Questioning mortality assumptions

UPDATE (11 May 2009): I see that Tim Bray has just twittered about this — mild glow at having been slightly ahead of that curve (hey, it’s been a slow day).

Each day I receive an e-mail from with an interesting non-fiction excerpt from a book or publication. The joy of this is that there is no particular theme—things simply pop up as and when and how the editors wish.

Today’s piece is a gem, and worth quoting in full:
>”Three deeply misleading assumptions about demographic trends have become lodged in the public mind. The first is that mass migration into Europe, legal and illegal, combined with an eroding native population base, is transforming the ethnic, cultural, and religious identity of the continent. The second assumption, which is related to the first, is that Europe’s native population is in steady and serious decline from a falling birthrate, and that the aging population will place intolerable demands on governments to maintain public pension and health systems. The third is that population growth in the developing world will continue at a high rate. Allowing for the uncertainty of all population projections, the most recent data indicate that all of these assumptions are highly questionable and that they are not a reliable basis for serious policy decisions. …

>”One fact that gets lost among … is that the birthrates of Muslim women in Europe—and around the world—have been falling significantly for some time. Data on birthrates among different religious groups in Europe are scarce, but they point in a clear direction. Between 1990 and 2005, for example, the fertility rate in the Netherlands for Moroccan-born women fell from 4.9 to 2.9, and for Turkish-born women from 3.2 to 1.9. …

>”In some Muslim countries—Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Lebanon—fertility rates have already fallen to near-European levels. Algeria and Morocco, each with a fertility rate of 2.4, are both dropping fast toward such levels. Turkey is experiencing a similar trend. … Reports suggests that in Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, the fertility rate for the years 2010-15 will drop to 2.02, a shade below replacement level. …

>”Iran is experiencing what may be one of the most dramatic demographic shifts in human history. Thirty years ago, after the shah had been driven into exile and the Islamic Republic was being established, the fertility rate was 6.5. By the turn of the century, it had dropped to 2.2. Today, at 1.7, it has collapsed to European levels. The implications are profound for the politics and power games of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, putting into doubt Iran’s dreams of being the regional superpower and altering the tense dynamics between the Sunni and Shiite wings of Islam. …

>”The falling fertility rates in large segments of the Islamic world have been matched by another significant shift: Across northern and western Europe, women have suddenly started having more babies. Germany’s minister for the family, Ursula von der Leyen, announced in February that the country had recorded its second straight year of increased births. Sweden’s fertility rate jumped eight percent in 2004 and stayed put. Both Britain and France now project that their populations will rise from the current 60 million each to more than 75 million by midcentury. …

>”By contrast, the downward population trends for southern and eastern Europe show little sign of reversal. Ukraine, for example, now has a population of 46 million; if maintained, its low fertility rate will whittle its population down by nearly 50 percent by mid-century. The Czech Republic, Italy, and Poland face declines almost as drastic.

>”In Russia, the effects of declining fertility are amplified by an [AIDS and alcoholism] phenomenon so extreme that it has given rise to an ominous new term—hypermortality. … It is important to consider what this means for the future of the Russian economy. Identified by Goldman Sachs as one of the BRIC quartet (along with Brazil, India, and China) of key emerging markets, Russia has been the object of great hopes and considerable investments. But a very large question mark must be placed on the economic prospects of a country whose young male work force looks set to decrease by half.”

>Martin Walker, “The World’s New Numbers,” The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2009, pp. 25-28.

Demographics is an utterly fascinating subject and goes to explain an awful lot in world history (sorry, for that sweeping generalization, but I don’t have the time at present to write a more fully reflective piece). It’s well worth reading Emmanuel Todd’s work, first on the collapse of the Soviet Union (which he predicted before the event) and later on the future of the US (which I suspect will prove equally prescient).

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