Three population myths

Translation: “It’s better to marry and have children at a mature age.”
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Medical Materials Clearinghouse at the Johns Hopkins University

Post by Dr Paul Williamson

With the first week of the new academic year comes the first week of our second year course on ‘Population and Societies’. Population is a topic that is never far from the headlines. Unfortunately, this media coverage can leave in its wake a trail of widely held misconceptions, which we then have to ‘unlearn’.  For example, would you be surprised to hear that the death rate per 1000 population is three times HIGHER in the United Kingdom than in the Gaza Strip and West Bank? (CIA World Factbook) Not that this means that life in Palestine is safer; just that the Palestinian population is relatively youthful. Which leads on nicely to an exposé by Anna Lietti, writing in Le Temps, of the media myth that “Muslim countries are plagued with large families and ever-swelling masses of young people, who are a threat to stability”. As Lietti points out, this narrative is somewhat undermined by the fact that many Muslim countries are currently passing through a very abrupt Demographic Transition from high to low fertility. Tunisia, for example, now has a LOWER fertility rate than the United States (UN Population Division). Finally, a switch of continent. A recent study by Cai Yong, at the University of North Carolina suggests that, far from being a ‘success’, the Chinese ‘one child policy’ actually slowed the pace of fertility decline. The explanation Yong advances is a classic example of the ‘law of unintended consequences’.  The one child policy caused anxiety, which prompted many couples to have a first child at a younger age than they would have otherwise, which in turn left them more time to have subsequent children. For other reasons, as the BBC reports, the policy is currently under review.


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