of population, the proportion went from 7.4% in 1990 to 10.3% in 2000 and 14.4% in 2010, almost double the 1990 level. If we compare married couples with those in free union, we get an even clearer picture of the trend. In 1990, 13.9% of all couples lived in a “free union”; this figure increased to 18.8% in 2000 and 26.2% in 2010.

While roughly three of every four couples in Mexico are married, this varies significantly from state to state. It is not surprising that the least Catholic state—Chiapas— has the most couples living in “free union” – 38.8%. Chiapas also is one the most heavily indigenous states. But even in Chiapas, over six in ten couples are married. Other states with high rates of “free union” couples are Baja California (35.5%), Nayarit (34.5%), Baja California Sur (34.4%) and Quintana Roo (34.4%), a state with relatively few Catholics and a substantial indigenous population. The most Catholic state of all—Guanajuato—has the fewest “free union” couples, only 13.4%. Other states with relatively few unmarried couples are Yucatán (14.1%), Zacatecas (15.3%), Nuevo León (15.6%) and Aguascalientes (16.0%).

The census also includes three additional categories which all have increased rather rapidly since 1990. Those widowed went from 3.6% in 1990 to 4.3% in 2000 and 4.4% in 2010. This probably is a function of increasing life expectancy and people living longer on their own after their spouse dies, especially if the death resulted from an accident or violence. Separation, though still rather rare, is becoming more common, increasing from 1.2% in 1990 to 2.6% in 2000 and 3.7% in 2010. Divorce is also quite uncommon but increasing, from 0.7% in 1990 to 1.0% in 2000 and 1.5% in 2010.

Mexico’s population is aging fast

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May 232011

Mexico’s population has aged significantly in the past two decades. In 2010, the median age was 26 years meaning that there were equal numbers of people above and below age 26. The median age in 2000 was 22 years while that in 1990 was only 19 years. Obviously, the number of older adults is growing much faster than the number of young adults and children. The Federal District has the highest median age by far with 31, followed by Nuevo León, Tamaulipas and Veracruz with 27. At the other end are Chiapas with 22, Guerrero with 23, and Puebla, Guanajuato, Durango and Aguascalientes with 24.

In 2010, about 29.3% of the Mexican population was under age 15 compared to 34.1% in 2000 and 38.6% in 1990. On the other hand, the 2010 census indicates that 6.3% are over age 65, up from 5.0% in 2000 and only 4.2% in 1990. The proportion in this older age group increased 50% in the past two decades. These changes are quite dramatic and represent major demographic change. The trend is expected to continue and have significant implications for education and elder care systems.

The group in the middle, those between ages 15 and 65, has increased from 57.2% in 1990, to 60.9% in 2000 and 64.4% in 2010. This trend of increasing working age population contributes to greater economic growth as does the proportion of women entering the work force :

Of course, the growth in workforce can only contribute to economic growth if there are sufficient employment opportunities.

Mexico’s current age-sex structure is graphically presented in the 2010 population pyramid depicted in an earlier post:

Projecting Mexico’s population: when, if ever, will it stop growing?

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May 172011

Between 2000 and 2010, Mexico’s population grew over 15% from 97.362 million to 112.337 million. While this is less than the 20% growth experienced between 1990 and 2000, it is still relatively fast. Will Mexico’s population ever stop growing? To answer such questions, demographers make population projections based on rates of births, deaths and net migration.

The most recent official population projection available from the Mexican Government’s CONAPO (Spanish acronym for National Population Commission) website estimates the Mexican population from 1990 to 2050. It estimates that the population will peak at 130.3 million in 2044 and decline gradually thereafter. This projection is many years old and does not incorporate the data from the 2010 Mexican census nor the impact on immigration of the employment recession in the USA.

In an attempt to get a better handle on Mexico’s future population dynamics until 2050, we conducted a simplified update of the CONAPO projections by using the 2010 census figures, more current net migration figures and adjusted natural population growth rates. Given the uncertain future of job opportunities in the USA for Mexican immigrants, we make the very simple assumption that net immigration from Mexico in the future will remain at 203,000 per year, the most recent figure available. (Pew Hispanic Center, “Mexican Immigrants: How Many Come? How Many Leave?” July 22, 2009, Washington, D.C.) The Pew numbers are limited to net Mexican migration to the USA, but that migration stream represents almost all Mexican migrants.

To obtain the correct 2010 census figure, the CONAPO values for natural population increase need to be upped by about 10%, an increase of only 0.122 percentage points in 2011 (from 1.222% to 1.344%), and progressively less in subsequent years. Using these two adjustments, we estimate that Mexico’s population will peak at 140.5 million in 2047. This is more than ten million more than the original CONAPO projection on 130.3 million.

With higher net emigration, the population peak will be lower and arrive earlier. For example, if net migration is set at 360,000 per year (the average for 2011 through 2050 used in the CONAPO projection, and about 66% of the net migration in 2005 before the recession), the population will peak at 134.5 million in 2043.

Without a doubt, accurate forecasts of net migration are needed for reliable population forecasting. If the CONAPO rate of natural increase is upped by only 5%, (instead of 10%), to 1.283% in 2011, the population will peak at 135.2 million in 2044. The compounding of this change of about one twentieth of one percent results in a change of over five million in Mexico’s eventual peak population.

Until CONAPO, or some other reputable demographic agency, makes a new population projection for Mexico, we can probably safely say only that Mexico’s population will peak at between 135 and 140 million sometime between 2040 and 2050.

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Why did CONAPO underestimate Mexico’s population by almost two million people? Mexico’s changing population dynamics

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May 122011

Making population projections is risky business. Birth and death rate trends can change unexpectedly. Perhaps more difficult to forecast accurately, in Mexico’s case, are international migration rates. The most recent official population projection available from the Mexican Government’s CONAPO (Spanish acronym for National Population Commission) website estimates that the Mexican population will peak at 130.3 million in 2044, before declining gradually thereafter. However, this projection is many years old, and does not incorporate the data from the 2010 Mexican census, nor the impact on immigration of the employment recession in the USA.

CONAPO projected that Mexico’s total population in 2010 would be only 110,619,340, about 1.7 million fewer than the 2010 census figure of 112,336,538. Their estimate for net migration for 2005 to 2009 was 2,012,904, which is quite close to the more recent Pew Hispanic Center figure of 2,036,000 (“Mexican Immigrants: How Many Come? How Many Leave?” July 22, 2009). The Pew numbers are limited to net Mexican migration to the USA, but that migration stream represents almost all Mexican migrants.

However, the two sources have very different values for individual years. The CONAPO net migration projection gradually increased from 400,000 in 2005 to 405,000 in 2009, peaking at 406,000 in 2011 and gradually declining to 303,000 in 2050. The more current Pew estimates reached 547,000 in 2006-2007, before declining to 374,000 for 2007-2008 and only 203,000 for 2009-2009. Current evidence and continued lack of real job opportunities for Mexicans in the USA suggests that net migration has stayed at about this level for the past few years.

The CONAPO projection forecasts that the Mexican rate of natural population increase would decline gradually from 1.39% per year in 2005 to 0.06% per year in 2050. The average of the values they used for 2005 to 2010 was 1.313% per year. Using the actual 2010 census figure and the Pew migration numbers, we calculate that the actual average rate of natural increase for 2005 to 2010 was 1.443%. This suggests that the actual rates of natural increase were about 10% higher than the values used in the CONAPO projection. Apparently, birth rates in Mexico did not decline as fast as expected by CONAPO, consequently their estimate of Mexico’s 2010 population was significantly less than the census figure.

In a later post, we will attempt to update the existing CONAPO projection using the 2010 census figure, more recent net migration values and adjusted natural increase rates.

Fertility decline not as fast as expected, but faster in some areas of Mexico than others

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May 092011

Data from the 2010 census indicate that the fertility rate did not decline as fast in the last decade as previously expected. On the other hand, the actual reduction was significant and consistent with Mexico’s demographic transition which will lead it to zero natural population growth by mid-century. See our 15 May 2010 post: Mexico’s demographic transition and flirtation with overpopulation.

At mid-decade Mexico’s National Population Council (CONAPO) projected that the total fertility rate would decline to an average of 2.1 children per women for the 2010 census. The new census data indicate that the fertility rate for 2009 was actually 2.4 compared to 2.9 in 1999. This decline is still significant but not quite as rapid as previously expected.

Fertility rates vary greatly for different areas of the country. Like many other socio-economic variables, fertility is closely related to community size. It declines systematically with increasing community size. Rural areas (localities of less than 2,500 population) had the highest rate of 2.9 in 2009, equal to the national level in 1999. If this ten year lag relationship continues, we might expect the fertility rate in rural areas in 2019 to be equal to the 2009 national rate of 2.4. The fertility rate in rural areas declined the fastest in the past decade, a full 24% from their 3.8 rate in 1999.

Towns between 2,500 and 15,000 dropped 16% from 3.1 to 2.6. Small cities between 15,000 and 100,000 declined by 14% from 2.8 to 2.4, the national average. For cities of over 100,000 the 2009 rate was 2.1 (the theoretical replacement level), compared to 2.4 in 1999.

The Federal District has the lowest fertility rate by far, for example women between age 35 and 40 have had an average of 1.8 children compared to the national average of 2.5. Using this measure, other states with low fertility levels include Nuevo León with 2.3, followed by Baja California Sur, Colima, State of Mexico, Morelos, Quintana Roo and Yucatán with 2.4. The highest fertility rates are in Chiapas and Guerrero where women between age 35 and 40 have had 3.2 children on average, followed by Oaxaca with 2.9.

The demographic transition model and its application to Mexico is described in depth in chapter nine of “Geo-Mexico; the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico”.

Mexico’s population keeps growing, but at a slower pace

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May 052011

The 2010 census indicates that since 1960 Mexico’s population has more than tripled to 112.3 million. However, the growth rate between 2000 and 2010 (1.4% per year) is less than half the 3.4% rate of increase experienced in the 1960s. If Mexico’s population had continued to grow at 3.4% since 1960, it would have been over 186 million by now!

Population growth has slowed because the fertility rate has declined dramatically. The total number of children born per women dropped from about 8 in 1960 to 2.9 in 1999 and 2.4 in 2009. It is expected to reach the replacement level of 2.1 by 2010. The fertility rate dropped in the last ten years for women in all age groups. It dropped an impressive 54% for women aged 45 to 49 and 28% for women aged 40 to 45. However, women in these age groups have relatively few babies. Fertility in the prime childbearing age groups; 20 to 24, 25 to 29 and 30 to 35; decreased by 15%, 18% and 15% respectively. The smallest drop was 12% for females ages 15 to 19, suggesting that the incidence of teen pregnancies may remain an issue.

Increased female education is closely linked with fertility reduction. The 2010 census indicates that women with university education had an average of 1.1 children, whereas those who completed secondary school had 1.6 children. Those completing only primary school had 3.3 children, while women with no formal  education had 3.5 children. Because these women may have additional children in the future, these numbers are not directly comparable to the total fertility rates referred to earlier.

With female education levels rising and total fertility rates declining, worries about “overpopulation” in Mexico do not seem warranted at this time. As we have stressed elsewhere, the really significant characteristic of Mexico’s population is no longer how rapidly total numbers are growing, but how rapidly the average age is rising as the population ages. An earlier post here includes a link to a pdf file showing Mexico’s predicted population pyramid for 2050, which shows just how fast Mexico’s population will age if present trends continue. The changing age distribution will require substantial shifts in public services over the next 20-30 years.

Related posts include:

Several chapters of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico discuss additional insights into Mexico’s population dynamics and trends, and their implications for future development. Buy your copy today!

May 032011

Somewhat surprisingly, the number of Mexicans speaking indigenous languages has increased significantly in the past 20 years. In 2010 there were 6.7 million indigenous speakers over age five compared to 6.0 million in 2000 and 5.3 million in 1990.

There are two factors contributing to this finding:

  • First, indigenous speakers are teaching their children to speak their indigenous language.
  • Second, indigenous speakers have higher than average birth rates.

The number of indigenous speakers that cannot speak Spanish decreased slightly from 1.0 million in 2000 to 981,000 in 2010.

The most widely spoken indigenous languages are:

  • Nahuatl, with 1,587,884 million speakers, followed by
  • Maya (796,405),
  • Mixteca (494,454),
  • Tzeltal (474,298).
  • Zapotec (460,683), and
  • Tzotzil (429,168).

[Note: language names used here include all minor variants of the particular language]

About 62% of all indigenous language speakers live in rural areas, communities with under 2,500 inhabitants. Nearly 20% live in small towns between 2,500 and 15,000, while about 7% in larger towns, and 11% live in cities of over 100,000 population. Indigenous speaking areas tent to have low levels of development. Over 73% of the population In Mexico’s 125 least developed municipalities speak an indigenous language.

States with the most indigenous speakers tend to be in the south. In Oaxaca, almost 34% of the population over age three speak an indigenous language followed by Yucatán (30%), Chiapas (27%), Quintana Roo (16%) and Guerrero and Hidalgo (15%). States with the fewest indigenous speakers are Aguascalientes and Coahuila (0.2%), Guanajuato 90.53%) and Zacatecas (0.4%).

A total of 15.7 million Mexicans over age three consider themselves indigenous. Surprisingly, 9.1 million of these cannot speak any indigenous language. There are 400,000 Mexicans who can speak an indigenous language, but do not consider themselves indigenous.

Related posts:

Chapter 10 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico is devoted to Mexico’s indigenous peoples. Many other chapters of Geo-Mexico include significant discussion of the cultural and development issues facing Mexico’s indigenous groups.

Which Mexican states attract most migrants?

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Apr 252011

Mexico-USA international migration remains a hot topic in any “Geography of Mexico” program. But international migration is not the only form of migration in Mexico; internal (domestic) migration is also important. This includes people moving house within the same town or city, as well as those who move to a different town, city or state.

The most rapid period of urban growth in Mexico coincided with high rates of rural-urban migration. As the proportion of the total population residing in rural populations fell, the proportion of the population living in urban areas (defined in Mexico as settlements with a population exceeding 2,500) rose, a trend called urbanization.

Rural-urban migration within Mexico has slowed down dramatically in recent years, but internal migration is still very common, with increasing numbers of Mexicans opting to live in mid-sized cities (those with a population between 100,000 and 1,000,000). In many cases, this involves a change of state, and this post examines which states in Mexico have attracted the most migrants from other states or from outside the country.

The 2010 census reveals that 18.4% of people residing in Mexico were born in another Mexican state or in a foreign country. In Quintana Roo, 54% of the residents were born outside the state. These residents were mostly attracted to Quintana Roo by the rapidly growing tourist industry in Cancún and other resorts. Almost 13% of Quintana Roo residents moved into the state within the last five years.

Over 45% of Baja California residents, 1.4 million people, were born elsewhere, and almost 6% moved into the state in the last five years. These migrants were probably attracted to the growing employment opportunities in Tijuana and Mexicali. Some may be waiting to try to cross illegally into the USA or have already made an unsuccessful attempt and are contemplating their next move.

Baja California Sur has almost 40% who were born elsewhere and over 13% who moved into the state within the past five years. These migrants were mostly attracted to jobs created in the booming tourism industry and in the associated construction sector.

About 37% of residents in the State of Mexico, 5.6 million people, were born elsewhere. Migration to the State of Mexico is mostly linked to the suburbanization and counter-urbanization of Mexico City. Between 2005 and 2010, about half a million people moved out of Mexico City and over 380,000 of these settled in the State of Mexico and an additional 38,000 moved to Hidalgo which is part of Metropolitan Mexico City. (For the areas involved, see Is Mexico City sprawl a sign of a future megalopolis?) Similar processes are also taking place in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city: Population change in the Guadalajara Metropolitan Area.

States with rather low income levels and slow economic growth attracted few migrants. Only 3.6% of Chiapas residents were born outside the state, with 1.2% moving into Chiapas in the last five years. Interestingly, Chiapas also has one the lowest rates of out-migration. Other states with relatively few migrants are Guerrero, Oaxaca, Yucatán and Tabasco.

Internal migration in Mexico is the focus of chapter 25 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Ask your library to buy a copy of this handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography today! Better yet, order your own copy…

Apr 142011

Foreigners are defined as individuals born in another country, but residing in Mexico. According to the recent census, almost a million (961,121) foreigners were living in Mexico in mid-2010. In 2000 there were only about half as many (492,617). Among foreigners, there were slightly more males than females (50.6% versus 49.4%). Under this definition, children born in the USA of two Mexican parents are considered foreigners if they currently live in Mexico. Unfortunately, the data currently available do not enable us to separate these foreign-born Mexicans from other foreigners who were raised in other countries and moved to Mexico to follow their professions or retire. Furthermore, they do not help us answer a question we have been asked dozens of times in recent years, namely, “How many Canadians and how many Americans have retired in Mexico?”

Though almost a million foreigners sounds like an impressive number, Mexico has relatively few foreign born residents compared to its two northern neighbors. Foreigners constitute only 0.86% of the 2010 Mexican population, compared to 21% Canada and 13% in the USA.

Where in Mexico do most foreigners reside? Baja California has the most foreigners with almost 123,000, followed by Jalisco (84,000), Chihuahua (80,000), and the Federal District (72,000). Tlaxcala has the fewest, with just over 3,200, followed by Tabasco with about 4,500.

The states with the highest percentage of foreigners are mostly along the US border. Baja California leads with 3.9%, followed by Chihuahua (2.3%), Tamaulipas (1.9%), and Sonora (1.7%). Interestingly, the other border state, Coahuila, has relatively few foreigners, only 0.8%. Other states with relatively large percentages are either historical sources of immigrants to the USA or retirement havens like Colima (1.44%), Quintana Roo (1.40%), Nayarit (1.35%), Zacatecas (1.22%), Jalisco (1.14%) and Michoacán (1.10%).

Tabasco has the fewest foreigners as a percentage with only 0.20%, followed by Tlaxcala (0.28%), Veracruz (0.30%), the State of México (0.33%) and Yucatán (0.36%). Yucatán is a surprise on this list because there is a very large and active foreign retirement community there. Perhaps many of these retirees were away from Mexico when the census was taken in the summer of 2010.

What states experienced the largest increases in foreigners in the last decade? The number of foreigners grew fastest in those states with relatively few foreigners in 2000, namely Hidalgo (up 402% over the decade), Tlaxcala (333%), Tabasco (281%), and Veracruz and Oaxaca (both with 272%).

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