A Science for Everyone, Demography

Is Demography Really Destiny?

I’m looking at folks showing Russian, Ukrainian, and Chinese population pyramids, and ominously stating “Demography is Destiny.”  Of course I’ve been looking at Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb all of my student and professional life, and know what the population pyramid showed him in 1968 – and his interpretation sure as hell didn’t pan out.

Ehrlich predicted famine because of the rapid population growth.  Politicians looked at 9.2% of the population over 65, and knew that the Social Security System would be solid forever.  After all, “Demography is destiny”, right?

By 1970 – the year I turned 21 – the base of the pyramid showed where the trend was changing.  Lifespans had been increasing over the 20th century, and the 1970 pyramid showed that reproduction was slowing down.  Ehrlich had ignored the green revolution, and the politicians who could do simple math could realize that Social Security wasn’t going to be a cash cow.  We had passed the point where the Demographic Transition Model kicked in.  By the way – use PopulationPyramid.net to grab your own data – for years I’ve used spreadsheets to develop my pyramids, but these folks have put the data onto the net, helping make demography everyone’s science.

By 2000, the population pyramid had lost most of the resemblance to a pyramid, and even the most ignorant congresscritters could see the threat to Social Security.  Did I mention that Ehrlich’s training is in biology, and that his dissertation was on butterflies? 

I have no problem with the idea that “Demography is Destiny.”  The problem is that destiny is more readily observed in hindsight than in projecting today’s data into the future. 

I’m a rural demographer – well ahead of the curve in my specialized areas, but my areas are rural US – the real specialized areas are Hutterite and Reservation populations.  I can make some projections from the Russian, Ukrainian, and Chinese pyramids – but they basically start with, “Gosh!  There are a heckuva lot of old people in these countries.  There should be plenty of work for the younger generations.”

Seriously, go to PopulationPyramid.net, find the answers to your own questions.  In 1970, demography was based in the universities because their libraries held all the data.  Now, the data is online, and the science is open to everyone.  And I enjoy being able to share my science.

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