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What can demography tell us about democracy?

The global population is ageing and many experts predict this may have some negative consequences for society. But new research suggests global demographic transition can also have important positive consequences, including the promotion and development of democracy.

In 1970, only eight per cent of the world’s population was classified as ‘old’ (aged 60 or over); by 2050, this proportion is expected to increase to 22 per cent. Demographers describe this trend as the ‘demographic transition’, characterised by lower birth rates and longer life expectancies.

Demographic transition is often welcomed, because it enables improved life opportunities and economic circumstances for societies across the world. But a new study by Dr Ben Wilson and Professor Tim Dyson has found that demography is also a useful indicator of democratisation, the process where countries make the transition from authoritarian regimes to democracy.

“Our work focused on the long-term historic links between democracy and demography” said Dr Wilson. “We know that the demographic transition leads to dramatic changes in populations, and we are witnessing this globally. The question we wanted to answer was whether the demographic transition can also help to create a democratic system of elected government.”

What can demography tell us about democracy

Examples from the pre-second world war era hinted at a connection between democracy and demography. Dr Wilson said: “Historic data shows evidence of a relationship. In my colleague Tim Dyson’s work, this has been shown to be true for developed nations, such as the UK and the US, in the period between 1890 and 1930.

“Taking this as our starting point, we wanted to look at what happened to non-democratic countries during the post-war period. We selected a group of countries which had not yet become democracies in 1970, and used multiple sources of data to find out whether there was a relationship with demography.” Dr Wilson added.

The researchers studied the period from 1970 to 2005, which offers a reliable picture of long-term trends.

Dr Wilson said: “In the first half of the demographic transition, we see increased life expectancies as people start to live healthier and longer lives. This eventually tends to bring about decreased fertility levels, with women having an average of something like six or seven children, to only about two.

“In the second half of the demographic transition, the proportion of adults in the population becomes larger. In demographic terms, fewer children means that the number of people eligible to vote increases, as does overall civic engagement. Put bluntly, children aren’t interested or engaged in politics.”

Another consequence of demographic transition is that when women are caring for fewer children they are more likely to enter the labour market. Dr Wilson said: “Women are able to pursue careers, skills, and training in a way that they aren’t able to if they are caring for large families. As a result, they tend to have a greater interest in the political system and their rights.” Dr Wilson added.

Dr Wilson said: “Overall, we found a robust link between demography and democracy. All else equal, countries going through demographic change will also democratise. If you imagine a graph of demography and democracy, there is an upward curve linking the two.

"If one goes up then so does the other. Perhaps more importantly, this relationship seems to hold when we look at changes within countries, even after excluding a range of alternative explanations.”

But the researchers caution against the notion that demographic transition will inevitably lead to democratisation in every country.

Professor Dyson said that: “Some countries, such as Russia, Belarus and Cuba, have gone through the demographic transition without becoming democratic, at least so far. Also, there are countries that have managed to become democracies while still at an early stage of the demographic transition. For example, in recent years Ghana, Malawi and Papua New Guinea seem to be in this category.

“In these cases, part of the explanation may be that external forces are influencing the establishment of free elections. However, there must be questions about the long-term stability of democracy in countries with young and very rapidly growing populations. Hopefully, demographic progress in these countries will catch-up, and eventually strengthen the conditions in which democracy can thrive.” Professor Dyson added.

Professor Dyson said: “The key point is that demography can tell us much more than is apparent at the surface. While democracy is not always guaranteed, in most cases it is linked to demography and population change, and we see this borne out in the data.”

Posted October 2016

Useful links

Democracy and the demographic transition, by Dr Ben Wilson and Professor Tim Dyson, was published in Democratization journal.

Professor Tim Dyson is professor population studies in the Department of International Development and an expert in the demographic transition. He has worked at LSE since 1980; in 1994-96 he was President of the British Society for Population Studies and in 2001 Professor Dyson was elected as a Fellow of the British Academy.

Dr Ben Wilson is a Fellow in the Department of Methodology and an affiliated member of the Department of Social Policy. He is also a member of the LSE population group.

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