The relationship between demography and democracy

The global population is ageing and many experts predict that this will have some negative consequences for society. But in new research, we examine whether the demographic transition also has important positive consequences, including the promotion and development of democracy.

In 1970, only 8 per cent of the world’s population was classified as ‘old’ (aged 60 or over). But by 2050, this proportion is expected to increase to 22 per cent (UN). This population ageing is seen by many as a potentially problematic consequence of the demographic transition (for example, see: 1; 2; 3).

But the demographic transition also has many benefits,and these reach beyond the direct benefits of lower birth rates and longer life expectancy.

In a new study, which I carried out with Professor Tim Dyson, we find that demography is indeed a useful indicator of democratisation. In this work, we focus on the long-term links between demography and democracy (the process where countries make the transition from authoritarian regimes to democracies). We know that the demographic transition leads to dramatic changes in populations, and we are witnessing this globally (4). The question we ask is whether the demographic transition can also help to create a democratic system of elected government.

Historic data, prior to the mid 20th Century, shows evidence of a relationship between democracy and demography. In my colleague Tim Dyson’s previous work, this appears to be true for developed nations, such as the UK and the US, in the period between 1890 and 1930. We can also draw upon other research that offers support for this idea (e.g. 5; 6; 7; 8).

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 from 1970 to 2005 to find out whether there was a relationship with demography.

What can demography tell us about democracy

Did India’s democracy develop faster than its demography?

In the first half of the demographic transition, we see increases in life expectancy 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. 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.

There is much debate about how democracy should best be measured (for example see this article from the Washington Post), and no single measure can capture such a complex and multifaceted concept. But after a review of established measures we chose Vanhanen’s index, and also reran our analysis using the overall measure of democracy from the Polity IV project (which made little difference to our overall findings). We focused on Vanhanen’s index because it reflects two critical features of democracy that are relevant for our study: political participation (P) and political competition (C). It also has the advantage of being largely free of subjective evaluation.

To measure a country’s overall progress in the demographic transition, we used median age (using data from the UN). Our analysis used a series of regressions, including various ‘fixed effects’ specifications, to test the link between Vanhanen’s index and median age (while accounting for other factors like urbanisation and educational expansion). In doing so, we chose to focus our analysis on only those countries that had low levels of democratisation in 1970.

Overall, we found a robust link between demography and democracy. All else equal, countries going through demographic change will also democratise. Perhaps more importantly, this relationship seems to hold when we look at changes within countries, even after excluding a range of alternative explanations.

But we also note that there is considerable variation between countries, and we caution against the notion that demographic transition will inevitably lead to democratisation in every country.

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 (there is an enormous literature on this topic in political science, for example see: Origins of political order). And there must also 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.

Nevertheless, 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.

Democracy and the demographic transition, by Ben Wilson and Tim Dyson, was first published in Democratization in June 2016.

Author information

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 postdoctoral researcher at Stockholm University Demography Unit, as well as a visiting fellow in the Department of Methodology and affiliated member of the Department of Social Policy at LSE.

Image: India – Chennai – busy T. Nagar market CC BY 2.0

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