Age distribution of the world population

Age distribution of the world population.

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Source: Demographic Yearbook (United Nations [1995]). Note: Individual figures may not add to total because of rounding error.

Thus high rates of population growth lead to a younger population, and then on to high birth rates and low death rates. This creates an “echo effect” that keeps population growth high.

One important consequence of this observation is that population growth possesses an enormous degree of inertia. Imagine that a country that has had high population growth rates implements a policy to bring down total fertility rates. The point is that even if this policy were to be successful, population size would probably overshoot the desired limits before settling down at an acceptable level. The reason is simple. High population growth rates in the past lead to a young age distribution. A relatively large fraction of the population continues to be at the age where they are just about to marry and have families. Even if the total fertility rates were reduced the sheer numbers of young people would lead to a large number of births, viewed as a fraction of the entire population. This is the grim inertia of population growth, and more than one country has found, to their dismay, that even with the best intentions and implementation, bringing population growth to a halt is a bit like bringing an express train to an emergency stop.

9.3. From economic development to population growth

9.3.1. The demographic transition Like economic growth, population growth is a modern phenomenon. Indeed, even if we were to know very little

about the world, we could deduce this very quickly by regression in time. The world population today stands at

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around six billion. Let’s go backward and decrease this number by 2% per year. This exercise would yield a population of 250,000 around 500 years ago, or a population of 10 around 1,000 years ago! This is obviously ludicrous, as the data at the beginning of this chapter indicate. This proves that population growth at around 2% per year is a phenomenon of recent vintage.

The first point to note is that the “carrying capacity” of the world was enormously different in the Stone Age than in the era of agriculture, and considerably lower than it is now. With shallow digging implements and imperfect acumen in the art of agriculture, people were confined to river basins. Starvation was common, as was early death due to a myriad of causes. The advent of agriculture changed all that, or much of that at any rate. With an increase in the carrying capacity of Mother Earth came an increase in population, but net growth was still minimal, because death rates were high and persistent. Famine continued to be commonplace, as were episodes of plague, pestilence, and war. As late as in the eighteenth century Malthus [1798] wrote of God’s checks and balances to the sexual energies of women and men. A spontaneously high rate of reproduction was countered with all manner of disasters, such as regular outbreaks of plague, pestilence, and famine. So although birth rates were high, death rates were sufficiently high to keep growth rates down to a crawl. We may think of this as the first phase of demographic history.

A major change, however, was taking place, possibly even as Malthus was recording the grim retributions of Nature. With the advent of sanitation methods and increases in agricultural productivity, death rates began to fall around 1700, and the rise in industrial productivity sent Europe into a veritable population explosion. Table 9.3 gives you some idea of this.

The population explosion would not have taken place, of course, had birth rates simply followed death rates on their downward course without any time lag. However, this did not happen, and for two reasons. First, the very forces that caused death rates to decline also caused economic productivity to increase. For instance, the rise in agricultural productivity meant not only that there was a lower incidence of famine (thus bringing down death rates), but also that the overall carrying capacity of the economy in normal times increased. With room for a larger population, the Malthusian restraints were loosened and the urgency to bring down the birth rate therefore dissipated. Second, even if the forgoing scenario had not been the case, birth rates would probably still have been high because of the inertia that characterizes fertility choices made by households. This inertia is so important in our understanding of population trends that we will devote a fair amount of space to it in the next section. For now, we merely note that birth rates remained high even as death rates fell. This meant that population growth rates rose in this epoch, which we dub the second phase of demographic history.

Finally, birth rates fell as time overcame inertia, and as the population of the world rose to fill newly created carrying capacity. Population growth rates declined, until they fell to their present level in the developed world, which is around 0.7% per year. This is the third and final phase of demographic history.

These three phases jointly make up what is known as the demographic transition. Together, they paint a picture that almost all European and North American regions have seen: an increase and then a decline in the rate of population growth, changing the regime from one of high birth and death rates to one of low birth and death rates. Developing countries are going through the very same three phases, and doing so at an accelerated pace, as we will see. Almost all the countries of the world can be described as currently either in the second or the third phase of the transition.


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