Is demography destiny?

Saturday 18 October, 10.00 until 11.30, Conservatory, Barbican Interrogating Megatrends

With the world’s population expected to reach nine billion by 2050, understanding the coming demographic changes is increasingly viewed as essential for planning how to distribute resources. While some evoke the pessimism of Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich in arguing that the problems of overpopulation are insurmountable, others argue that the particular shifts in population will be more important than total numbers. In the West, for instance, there has been growing anxiety over the ‘ageing time bomb’ as increasing lifespans and falling birth rates combine to leave future generations facing the added pressure of supporting a ‘silver tsunami’. In the developing world, there are fears over brain drain as the young flock abroad or cram into heaving mega-cities as lack of economic opportunities, resource shortages and climate change take their toll. There are even concerns that religious conflict will increase, as birth rates in religious communities vastly out-strip those in secular ones, and liberal political systems become destabilised. In many respects, it seems demography is the new social class: a prism through which to understand changing societies.

However, while there are obvious advantages to understanding demographic trends when drawing up policy, some are sceptical about the increasing role of demography in contemporary politics. For some, demography is highly limited in its inability to predict future behaviour and especially the disruptive impact of innovation:  the ‘ageing time bomb’ is a problem predicated on the assumption that society will not adapt to make use of populations living longer, healthier and more productive lives. Others prefer to see grounds for optimism in current demographic trends, observing that general trends suggest living standards will continue to rise for much of humanity; after all, previous generations have been forced to overcome similar problems. Furthermore, some see attempts to understand political events such as the Arab Spring through the prism of demographic patterns as overly deterministic. Will demographic thinking one day seem as old-fashioned as the notion that ‘the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’?

Why has demography moved from being a tool for policymakers and historians to a recurrent feature in political debate? Does its increasing use represent a retreat from belief in individual or collective capacity to change, or a victory for evidence-based analysis of human behaviour? Are ‘rational optimists’ as guilty as neo-Malthusians in exaggerating the force of demographic trends to dictate current action? Does the current focus on demographic forecasting in policy debates tell us more about contemporary anxieties than it does about future expectations?

Listen to the debate:

Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; author, What's Happened to the University?, Power of Reading: from Socrates to Twitter, On Tolerance and Authority: a sociological history

Professor Sarah Harper
international adviser on ageing issues; director, Oxford Institute of Population Ageing

John Hawksworth
chief economist, PwC

Peter Smith
director of tourism, St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham, London; co-author, Volunteer Tourism: the lifestyle politics of international development

Produced by
Peter Smith director of tourism, St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham, London; co-author, Volunteer Tourism: the lifestyle politics of international development
Recommended readings
‘No one in the Third World chants “we want condoms”’

Podcast: Ceri Dingle on the scourge of demographic determinism.

spiked podcast, spiked, 8 October 2013

David Cameron’s demographic determinism

In claiming the UK is overpopulated by migrants, the Tory leader has shown himself to be a fully paid-up member of the New Malthusians.

Frank Furedi,, 30 October 2007

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