Age-structural Narratives

In both neo-classical and Marxist development theories, demographic changes are assumed to be ancillary products of developmental progress driven by economic and social policy. In those theories, demographic changes are assumed not to be drivers of political or economic transformations associated with development.

In the following section, I offer three alternative demographic narratives in which demography is a participant driver, among other drivers, of development. Each, in its own way, attempts to explain the pattern of developmental changes observed over the age-structural transition.

The Development Narrative

This narrative recognizes the complementarity of the basic development transitions (child survival, educational attainment, and household income), and that they tend to drive each other in complex ways. Thus, the progressive patterns of development shown in the age-structural models echoes a conclusion that is common throughout the public health literature: that service-driven achievements in any of the basic transitions—whether child survival, fertility decline, educational attainment, or income—tend to drive demand for other services, spurring progress across several development transitions (see Fig. 1, below).

Figure 1. Links between the age-structural transition (left side) and the four basic development transitions (right side). Source: Author review of literature.

For example, high levels of educational attainment, particularly among women, tends to lead to declines in fertility by delaying marriage and depressing desired family size, while educational attainment tends to drive up future household income and increase child survival and improve child nutrition. Meanwhile, declines in fertility tend to increase per-pupil levels of social spending (parental plus state spending) (Lee and Mason, 2011). Declines in family size produce declines in the size of school-age cohorts, which helps governments, as well as parents, invest more in each child. Moreover, slowed growth among young-adult cohorts reduces job competition and tends to boost the proportion of fully employed.

For this reason, most demographers believe that international development agencies are long overdue in acknowledging the role that shifts in population age structure play in social, economic, and political development. Based on current evidence, a realistic reconceptualization would place fertility decline at a key juncture linked to improvements in educational attainment and child health and driving the shift to the set of favorable age structures that are associated with the demographic dividend.

The Youth Bulge-Authoritarian Bargain

This narrative builds on two existing models of political behavior. The first, known as the authoritarian bargain (see Desai et al., 2009), is a restatement of a basic element of Thomas Hobbes’s theory of the social contract; it assumes that citizens prefer to exercise basic freedoms, but asserts that they are willing to relinquish political rights to an authoritarian when they perceive threats to their personal or economic security (Hobbes, 1994, originally 1651/1658).

When civil order breaks down, markets are disrupted, property becomes insecure, and investments move elsewhere. Because of the fears of citizens and, more importantly, the sensitivities of commercial and security-sector elite to disorder, political violence tends to bolster the power of authoritarians in office or, in democracies, signal elected leaders to roll back restraints on executive authority. Because of this relationship, revolutionary violence rarely spawns a sustained high level of democracy. Should violence climax in regime change, other types of less-than-liberal regimes tend ultimately to emerge (Schmitter, 1980; Bellin, 2018) to meet the insecurity (typically associated with a youthful society). However, if society turns politically quiescent and unthreatening, elites as well as common citizens should be expected to grow intolerant of the regime’s cronyism and lack of accountability, and its restrictions on commerce, social mobility and speech.

Thus, where the streets are unthreatening, authoritarians typically find support waning. As both Huntington (1991, pp. 115-116) and Schmitter (1980) noted, under quiescent political conditions and improving economic conditions, authoritarians tend to experiment with gradual liberal reforms, to negotiate their own safe transition from power and ultimately relinquish the reins of power to more liberal regimes. Such exits have been most common among non-ideological autocracies and partial democracies, particularly care-taker military regimes and decaying personal dictatorships. As in the cases of Chile (Pinochet), Greece,

The second model, the youth bulge model seeks to explain the relatively high frequency of political violence associated with national and sub-national populations in the early phases of the demographic transition (the transformation from high to low birth and death rates). Proponents of the youth bulge model argue that relatively high values of the youth-bulge proportion are indicative of a social environment in which political actors, whether state or non-state, find it relatively easy to politically mobilize young adults, particularly young men (Urdal 2006, Staveteig 2005, Goldstone 2001a & b, 1991; Mesquida and Weiner, 2001; Cincotta et al., 2003; Cincotta and Leahy 2006; Leahy et al. 2007; Fuller 1990; Moller 1968/69). Put another way, youth-bulge conditions—fostering unemployment, depressed wages, high entry-level job competition (Easterlin, 1968), a youth-dense street culture and gang formation—lower the costs of overcoming collective action constraints among young men who, as a group, tend to be highly idealistic, sensitive to peer approval, prone to risk taking, and naïvely accepting of ideological explanations (see Archer, 1994). Researchers have shown that a large proportion of young people in the working-age population are associated with elevated levels of violent crime (Cohen and Land, 1987) and political violence (Urdal, 2006; Cincotta et al., 2003; Mesquida and Weiner, 2001). 

Shifting Institutional Supply and Demand  

This narrative focuses on the state-supported institutions that have been funded and built within the constrained frontiers of modern states and have been responsible for gaining them popular legitimacy and achieving high levels of state capacity. Assuming that the support of non-productive cohorts in the population would be borne, to some extent, by state institutions, demographers have estimated demand on these institutions using dependency ratios—the population of dependents, assumed to be 0 to 14 years of age and 65 years and older, as a proportion of those in the working ages, 15 to 64. This ratio has been supplanted by economic research undertaken through the auspices of the National Transfer Accounts Project (Lee & Mason, 2011).

According to this narrative, the institutions (e.g., public healthcare, secular education, credit to the private sector, communications and transportation networks) of states in the youthful phase of the age-structural transition are overwhelmed by both the high quantity of demand for those services and the low status of those making the demands—i.e., their low level of human capital, poor living conditions, restricted mobility, and poor health status. Moreover, these services tend to be of low quality, as well. Getting to the intermediate phase of the transition is generally associated with lower levels of demand and increasing levels of taxation, human capital, political stability, and a more consistent the rule of law.  

From this perspective, population aging presents a problem of high demand for services (living and health care), but—unless taxation falls off significantly—the supply of goods and services made possible by relatively high levels of state capacity is likely to present challenges, but, under most conditions (immigration and changes in ethnic makeup might be an exception), not sufficient to destabilize the state.

While this perspective seems to be one that would have been naturally embraced by economists and political scientists, the original focus of their professions has been on the supply side of development—on the services, infrastructure, and capital that are needed to develop, and the policies required to put these in place. Until population aging became a significant issue, professionals in these fields did not know that human populations had age structures (in fact, it is not evident that Malthus knew of this phenomenon; at the time, even the age structures of Europe were youthful).