Bust and Boom! Demystifying the Demographics

The effects and politics of the population debate have been flaring up around the world as the stakes, like the distribution of global resources, get higher and higher. So, when we get the chance to demystify the political and economic lingo about demographic changes, I say we should jump at it.

The Population and Development Program at Hampshire College has recently published a paper by Anne Hendrixson, as part of their series DifferenTakes, that aims to shed some light on what seems at first glance to be a very complicated argument about demographic changes. The theory recently propounded in the IMF's September 2006 issue of Finance & Development is called the "demographic dividend."

Here's a breakdown of the argument, as I see it — The current "population boom" will instigate a subsequent economic boom for the following reasons:

  1. Mortality rates will fall and birth rates will remain the same during the "population boom," typically triggering an eventual decline in birth rates.
  2. This decline in birth rates coupled with the entering of the "boom era" into the workforce will mean that there will be a larger working age population than that of dependent adults and children.
  3. When this shift happens, the increased productivity of the working population will stimulate the economy and result in the "demographic dividend." The overall result will be an economic benefit for the entire society, particularly for countries in the global south.

Now, if you accept this much (and there is certainly controversy about these claims), from here the argument goes something like this: If we want the burgeoning population in these countries to be beneficial to their economies, we must provide them with adequate social and economic support and resources. This includes things like good educational opportunities and health benefits. Family planning is critical to this equation, because, without it, the requisite decline in population numbers won't occur. So, the United Nations, the World Health Organization and the UNFPA are getting on board with the concept of the "demographic dividend," thinking of it as an analysis that might help is achieving the goals set forth by the program of action at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD).

Before we throw our hands up and jump on board, as Hendrixson mentions, there are several reasons to be wary of this analysis. Even though at first look it seems like it is helping us argue effectively for increased funding for comprehensive family planning resources and broadening social and economic rights, let's look at some of the implicit assumptions and arguments.

  • It still employs and relies heavily on the language of the current "population boom." We have seen already that there are several reasons to rethink this analysis. The theory values working age populations for the simple reason that there are a lot of them. It does not acknowledge the differences within the group and certainly does not acknowledge that population increases and decreases may not happen at the same rate and in the same ways across other social markers like race, ethnicity, gender, class and the ways that these markers interact with each other. That's an awful lot to gloss over.
  • It relies on the problematic theory of the "youth bulge." Now, I don't know about you, but any theory that lumps the young people of any nation/race/class into one homogenous and consequently threatening category seems suspicious to me. Read more about it here and here.
  • It focuses on market solutions to problems created by market forces themselves. And as much as we are tempted to think that the problem can be the solution, I think by this point we know a little better.

Perhaps we should think critically about whether a theory based on such assumptions and characterizations will be able to effectively support the kinds of social programs that we, as advocates for reproductive justice want to see implemented around the world. By linking the justification for family planning to economic growth instead of arguing for it as part of a fundamental human right to bodily integrity and autonomy, this argument seems to tread on dangerous territory. Even though many will say that support for comprehensive family planning initiatives is critical now, I certainly think that we should pause to consider whether the means we employ will actually justify the ends we aim toward. In this regard, analyses like Hendrixson's are very important to the process, regardless of the conclusions we derive from them.

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