This post started as a comment to rosehadshar's wonderful post What happens on the average day? which I would recommend reading first, as this is partly an extension to her post. The cosmopolitan in me shares with her an interest in what's going on in the world, and this post hopefully serves to clarify another piece of that for others interested in this unique species we are a part of.  Below is a summary, and below that you can find some more thoughts on this post, and the various ways I came to these results, included to hopefully provide some further epistemic clarity and make it easy for anyone who might wish to extend this work.

TLDR I tried to crunch the numbers to find out what the global population, at a general group level, is doing on a given day, and here are my rough results:

  • 42% are going to work
  • 13% are going to school
  • 10% are retired
  • 9% are under 5 and just chilling enjoying life
  • 8% (less confident in this) are perusing tertiary education  
  • 4% are children of school age not going to school
  • 3% are unemployed
  • 11% are mysterious little creatures I can't account for

Now, if it wasn't clear already, there are varying levels of possible depth here, and I don't have the time to figure out the most specific level, that is, what each of the possible activities for a day are for all those in the world and what percentage of people are doing each for what percentage of the time (though I think this would be a wonderfully informative project and would love to see it). But it's my hope that we can still get a rough and interesting picture by viewing this at a higher level, breaking the population into general groups based on people's main waking hour allotment that hopefully capture a general shared way of moving about the world (i.e. those that work on an average day are doing radically different things, but are all spending a large chunk of their waking hours doing some task to try to make money, which seems to still be a coherent category, if very broad and amorphous).  So with this in mind, let's get down to the nitty gritty: just what is everyone up to?

From rosehadshar's numbers:

  • 3.3 billion people (roughly 42% of the global population) go to work
  • 990 million children (roughly 13% of the population) go to school. 

So we know that roughly 55% of the population is working or going to school, so what are the other 45% up to?

To estimate this, I started with this breakdown of the world population by age that I found from 2021[1]

The above in percentages:

  • 9% are Under 5
  • 17% are 5-14
  • 15% are 15-24
  • 49% are 25-64
  • 10% are 65+

The general arc was then taking this data of the general age breakdown and seeing if I could glean any immediate numbers on what some of the world is doing just from knowing their age.

Under 5: An obviously place to start seems to be the Under 5 group. Given that six seems to be the standard age kids start to go to school in Europe and China,  and five in the US, it seems roughly safe to conclude that the 9% of the population Under 5 is largely doing what you'd expect: just living life and being taken care of. So this provides us our first number of further knowledge to add, adding to make it such that we now know what 64% are up to, only 36% to go.

Unemployed: The next group that came to mind was the unemployed, a group that I spent a lot of time painstakingly trying to calculate numbers for[2] by using the percentage of total labor force numbers, to then find a convient raw number of unemployed people from a legitimate source after much search. 214.21 million people were unemployed in 2021, making this group roughly 3% of the total population (a number that agrees with one of my estimates from my first attempt[2]). Cool, now we're at 67%, where to next?

Retirement: Well naturally I continue up the ladder to the next biggest general group I can think of: retirees. A glance at Wikipedia gives me a sense that retirement age ranges somewhat significantly (from 55 in Sri Lanka to 68 in the Netherlands), and I know that assumptions about what people in this age range are doing is more fraught than the Under 5 category because, well, they have options as to what they are doing (they could continue working is a salient example). But based on how 65+ Americans choose to spend their time, it would seem like < 6% of them are working, largely spending their time on things such as household work and "leisure activities", and though I certainly would like to see this replicated in data from other countries, I think the retirement statistics from before taken with this can give us mild confidence that retirement is largely its own class separate from other groups, identified by those in the 65+ category, so 10%. So horary! We've now made our way to 77%, but this is where things get a bit harder.

To recap, we've covered Under 5, we've covered kids going to school, we've covered those working, we've covered the unemployed, and we've covered the retired, so it would seem we've hit most of the large categories of "ways people are focusing their day to day life".  My next intuition was that the children going to school number was at first capturing my mental "all the people getting education number" but on reflection this number likely doesn't capture those getting tertiary education and such, so there we turn next.

Children Out of School: But wait! There was a surprise! As I went to source rosehadshar numbers for children in education, he also had this other interesting category in the spreadsheet of "Children Out of School" which seems to apply to a group of about 262 million children of school age who  for some reason are not currently going. So here was a bonus 4% (note, this number was from 2014, so I had to use the population of 7.318 billion for calculations) that wasn't even expected, bringing us to 81%.

Tertiary Education (college mostly): Back to the point though,  this exploration soon proved to be the hardest yet, as there seems to be no straightforward answer to this question easily found on the internet. I first found this Our World In Data chart which expresses "Gross enrollment ratio in tertiary education" which means the "total enrollment in tertiary education, regardless of age, expressed as a percentage of the total population of the five-year age group following on from secondary school leaving". Perhaps I'm missing something here, but it seems hard to work back to this number as a percentage of the global population, because I don't have (and can't seem to find) more precise estimates for the distributions of age in the general 15-24 age group. We could assume it's evenly distributed across (which I have no evidence to indicate, and was part of why I threw out an earlier strain calculation[2]) which gives us roughly 8.33%, and though I wanted something more solid here (and tried to find it in the calculations here[3]).  So 8.33% (rounded to 8%) is our best estimate after spending a fair deal of time trying to figure this one out (but again, if you find better numbers please let me know in the comments, I'll be happy to amend) putting us at 89%.

Mysterious Creatures: The other 11%, I'm afraid, will have to remain a mystery, one that I would love to see explored in response to this. This was roughly done and I could easily put double the amount of time into fact checking the numbers used and following rabbit holes (i.e. does this Age dependency breakdown by young and old dependents change things? Quick math says no, it strengthens earlier conclusions, but I'd like to look at it longer to be sure). 

Anyways, a further thing I'd love to see explored here is the next step in specificity, that is, a breakdown of what exactly it is these groups are doing. To be specific: a post I'd love to see next is breaking down what sorts of things these groups are doing as percentages of parts of their days (i.e. those perusing tertiary education spend roughly 4 hours outside of class working on classwork, a highly interesting number as mine was significantly different). Not only can this help people learn more about groups we are already familiar with or part of, I think it can also move further towards the original spirit of the post, that is, getting to know more about the world that we are unfamiliar with. For instance, I'm fascinated by the School Age Children not Going to School. What are they doing on an average day? Are they working to help support a family financially? Are they on the street? What about retired people across the world? Do they replicate the trends in the US of spending a ton of time on house maintenance and such? 

Like rosehadshar I'm fascinated by learning about what others do, and hope this can fill you in a bit more, and inspire you to go even further than I have and carry the torch another step, I'd love to hear what you find.

  1. ^

    The World in Data breakdown I draw from is from 2021, so I use the population estimate for then throughout, which is roughly 7.91 billion. 

  2. ^

    It would seem that roughly 6% (as a percentage of the total labor force) are unemployed, which is helpful, but when one realizes that "a percentage of the total labor force" is defined as those 16 and older, it gets a bit trickier. We know this rules out the 9% from the Under 5 category, and the 17% from the 5-14 category, but its somewhat unclear what portion from the 15-24 category we should include. 15 is approximately 1/10th of this age range, so we could assume that the portion is evenly distributed across the range (a somewhat dubious assumption that I feel confident is not exactly right but that I hope is approximately right, and that I would gladly correct if I had more time to find the exact numbers here). This means that 27.5% (9 + 17 + (1/10 * 15)) is the category excluded, so the labor force should be 6% of the remaining 72.5% is the portion of the population unemployed, or roughly 4% (0.06 * 72.5). I tried to check this by separately seeking out an estimate of the total global workforce, which, under the UN's definition of labor force which "comprises people ages 15 and older who work" including people who are currently employed, those unemployed but seeking work, and first-time job-seekers. So it differs slightly in parameters, but the estimate here of 3.46 billion leads to an estimate of 6% of 3.46 billion, which is 207.6 million, which is 2.6 or 3%, which is a different answer, so now I'm confused.

  3. ^

    I finally found a projection that seems more solid, which estimates roughly 841 million people to have attained post-secondary education globally, but this is meant to capture a group that could range anywhere from a masters (1 year) to a PHD (up to 6 years), making it hard to again make any good estimate beyond just knowing that roughly 11% of the population has completed tertiary education. I digress and revert back to the somewhat dubious 8.33%.

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