The Norton Slideshow Maker with Visual Sociology Exercises

Is Demography Destiny?

John Grady, Wheaton College (MA)

Demographers study how changes in birth and death rates can affect a society. A modern society like the United States, for example, has witnessed a steady decline in its birth and death rates over the last century. What this means is that people have had fewer children and these same children live longer. Figure 1 charts a very important consequence of this demographic change. In 1850, when birth and death rates were higher than today, there were almost six times as many children under five as people over sixty-five. Today, after more than a century of lower birth and death rates, that ratio has been reversed—there are now twice as many people over sixty-five as there are children under five.

Knowing population dynamics like these should make it possible for us to anticipate their impact on society and some of the challenges they will pose. Of course, some unexpected events surprise planners. For example, no one expected the dramatic increase in the birth rate from 1948 to 1964—the baby boom—,which created an especially large generation that produced and continues to produce complex population dynamics as they went to college, entered the workforce, had children, aged, and—as they are beginning to do now —retire. Immigration can have strong affects on a society's population structure as well, because most immigrants are younger, often of child-rearing age, and accustomed to having larger families. Continuing high levels of immigration has helped to make the United States "younger" than Japan, which had five times as many older people over sixty-five than children under five in 2007.

A very useful way of visualizing population dynamics is with a "population pyramid." Figure 2 shows three such pyramids for the United States. The first chart represents what the proportion of males and females—tabulated in five-year groupings—looked like in 1880. The graph is a classic pyramid with a large younger population at the base, which gradually decreases to a far smaller number of older people at the top. A pyramid like this can be found in many of the world's less developed—and poorer—countries today. In a society like this, economically productive adults are primarily preoccupied with caring for dependent children. The elderly need care too but there are fewer of them, and they make less demands. By 2000, the pyramid has flattened out into something resembling a more compact stack of blocks. There are fewer children but a growing population of elderly whose needs make growing demands on society's resources. These resources not only include being cared for by their children, but also what they receive from Social Security, Medicare, pension plans, part-time jobs, and so on. By 2050 it is projected that the pyramid will be flattened even further, except that the very oldest population—those 75 and above—will be the largest group in the society, appearing as a sort of platform on top of a column.

This change in the composition of the population between 1880 and 2050 is often referred to as the "demographic transition" from a world of high birth and death rates to one where both rates are low. Historically, increased access to better food and improved sanitary conditions led to a dramatic decline in death rates. Birth rates dropped a generation or two later. Overall, the effect has been a rapidly growing population across the globe. Animation can help us appreciate some of these dynamics. Here, for example, are links to animations of the latter part of the transition—from 1950 to 2050—for the United States and China. You should run though them several times to notice similarities and differences between the two countries.

Animation of U.S. population growth from 1950 to 2050.

Animation of population growth 1950 to 2050 in the United States and China.

This animated chart that shows total fertility by life expectancy in China, India. and the United States, 1950 2050.

As you study the data, consider: What challenges do you imagine these changes will pose for future generations? Will they change how we care for children and the elderly? What consequences will the imbalances between the number of men and women in society have for various age levels? What conflicts can be foreseen as the population pillar flattens out in both societies? Will there need to be new social arrangements and policies to address these conflicts? How might those innovations emerge?

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After you view the slideshow, answer the following questions:

Since there will be so many more young men than young women in China, how will all the young men find mates? What outlets might male frustration find if they are unable to create their own families?
Would encouraging female immigration satisfy the imbalance between men and women? Could the traditionally insular Chinese accept an influx of non-Chinese not only into their society but also into their families?
Perhaps even more worrisome is the burden that a growing population of elders will place on a proportionally smaller working age population. How will the Chinese children in the second slide, who were photographed in 2002, care for both their parents and their own children? Remember that many of them are “only” children because of the one-child policy. Will that make it easier or harder for them in the future?
What effect might some of these demographic challenges to the Chinese have on the United States and the rest of the world?

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After you view the slideshow and reflect on it, create your own, related slideshow. To focus your approach, read the paragraph below. Your instructor may ask you to e-mail a link to your slideshow, or you can print it out and hand it in.

Option 1: Identify someone who is over 65 who is still working and make a documentary portrait of what they do for pay, where it fits in their schedule and their life, why they are doing it, whether they are happy working, how long they expect to keep working, whether they have experienced any conflict with younger workers, and finally, whether their older years were turning out the way they expected them to. Be sure to take pictures of them in such a way that your audience will get not only a sense of what they look like but also what their character and personality is like. In addition, try to photograph what they do at work and with those with whom they come into contact on a daily basis. Let them know that you will be showing the photographs publicly and quoting them. Above all, get their permission to study their life and treat them respectfully in your  presentation.  This is an exercise that the class as a whole might do. If each student studied one person, the resulting slideshows might constitute a cross-section of a community.

Option 2: Using reputable sources on the web—like the New York Times, the Economist, and other important sources of news and opinion, which should be available in your college library—search for articles that discuss how China is anticipating and addressing its demographic challenges. What evidence can you find for the issues identified in this slideshow—whether in text or visually?  Are there any other issues that were not mentioned above? What do they imply about China’s future? Some students may want to look at the other society with a population over one billion: India. What is happening to their population? Are their challenges the same ones faced by China or are they different? Look for data that you can visually represent in your slideshow.