A huge and fast-growing group of people are poised to take their place in the economic mainstream over the next decade, as producers, consumers, employees, and entrepreneurs. This group’s impact on the global economy will be at least as significant as that of China and India’s billion-plus populations. But its members have not yet attracted the level of attention they deserve.
If China and India each represent 1 billion emerging participants in the global marketplace, then this “third billion” is made up of women, in both developing and industrialized nations, whose economic lives have previously been stunted, underleveraged, or suppressed. These women, who have been living or contributing at a subsistence level, are now entering the mainstream for the first time. We estimate that about 870 million of them will do so by 2020, with the number conceivably passing 1 billion during the following decade. Their presence as economic actors will be widely felt, because they have long been overrepresented in the ranks of subsistence agriculture and other resource-based forms of work. As they move into knowledge work, in domains ranging from manufacturing to medicine to education to information technology, their sheer numbers will hasten the integration of the regions where they live into the larger economy.
To date, the potential of women as economic players has been unrealized. The reasons became evident recently in a Booz & Company analysis of data from the International Labour Organization (ILO), a United Nations constituent that tracks global workforce statistics. Globally, many women could be considered “not prepared” (lacking sufficient education, usually defined as secondary school); others are “not enabled” (lacking support from families and communities); and a significant number are both. The specific characteristics of these two major constraints vary widely, according to local social, cultural, and economic conditions. But as the constraints are alleviated — through increased migration to cities, the expansion of educational opportunities, changes in local laws and cultural norms, and investments in infrastructures that support greater workforce participation — the Third Billion’s movement into the middle class will accelerate. The pattern of this emergence will probably shift from a graduated incline to a graph that looks more like a hockey stick.
We derived the Third Billion figure by combining the estimated number of “not prepared” and “not enabled” women between the ages of 20 and 65 in 2020, using data from the ILO. (See Exhibit 1.) Most of these women — about 822 million — live in emerging and developing nations; about 47 million live in North America, western Europe, and Japan. (Some might argue that the women of China and India should not be included, since they are part of the first 2 billion; if those women are omitted, the number of women meeting our criteria would still reach 525 million by 2020. Counting those still under 20 and newborn female children, it could easily expand to a billion within the following generation.) No matter how the numbers are counted, a billion or more women are clearly about to participate more fully in the mainstream economy. This represents a significant force in such regions as Latin America, Asia, the Pacific Rim, the Middle East, eastern and central Europe, and Africa.
The Multiplier Effect
The last decade has shown the extraordinary effect that huge population segments can have when they are integrated into the global economy (as in China and India). Newly enabled consumers and workers serve as an economic multiplier, creating vast markets and increasing the size and quality of the talent pool. In periods of relative prosperity, their aspirations and persistence are engines for growth. In slower periods, they represent pockets of economic activity that ameliorate the impact of decline. For example, the growth of emerging consumer markets in China and India helped stabilize the global system during the downturn of 2008–09.