Friday, April 4, 2014

Week 3: The Demographic Transition

Enabling people to live longer and therefore lead generally more productive lives is a fantastic achievement for everyone involved (individual countries and their governments, health organizations, the scientific community, etc), but what kind of effects does it have on societies?  This post will focus on summarizing the demographic transition as I understand it and its impact on countries.

Prior to industrialization, developed countries, much like the low income countries of today, had high fertility and mortality rates (particularly in children).  Progress in extending life expectancy in those nations happened relatively slowly.  But eventually, the medical and scientific communities of that time began to discover, develop, produce and distribute the vaccines, medications and widespread education campaigns that successfully halted so many of the diseases causing premature deaths.  Around the same time, more people had also started to move into urban areas where they could access services including healthcare and education more easily.  As a result, these populations began seeing lower mortality rates, higher life expectancies and more children living into adulthood.   

This was eventually followed by a reduction in fertility rates.  Couples started to realize that they no longer needed to have so many children because more were surviving.  For those living in the city, the reduced space in urban dwellings further encouraged smaller family size to avoid overcrowding, especially since there was no family farm for offspring to work on.  Women also had more opportunities to enter the workforce in the city and therefore became less likely to spend all of their time at home raising several children.  

However, because mortality rates decreased prior to birth rates, there was a natural population increase or bulge during the adjustment period (in other words, high fertility rates combined with improved child survival resulted in a large generation of people with less-populated age groups on either side).  This is what is known as the "demographic transition".  

Because the changes in death and birth rates associated with the demographic transition occurred gradually in developed countries, those societies had some time to adjust and stabilize their population growth.  However, many developing countries are now having significant improvements in survival rates thrust upon them much more suddenly (from the lessons learned in developed countries) and it has taken longer for birth rates to be adjusted accordingly.  Despite fewer infant and child deaths, couples often continue to have several children and the result has been dramatic population growth in those areas.

For example, here are the components (crude birth rate or CBR and crude death rate CDR) of the demographic transitions of Sweden and Mauritius plotted over time for comparison:

(Montgomery, n.d.)

Notice how the changes happened much more slowly over a long period of time in Sweden, a now developed country, compared to Mauritius which saw remarkably sudden and dramatic improvements in death rates in a short time frame.

So why do couples in developing countries have much larger families even in cases when survival is increasing?  Well, there are many reasons.  It may be due to a lack of education or access to family planning services and methods.  Having many children is viewed by some cultures as a sign of male virility or women fulfilling their wifely duties in accordance with religious teachings.  Other couples simply want large families because that is how they were raised, that is the lifestyle they grew up with.  Others still may not trust that their children will make it to adulthood and therefore have many children to ensure that at least some do.  

The pattern of demographic transition set by the western countries dictates that fertility will eventually go down in developing countries.  Although I'm not entirely sure that I believe that it is always an absolute certainty, especially if very strict cultural traditions or religion interfere.  China had to force its population to lower its fertility rate through the one child policy, so it's difficult to know what would have happened if the process had been allowed to proceed uninterrupted.  It is also difficult to say whether such a strict policy will have helped or hindered future generations.

On the flip side, fertility rates in most developed countries have dropped below 2.1, which is the rate considered to be representative of stable growth (just a little over the rate of replacement) for various reasons.  Raising a child in rich countries has become quite expensive so for many it's a cost issue.  People are also focusing much more on building successful careers in highly competitive markets, traveling, leisure activities and getting higher education.  As a result, people are waiting longer to settle down and have families, leaving their window for opportunity rather small.  As public knowledge grows about the ecological pressures and impacts of overpopulation, individuals concerned with being environmentally and socially responsible are increasingly feeling the need to limit their number of biological children.

Here are examples of typical families in countries at either end of the demographic transition, developed countries like those in western Europe compared to developing countries like those in sub Saharan Africa at the present time: 

Example of a typical family in a developed country                     Example of a typical family in a developing country
   late in its demographic transition                                           prior to, or early in its demographic transition

The shapes of these family trees ∧∨ are echoed in the demographic pyramids of the countries in which these family structures are the norm.

Let's take for example, Germany and Ethiopia:

(CIA 2014c)
(CIA 2014a)

Look at where the highest numbers of people are concentrated (or for lack of a better term the population bulge) for each country.  Western countries like Germany who went through the early stages of the demographic transition several decades ago have largely older populations, with most people on their way out of the workforce.  Developing countries like Ethiopia on the other hand have much younger populations.  In fact, the three most populous age groups in Ethiopia are under the age of fourteen.

Neither of these circumstances are ideal in their current state.  Both the elderly and the young are dependent groups that put pressure on the smaller working population to support them, either indirectly through social systems or directly through familial responsibilities.  Our professor did point out that the elderly can at least contribute to society in other ways through caring for grandchildren, volunteering, etc.  In fact, my grandparents looked after me as a child so that my mother did not have to pay for child care.  But even so, older people are far more reliant on health care services and most (if not all) of the countries with large aging populations do not yet seem adequately prepared for the increased pressure that will be put on their health systems in the near future.

For countries with very young populations, there is a silver lining in the form of great potential for future development and economic growth if they can make their way into the next phase of the demographic transition.  GDP will initially decrease as the economy struggles under the weight of the population increase, particularly with such a large number of young dependents (Cervellati & Sunde 2011).  However, if the majority of young people make it to working age, they can join the labor force, provided that there are employment opportunities available for them.  A larger working-age population means a potentially more productive society with more services and products available for trade, sale and/or export.  As the society becomes more productive, more money enters into circulation within the country's economy through increased income, spending, savings and investment.  The increased man power, improvements in health conditions and economic growth can all be utilized to fuel a considerable jolt in development, much like what many middle income countries in transition are currently experiencing.   Take China for instance:

(CIA 2014b)

If there is an imbalance in the age distribution of a country, the current shape of China's population pyramid <> is ideal for driving a nation's economy into high gear.  Over 55% of China's people are between the ages of 25 and 64, the most productive years of an individual's life.  Furthermore, another 15% of its population is between the ages of 15 and 24, meaning that they are either on their way into the workforce or have already started working part or full-time.

China has certainly taken advantage of its powerful workforce, becoming the biggest exporter in the world in 2010 and the second largest economy after the U.S.A in 2012.  Assuming that it continues at this rate, China certainly won't be considered a developing country for much longer.  Of course with the decrease in its fertility rate, it will eventually have to overcome the same problems facing high income countries in the near future with their aging populations, only a couple of decades later.  The argument does exist that China's population is aging faster than it can become a wealthy nation that can cope with this change.  But, it still has some time and has made such immense progress developing its economy and infrastructure so quickly that it may accomplish that feat yet.  Either way, it is certainly far better off than it was.  

China is not the only Asian country that has benefited from its demographic transition.  As part of what has become known as the "East Asian Miracle" countries in that area including Japan, Singapore and the Republic of Korea as well as China, saw the proportion of working-aged people rise from 1.3 to 2.1 between 1965 and 1985.  From 1965 to 2005, the average growth in real income per capita across those countries was around 4.8 per year (3.72; 4.32; 5.51; and 5.52, respectively), of which Bloom and Finlay (2009) attributed 10-51% (depending on the country) to changes in population.  Other East Asian countries that have experienced tremendous economic growth include Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Countries with aging populations do have options to consider, such as increasing immigration for working-aged individuals from countries with younger populations and/or raising the age of retirement (something that is likely to be introduced in Germany soon according to an article we read in class).  But those have requirements and problems of their own: the country must have jobs to offer migrants and senior citizens could be left quite disgruntled by the idea of prolonging their careers instead of enjoying their golden years.

On a personal note, I have to say that living in a country with an aging population is quite worrisome.  There is fear of the unknown, of what will happen when a small working population is faced with supporting both the country's young people (including their own children) and a large elderly population.  I guess it worries me because I will belong to that working group and just thinking of the pressure that will be placed on us is overwhelming.  For that and many other reasons (environmental sustainability being among them), we have decided to do our best to limit our number of children to two.  We love children, but we cannot see ourselves being able to afford any more than that if we have to support ourselves and our parents as well.  We also do not want our children's grandchildren and great-grandchildren to be placed in the same situation that we are about to find ourselves in.



Bloom DE & Finlay JE 2009, ‘Demographic change and economic growth in Asia’, Asian economic policy review, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 45-64.  Available from:
<>. [6 May 2014].

Cervellati M & Sunde S 2011, ‘Disease and development: The role of life expectancy reconsidered’, Economic Letters, vol. 113, no. 3, pp. 269-272.   Available from:
<>. [4 April 2014].

CIA 2014a, The World Factbook: Africa: Ethiopia.  Available from: <>. [4 April 2014].

CIA 2014b, The World Factbook: East and Southeast Asia: China.  Available from: <>. [4 April 2014].

CIA 2014c, The World Factbook: Europe: Germany.  Available from: <>. [4 April 2014].

Montgomery K, n.d., Demographic Change, Sweden (1735-2000) and Mauritius (1900-2000), The Demographic Transition.  Available from: <>. [4 April 2014].

No comments:

Post a Comment