1. Population Matters

    Sarah Harper talks to Tiffany Jenkins

  2. How much should we worry about our demographic destiny? Author of How Population Change Will Transform our World Sarah Harper talks to author and broadcaster Tiffany Jenkins about changing attitudes to the people problem.

    What population changes are transforming the world? 

    When I came into this field as a PhD student, we worried about population growth. The overwhelming question was how we can stop the world population reaching 24 billion by the end of the 21st century. Now we think it will go from the current seven billion to about 10 billion and then flatten. 

    The reason for this is falling fertility. In about two thirds of countries, women's fertility has fallen to round about replacement level, so that’s about two children per woman of child-bearing age. It’s a global trend that corresponds to economic development and the education of women. In the UK, Russia and Japan, the fertility rate has fallen to below two. In sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Asia, the least developed countries, there are larger numbers of dependent children; in Niger, for example, it is seven per woman.

    The second big population change is that death has been pushed back. In England in about 1750 there was high infant mortality. That started to fall due to [better] nutrition and sanitation. At the same time, more people are living longer. In 1850, half the European population was dead before 45. Now, half can expect to make it to 80. 

    About eight million people who are currently alive in the UK will make it to one hundred years of age; one hundred and thirty million Europeans who are currently alive are predicted to make it to a century. We are gaining roughly 2.5 years of life expectancy per decade. Of the babies currently being born in Britain, the real life expectancy will be 104. In Japan it is 107. 

    Did demographers get population growth wrong, and if so, why? 

    Not really. In as much as we anticipated these trends, we got them right, but we underestimated how quickly they would advance. We got the pace of change wrong.

    How should we respond to these challenges? Or are they opportunities? 

    We've got to look at our economies, our politics and, in particular, the distribution of resources across our societies. If you look at advanced economies, it is very possible, particularly if we are pushing back the onset of disability, and people are healthier and active for longer, to compensate for the lack of younger people coming in, and, yes, to turn it into an advantage. When German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck introduced the state pension in Europe in the middle of the 19th century he fixed it as 65, but half the European population was dead at 65! I think we will see the state pension age rise to age 70. We cannot afford decades of retirement. Besides, why get rid of all those skilled people who may want to continue to work? Older people tend to have certain expertise, skills and experience.

    In less-developed countries, particularly Asia and Latin America, the pace of change will be a challenge. There’ll be more older people in Asia than younger people by about 2040. Whereas Europe had 150 years to go from being young to being old [societies], Asia and Latin America will face that happening in about 25 years.

    There are huge issues around how we get jobs, particularly for young men but also women.  Especially in light of technological developments. They’re also beginning to age. The big question here is are these economies going to be able to sustain the shift from younger dependents to older dependents in the time that they've got?



    How has thinking in demography shifted in recent times? What are you all thinking about now? 

    People who work in demography and population studies have shifted away from worrying about population growth, to concentrating on the complexity of population. We have a keen interest in population and consumption. It is outrageous that we now have more people who die from obesity than from malnutrition. We have a large section of the world who are overeating and a section who are undereating.

    The other important change that we need to think about is in how we are living. Our populations are becoming denser. Currently, we have about half the world’s population living in an urban area. That will increase to 75 per cent by the middle of the century and to about 80 – 90 per cent by the end of the century, when nearly everyone on the planet will be living in an urban area.

    Finally, what questions preoccupy you at the moment? 

    One development that has demographers wondering is why life expectancy in the UK has plateaued. Office for National Statistics figures show that 2015 to 2017 saw the lowest improvements in life expectancy at birth since the start of their series in 1980. Life expectancy at birth remained at 79.2 years for men and 82.9 years for women, and that was the first time that there was no improvement from the previous data. I think it may have something to do with inequality in our society. 

    Sarah appeared at Hay Festival. Baillie Gifford is the principal sponsor of the festival.

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  3. Tiffany Jenkins Writer and broadcaster

    Tiffany Jenkins is a writer and broadcaster, whose books include the critically acclaimed Keeping Their Marbles: How Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums and Why They Should Stay There (2016). She is an Honorary Fellow in Art History at the University of Edinburgh and a former visiting fellow in the law department of the London School of Economics. She has written and presented programmes on subjects including art and law for BBC Radio 4 and is host of the new arts podcast Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

    © GL Portrait/Alamy Stock Photo