Friday, July 25, 2008


Ben Wattenberg's Fewer: How the New Demography of Depopulation Will Shape Our Future, begins with a momentous observation. In 2002 the U.N. predicted that the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of the world would soon drop to 1.85 children per woman. The replacement rate - the average number of children that each woman has to have to keep the population numbers steady - is 2.1.

Wattenberg calls this a Copernican revolution in the history of demography. The entire field of demography has been built on the assumption of growing world population. In the 20th century alone, world population grew from 1 billion to 6 billion. Population alarmists were predicting for the past forty years that world population would reach 11, or 15, or even 20 billion by the end of the 21st century. They usually then predicted a catastrophe.

Instead, the fertility rate has been falling below replacement level in country after country. In all the industrialized world, the rate has fallen to an alarming low level - well below 1.85 in most European countries and Japan. The US, almost alone of rich countries, has a near-replacement level of fertility. Now, the poor countries are getting in the act, too. China, with its brutal one-child policy, is down to 1.7. Mexico and Brazil, two population powerhouses, are probably below replacement. India has cut its TFR in half in the past generation, and will probably go down past replacement, too. And many other countries, large and small, even the quite poor ones, are headed the same way.

If the world TFR is 1.85 for even a generation, it is inevitable that the world population will decline. Wattenberg predicts that after hitting a peak of perhaps 8 billion in mid-century, the population will fall back to 6 billion (the current number) by the end of the 21st century. And it could be much lower.

The last time world population declined was due to the Black Death.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Population in Poor World

One of the most remarkable facts about the past century is that the population of the poor countries went from about one billion to about five billion. We are used to taking for granted that poor countries have a population explosion. The "population bomb" fears have not really been that NATO was getting too big too fast, but that the world was going to be overrun with poor people.

We sometimes forget what an amazingly positive sign this is about the world. There is enough wealth in the modern world that even poor countries can support huge numbers of children, with gigantic increases in their numbers. Sure, many people in those countries are malnourished. In some places they even starve to death, though that is more the result of some government trying to kill them than it is from an absolute shortage of food. The gigantic increase in population in the 20th century, which is without precedent in the history of the world, is a great testimony to the new wealth that modernity has created.

Most of the increase came from better sanitation and medicine for kids. The next step is to get control of how many kids we have, given the new reality that most will survive. This happened in the first world long ago. It is happening in the poor nations now. Livi-Bacci, in The Concise History of World Population, says the single most important variable in regulating births is, not surprisingly, what percentage of women use birth control. In rich countries, about 70% of women in childbearing years use birth control. In Latin America the rate is 57%, in Asia as a whole about 50% do (with huge variations by country). Africa is the continent that has reduced its birth rate the least; not surprisingly, only about 23% of African women practice birth control.

At the beginning of the modern era, and even into the 20th century, the North Atlantic countries were population leaders as well as economic and political powers. In the 21st century, Asia and Africa will be the population leaders, and their economic power will rise. Their political power will probably rise, especially for certain countries. This power and growth is, in part, the fruit of the world miracle of massive population growth.

Big populations do create problems. But people are good things, and lots of them are mostly the source of good things for the world.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Rationalization of the Life Course

Massimo Livi-Bacci's The Concise History of World Population talks about the "demographic transition" in modern societies, as all studies of population do. In pre-modern societies, most families had many children because quite a few of them would die before reaching adulthood. It was also common for women to die in childbirth, and the fathers to die before their children reached maturity. High fertility made sense in a world of high and uncertain mortality.

Modern societies made huge improvements in diet, sanitation, and, later in medicine. These improvements reduced deaths from infectious diseases, especially for children. As a result, the mortality rate at young ages went down, and life expectancy went up significantly. For a time, societies kept having lots of kids, but fewer of them died young. Thus, the population boomed. After a generation or so, culture caught up with the new facts of life, and people had fewer kids. The transition from high fertility/high mortality to low fertility/low mortality was complete.

All the rich societies made this transition a long time ago. Most poor societies are making this transition now. The massive population explosion of the 20th century is leveling off.

What interested me most about this familiar story was a second point that Livi-Bacci noted. Modern societies don't just live longer, they live more reliably. Modern societies have a more predictable life course. Not only is there a standard path (or several standard paths for different classes), but ordinary people were much more likely to actually live out that standard path.

The bedrock idea of Max Weber's sociology is that modern society has rationalized the world, has taken the disparate, organic, messy ways that people here and there did things and re-ordered them according to a rule. Weber famously connected the rationalization of religious life with the rationalization of economic life. Similar studies have been done about modern political rationalization, and rationalization in other cultural spheres, most notably in science.

What I saw in reading Livi-Bacci is that the modern world also rationalized the life course itself. When parents can expect their children to live, and can expect to live long enough themselves to see their grandchildren, their entire approach to life is changed. Hard work, savings, investment, planning, building up the rest of the social order all make more sense if most people can count on living out a rationalized life course.

And that is the greatest demographic transition of all.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Living Will Live A Fifth of All the Years Ever Lived

I am working through an excellent book, Massimo Livi-Bacci's A Concise History of World Population. The long history of human populations were governed by natural limits that kept growth slow and exercised formidable checks on rapid deviations from the norm. Since the Industrial Revolution, though, the rules have changed dramatically. The world population is significantly larger than any premodern civilizations could have contemplated. The rate of growth today is enormously faster than any previous era.

One of the measures that Livi-Bacci uses to make this change apparent is this proportion:

There are about 6 billion people alive today. There have been about 82 billion people ever born in the world. That means that 7% of all the people who have ever lived are alive today. However, since people today live much longer than people in the past did, people born since 1950 (most of the people alive today) will live about one fifth of all the years that people have ever lived.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Creative Class vs. Knowledge Class

I am now studying the culture and way of life of the class that makes its living from the control of knowledge. The question arises: what shall we call it?

I have been using "knowledge class." There is a decent pedigree for this term. When scholars started talking about this class they simply called it the "new class." By the '70s they had started calling it the knowledge class. This term carried into the '80s or early '90s. Since then, though, it seems to have fallen into disfavor.

I think the main reason that it fell into a bad odor was that it became a term of abuse used by neo-conservative intellectuals to talk about liberal cultural producers, professors, and technocrats. (This was back when "neo-con" meant former liberals turned social conservatives on domestic policy, not foreign policy imperialists.) The irony of using knowledge class as a term of abuse is that the people hurling the insults were themselves members of the knowledge class.

I have had a Google alert for any use of "knowledge class" for the past half year. Most of what I get are false hits ("my Theory of Knowledge class met on Friday," or "I went to Bible Knowledge class Wednesday night"). The handful of references in the sense I mean have either been backwards-looking references to Peter Berger's work, one use of the term by neo-con columnist Charles Krauthammer (who read the same books I did 20 years ago), or citations of my own blog posts.

On the other hand, the term "creative class" seems to have some currency now. Richard Florida seems to publish a book each year with "creative class" in the title. Others are following the lead of his quite interesting research (including Bill Bishop in The Big Sort, which I wrote about last week). There are others tending the same grove, who have offered similar terms -- The Creatives, for example.

My mother doesn't like "knowledge class" as a term. She thinks it implies that other people have no knowledge. I have tried to make the case that sociologists start from Marx' criteria that a class is defined by its relations to the means of production. This cuts no ice with mom. And for similar reasons, I don't think she will like "creative class," for what it appears to imply about the creativity of those not in that class.

Nonetheless, there really is a class that makes its living from the control of knowledge. There really is a class that creates new stuff. And as our economy turns more and more on knowledge, this class, whatever we call it, grows in importance.

So, for the foreseeable, I will be studying "the creative class."