The lottery of birth
The lottery of birth

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The lottery of birth

4.1.2 Stages of a demographic transition

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Figure 3 Village girls in Harar, Ethiopia.

Almost all countries can be seen as at different stages in their demographic transitions.

First mortality rates, including child mortality rates fall and carry on falling. Improvements to sanitation and agriculture as well as medical care and education drive down rates of human mortality. Then women, and men, make the choice to raise a smaller number of children whose health and education needs can more easily be met. And as more girls survive and become educated, they too acquire choices other than early marriage and endless childbearing.

The differences between countries at different points on the demographic transition path can be illustrated here if we look at two countries with similar population sizes. The table below contrasts Germany and Ethiopia. They have very similar population sizes but drastically different birth and death rates:

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Figure 4 Key demographic indicators for Germany and Ethiopia, 2010 and projected for 2050.

There are some striking differences in the demographic projections of these two countries. May (2011) draws out some of the profoundly difficult decisions facing these countries.

A comparison of Germany and Ethiopia provides a stunning example of the current global demographic divide (see table above). On the one hand, persistently low fertility rates in many developed countries jeopardize the health and financial security of the elderly, as illustrated in the case of Germany. On the other, less developed countries and LDCs [Less developed countries] continue to experience rapid population growth, which exacerbate poverty and threaten the environment, as shown by the example of Ethiopia (Kent and Haub 2005). Although roughly similar with respect to their population size, Germany and Ethiopia have very different demographic regimes. More significantly still, the demographic outlook of the two countries will continue to diverge over the next decades. Germany will likely see its total population shrink by about 10m during the next 40 years, while Ethiopia’s population will more than double over the same period, increasing from 85m to 174m. Age structures of the two countries are […] strikingly different. Germany has three times less young people (i.e. below age 15) than Ethiopia. By 2050, Germany’s elderly support ratio will drop to two persons for every German aged 65+. Conversely, Ethiopia has a huge ‘youth burden’ since almost half of its 2010 population is below age 15.

Other demographic indicators continue to highlight the different stages of demographic transition that Germany and Ethiopia have reached. Ethiopia still has high fertility at five children per woman on average, which fuels its rapid population growth. Germany’s fertility, on the contrary, no longer ensures the replacement of generations, which will lead to depopulation. There are more deaths than births in Germany, leaving immigration as the only possibility to counter balance negative population growth. Finally, mortality conditions in Ethiopia are likely to improve: the gap in life expectancy at birth between the two countries is a whopping 25 years and there are more than 100 times more infant deaths in Ethiopia than in Germany.

The global demographic divide does challenge the convergence theory of demographic trends across the globe, which had been proposed by some demographers in the second half of the twentieth century, they based their analysis on the convergence that was observed over the past 50 years in health, wealth, and fertility and mortality trends, probably due to widespread economic and social development.

In fact, two major demographic trends have been observed in most recent decades. The first is the still ongoing decline of mortality, which may increase the natural rate of demographic growth, since more people survive. Nevertheless, mortality conditions have started to diverge, as some developed countries have experienced a worsening of their life expectancy at birth. The example of Russia comes to mind, where alcoholism disease and accidents explain past increases of adult mortality rates. The second trend is the slower than anticipated decline in fertility, particularly in the LDCs, but also in many other developing countries (Bremner, et al., 2010:2–3). Some countries, like Kenya have also experienced stalling fertility transitions (Bougaarts, 2006:3). Indeed fertility decline had been considerably uneven across the world, because fertility could have been less consistently linked to development than have other variables (Dorlet, 2004:534).

(May, 2012)

In the next section, you will find out how the demographic transition relates to gender.


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