A New Paradigm For Demography

Rosa Linda G. Valenzona
January 8, 2009
Reproduced with Permission

Demography as a science has been demand driven by ideologies ever since Thomas Malthus wrote his famous essay. These ideologies which were mainly created to justify population control looked at the relationship of population and economics from the consumption. This approach naturally the highlighted constraints is material resources to wrongly lead to the conclusion that population growth ought to be curtailed. Hence demography has focused on the practicalities of understanding the natural factors underlying population growth in order to determine how to curb it. This paper aims to show how these ideologies failed in explaining the real relationship between population and economics and the dire consequences of policies based on these ideologies. It also attempts to present a new paradigm for understanding the real relationship between population and economics.

Malthusian Ideology

It is ironic that in 1798 when Malthus proposed his famous proposition: "Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio" England was on the verge of the Agricultural Revolution. Historians claim that it was this increase in agricultural productivity that made possible the population explosion that provided England the labor force required for its industrial revolution. In the academic discussion that ensued Malthus never presented a satisfying proof to his theorem; nevertheless his has been a legacy that has come down to the ages.

This claim that population grows exponentially while food production grows arithmetically can easily be proven false by looking at world percapita food production in caloric terms. The data clearly shows how food production has not only kept up with population growth. The green revolution has improved caloric intake to the extent of certainly making it possible for everyone to have a healthy diet. This is basically the reason why Ehrlich's dire predictions of famine and hunger killing people by the thousands never took place. Clearly if there are parts of the world where serious malnutrition persists; but this is due to politics, power struggle, and other problems that cause a failure in the distribution; it is never due to over-population.

Population Trap

It is to the credit of the population control industry that the Malthusian ideology survives in spite of such a clear proof of its invalidity. It has survived by dint of developing a number of variants. One of the most popular was the population trap - the claim that third world countries are entrapped in a fast growing population whose subsistence absorbs all their resources leaving hardly anything for financing their development. This has become the mantra the population control industry to the poor third world countries - "if you want to develop have less children". Fertility in many third world countries has significantly gone down in the past fifty years and if trends persist it will keep going down in the next fifty years. The graph provided uses data from the UN World Population Prospects, 2006 Revision which can be downloaded from the net. In spite of the fall in fertility poverty persists in these countries. Population control has not been the panacea it was touted to be for poverty. Fertility fall is not the key to escaping the poverty trap.

Demographic Dividend

A modified variant to the Malthusian model is the claim that countries whose fertilities have fallen are generate a labor force that is freed from the burdens of child-bearing therefore capable of redirecting resources from child rearing would to finance development. However it would now appear that this strategy has serious setbacks.

This can be simply illustrated by the Singaporean experience. When Lee Kuan Yu successfully implemented a fertility reduction program so effectively that Singapore's TFR dove from 1960 onwards. The graph above shows how steeply its TFR fell compared to other countries in Asia. By the 1980's this fertility reduction generated a labor force freed from the burdens of raising children. The economic development of Singapore was credited to his success and Singapore came to be considered one of the upcoming tiger economies of Asia in the 80's.

However, it did not take long for the final outcome of this fertility reduction to finally play out. When the birth cohorts started shrinking a momentary bulge results making the working age group dominate the population structure. But using the UN projection helps us to see what will be the final outcome of this demogaphic trend by 2030. Eventually the shrinking birth cohorts impacts on the age structure bringing about a shrinking labor force. What was formerly touted to be a great asset has become a great burden. With the passing of years the demographic dividend becomes a demographic burden of aging population inadequately supported by a shrinking labor force. People who spent out their reproductive years unburdened by children will enter their old age leaving behind a shrinking labor force that will be unable to generate the resources to support them in their retirement years. Moreover since Lee Kuan Yu exercised his leadership more successfully among the ethnic Chinese of Singapore his policies have changed the racial composition of Singapore by eroding on the ethnic Chinese majority. How this will affect the political stability of Singapore remains to be seen.

Demographic Transition Theory

Another theory purported to relate population and economics is the Demographic Transition Theory. It is a historical approach premised on the impact of development on human ability to survive. According to this theory at the early stage of development the population is stable (minimum growth) when mortality and fertility are both very high. At the onset of development new health technology brings down mortality and the growing gap between mortality and fertility creates a population explosion. Eventually the onset of development and the improved survival of children persuades people to reduce fertility. Population growth slows down and population stabilizes when fertility and mortality rates - now both low - approach equality.

This is best refuted by the European experience. The countries of Europe undoubtedly have completed the development process and by all accounts completed the demographic transition to low fertility-low mortality and therefore zero population growth. But the data belie this. It would appear that the general trend prevailing in these countries is not the stabilization of population at a level where mortality and fertility rates approach equality at a low level. The UN data shows that improved health technology has indeed brought mortality level down to a low level as of the mid 20th century. However it is predicted that even as fertility will continue to fall there will be a slow rise in mortality rates up to the middle of the 21st century. There is after all a limit to the extent that health technology can push the ceiling on life expectancy. Europe's aging population has hit this natural ceiling, hence the rise in mortality rates. Notwithstanding this fertility is predicted to continue to fall to levels lower than mortality rates. This is the fundamental reason why population implosion is inevitable.

Fertility-mortality rates stabilizing at the rate adequate to ensure population replacement is supposed to be the "rational" behavior of a society that wants to survive. European governments are attempting to raise fertility through an incentive system; but these incentives are not working. European trends show that there are many other factors that determine behavioral patterns than mere survival.

The Green Ideology

Having outlived the usefulness of the Malthusian ideology the population control industry is how shifting gears to put a Green slant into it by claiming that man is a threat to the environment hence population control should be pursued. The Greens believe that the earth's optimal population should be around 2 Billion. It would appear that this justifies the persistent pursuit of population control in spite of the dire implosion facing most countries in Europe. The problem with this ideology is that it presumes climate change to be a fact when it is still debated among academic circles. It does not seem to matter that the developed countries are responsible for most of the carbon dioxide emissions that is said to be the culprit of climate change. There seems to be such an injustice to use this ideology to blame climate change on the population growth of third world countries!

A New Paradigm Needed

The brief analysis presented above serves to highlight the inadequacy of the standard demographic analysis used by population control programs in explaining past, current and future trends. It serves to justify my claim that demography it is present state is a false science created and powered by ideologues. Demography is badly in need of a reasonable and logical framework anchored on a real understanding of the true relationship between demography and economics. Hence the need for a new paradigm.

Focus On The Family

In spite its importance rarely is the family considered a topic for academic discussion because the experience of the family is considered so common that everyone presumes to know what is a family. As it happens in many other areas of life, what is often essential escaptes the eye. At the risk of belaboring the obvious lets take a loot at the criticial function the family plays. The family is the basic unit of society but beyond the social ties binding the family it is important to understand its role as the basic economic unit, the basic demographic unit and the basic cultural unit.

The family is a natural organization since it is not a product of human artifice. It is the result of the permanent commitment of a man and the woman. Given the objective and the subjective purpose one can conclude that whatever are the reasons why men and women marry it is apparent that the objectively speaking socialization of reproduction is a demand of human nature. The human baby is more fragile offsprings in the animal kingdom. Human survival is completely dependent on the parents. On the other hand human existence is time-bound. After a productive life of fifty years or so man approaches the end of his life cycle and once again again he becomes dependent on others for his survival. Nature therefore demands that man lives out his life cycle within a family on whose care he is dependent first as a baby and later on in his senior years. In between these two extremes he "pays his dues" creating a family and supporting it with his productive output. This is normally the experience of man and it is very probably safe to say that there has never been a time in the past when man lived an existence outside of the family. This is also a strong basis for concluding that marriage has always been a part of human experience for the same reason.

And what of the family as a social unit? In artificial organizations the ties binding people to the perceived common goal is outcome of the voluntary union of wills. In the family the ties of blood and of affection that bind the members together elicit from each one the capacity for self-giving that is not matched by any other organizations. It is normal to hear mothers and fathers say: "there is nothing I will not do for the sake of my child." This is what gives families a natural synergy that effectively multiplies the outcome of family efforts. Artificial organizations have to work hard at producing this synergy.

The family is the basic demographic unit - its structure is the microcosm of the population structure. The family is the origin of all demographic phenomena - births, deaths, marriage, aging, migration, etc.. Hence any change in the structure of the family changes the structure of the population. Men and women marry for different reasons (subjective reason) but it is undeniable that nature has its own objective reason for marriage - is the continuity of the species. Any specie in the animal kingdom becomes which ceases to reproduce becomes extinct, human beings included. Nature demands the socialization of human reproduction (through marriage) as the human offspring is more fragile than other living organisms. Likewise any qualitative change in the family's capacity to survive (through better nutrition, health care, etc.) changes its structure and consequently produce a change in society's demographic structure.

The family is the seedbed of culture - defining a specific way of life in all its dimensions - social, economic, spiritual-religious, etc. Through the family a specific way of life together with the whole gamut of work ethics, spiritual values, attitudes, etc. passes on to the next generation. There is no need to elaborte on this topic since this is not the focus of the paper.

The family as the basic economic unit is the original primeval structure embracing individual life at both extremes of the life cycle - at birth and in old age. To ensure the individual's survival the family is equipped with the natural properties of cohesiveness and synergy permitting it to mobilize its productive powers. The family possesses all the elements of an economic unit for allocating scarce resources for managing production, distributing consumption, and undertaking saving and investing to improve productivity. Artificial economic organizations as production units are in fact mere evolutions arising from the need to specialize, the need to take advantage of economies of scale, etc. Artificial organizations draw their origin and their moving force from the need to satisfy the economic requirements of the family.

In the real world focusing on the family makes it easy to understand the interrelationship between the economic and demographic phenomena. Though child rearing is a real burden to young families, a married couple possess natural properties of cohesiveness and synergy that elicits from them the effort and sacrifice naturally required to bear and educate children. Their generosity is naturally rewarded by an economically insecure future in their old age. Likewise in this real world a couple that opts not to have children will suffer the consequences of an insecure future in their old age.

In developed countries this obvious fact is veiled by the financial system where the welfare state operates a Social Security Sytem to secure old age. Under this veiw it is difficult to realize that the Pension system is merely a financial system to ensure the transfer of resources from the working to the elderly population, a requirement to make up for the loss of cohesiveness and synergy of the family. The present pension crisis suffered by developed economies highlights the fact that for the system to work it demands an adequate proportion between the labor force and the size of the population dependent. People get the false impression that they have been relieved of the burden of bearing the children to support them in their old age.

The absence of such a pension system in poor countries induces couples to have four or five children to lighten on their children the burden of supporting their elderly years. This ensures that Ideally the birth cohort at the base will always be wider than the older cohorts. Mortality is a natural attrition that "shrinks" the older cohorts. These factors will naturally configure the population age structure to look like a triangle whose sides are smoothly sloping towards the peak. This configuration ensures that the labor force will always be growing - the cohorts joining the labor force will always be bigger that the cohorts retiring hence guaranteeing that the the elderly are adequately supported.

In the Malthusian demographic approaches exaggerated importance is given to the absolute constraints posed by the earth's resources. It is an approach that ignores or belittles some very important factors. The fact that this absolute resource constraint is still to be determined (since we keep on discovering new resources). Neither does it look at the dynamic impact of technology (we can intensify the utilization of resources, we can recycle and some common elements can become a resource). In its preoccupation with the absolutes Malthusian analysis ignores the fundamental importance of the proportion between labor force and the dependent population. In the Malthusian equation only children figured as dependents to be eliminated to make the population childless, hence more productive. The future structural impact of fertility decline on population's age structure was completely ignored.

False Science Behind Population Control

Building a science around the population control agenda premised on the Malthusian ideology focused the attention of Demography on population growth. The assumption that food production grows arithmetically and population grows exponentially was taken as a given. Under this influence Demography was practically reduced nto the science of population growth. Let us examine the population change equation:

Population Change= Births - Deaths - Migration

In this equation population change will be zero if the elements with a positive sign is equal to the elements with a negative sign. Historically the data shows that it was the decline in infant mortality that accounts for explosive population growth in the Third World in the middle of the previous century. For reasons of practicality the population control industry focused its attention on births as the control variable, since it would have been considered inhumane to allow children to keep on dying. Hence, advances in Demography as a science was pushed along the lines of understanding fertility and its determinants and no attention paid to what would happen beyond fertility decline. It failed to develop the tools for understanding systemic changes brought about by fertility reduction much less the economic consequences of these changes. This new paradigm provides tools for structural analysis three trends - growth, aging and implosion.

1. Growth Momentum:

Integrating a structural analysis to the the population change equation involves understanding how changes in this equation impacts of the population structure:

Lower infant mortality would mean improved child survival that would eventually increase the size of the reproductive population in due time and eventually bear children. Hence one concludes that the decline in infant mortality would have two effects on population growth.

first order of population change: would be represented by the number of infants who do not die.

second order of population change: will come from the children borne by the infants who survive to adult age.

This would make the final increase in population will therefore be a multiple of the initial fall in infant mortality. This multiplier effect is what gives momentum to growth. This phenomena explains the acceleration of population growth of third world countries during the 1960s and 1970s depicted in the graph. Thus in spite of the fact that fertility had began to decline as early as the 1960s population growth not only continued to grow - it even accelerated. Failing to understand this growth momentum the population control programs called for even more massive doses of repressive fertility programs.

In fact sustained improvements in nutrition and modern advances in health care and medical technology eventually had an impact on adult age groups. Going back to the equation: Population Change= Births - Deaths - Migration would help us understand how this would also fuel a positive population change and yet all of positive increase continued to be blamed on births!

2. Population Aging

Eventually health improvements led to a sustained secular rise in longevity that slowed down the attrition due to mortality and flattened the rise of the population structure towards the the peak. The second factor that contributed to population aging was the impact of fertility reduction on the age structure. As the base corhort kept shrinking and shrinking due to the persistent and rising practice of abortion and contraception the relative size of the young population fell. Consequently the increase in the relative size of the elderly population was therefore driven by two factors:

France 1950 age structure shows the effects of the two World War - note the cohorts shrunken down by war deaths. We can also see the post-war baby boom in the bloated size of the base cohort representing babies born in 1946-1950. France has always had a history of low fertility, due to its practice of passing property inheritance to the oldest male. Nevertheless the decline in fertility is apparent in its 2005 age structure which shows how serious its aging problems is as the post-war baby boomers retire in the next decade or so. Fortunately the absence of a steep decline in fertility has slowed down the decline of its labor force.

On the other hand Japan presents a different picture. Its 1960 age structure shows the impact of the postwar fertility decline. Abortion, legalized during the American occupation, became the preferred method of family planning. The rapid fertility decline transformed the age cohorts born at the turning point, in 1945-1955, into a "bulge" that "travels" upward as it grows older. When this bulge joined the labor force in the 1970s and 1980s Japan reached its economic heyday. When this bulge reached the reproductive age its babies created another "bulge" - a momentary increase in births before it reverts back to a shrinking base cohort. Comparison of the 1960 and 2005 age structure highlights the impact of improved health conditions on life expectancy on the size of the elderly population. The age cohort born in the post-war era are now transitioning into the elderly group even as the size of Japan's labor force has been shrinking representing a big challenge to the ailing Japanese economy.

Our last example is the Philippines. Its population was not ravaged significantly by WW II since it was mostly rural. Its 1950 age structure had the natural triangular configuration. Total Fertility Rate in 1950 was 7.29 children per woman while population growth was a high 2.99%. The Family Planning was introduced in the 1970s and but by 2002 only 35% of the women use modern contraceptives and a majority of 51.2% do not use any method. In spite of this Total Fertility Rate had declined to 2.98 in 2008. This fertility decline is mostly attributed to delayed marriage and birth spacing, a consequence of the improving status of women in the Philippines.

This very gradual decline in fertility gives the Philippines a different scenario distinct from the other two countries analyzed. In the first place the triangular configuration of its age structure does not reflect the "bulges" that characterize populations whose fertility declined steeply. In spite of the increase in life expectancy (now at 72.5 years) it continues to be a young population with a median age of 23.6 years old. Its labor force will continue to grow over time and be able to guarantee adequate support for the elderly.

3. Implosion Momentum

There are some who considere population implosion desirable since they think the earth overpopulated. However, from a biological perspective any organism that does not reproduce is doomed to extinction and by any count racial distinction cannot be considered desirable. Though it does not seem obvious to all; human beings are no exception to this biological law. In this graph population change turns negative by at the turn of the century. This is about the same time the Crude Birth Rate intersects with the rising Crude Death Rate in the graph shown earlier. Here again the demographic structural analysis gives us an insight regarding the factors at work behind this demographic phenomena. The persistently low TFR is currently the acknowledged problem of Europe. Here again false demography deceptively hides a more serious problem. It fails to connect what persistent fall in fertility does to its future reproductive population. Its decline will reinforce the negative impact of low fertility and give a momentum to the population implosion. The steeper the fall in its reproductive population the greater momentum to population implosion. The same UN source shows how relative size of the reproductive population started declining since the start of the present century and only levels off by mid-century.

The next question is what are the chances of recovering or reversing the implosive trend? Obviously the way to recovery is the reversal of the fertility decline. But to reverse this implosive trend will demand a steep rise in fertility. This will however will probably take some generations before bringing the implosive momentum will grind to a halt. But all the while during this reversal process the shrunken labor force will be tremendously burdened by having to support a large elderly population and an equally large young population. This time around the momentum will be working in the opposite direction - it will be a heavy drag holding back efforts to reverse the trend. Even with rising fertility the shrinking size of the reproductive population will dampen the desired impact on population growth.


This short paper illustrates how a structural approach to demographic analysis contributes to a better understanding of the relationship between population and economics. Liberating the science of demography from any ideological influence gives it this freedom to discover the true relationship between demography and economics. Drawing from the social, economic and demographic processes at work in the family one provides the tools to enable us to understand the natural processes behind past and future demographic trends - trends that could be not easily understood in demographic analysis that is preoccupied with population control. This analyticial approach ought to provide policy makers a more authentic perspective for crafting out the drastic changes needed to redirect population policies if the World is to recover its demographic health.