Top 5 Demography Myths

In this post, I intend to disprove or at least question five commonly encountered myths about world demography (as I already did for Russia).

1. The Third World is experiencing a fertility-driven population explosion. Whereas this was true a generation ago, today most countries outside sub-Saharan Africa are in the later throes of demographic transition (the term “Third World” itself is no longer a very useful moniker). Not only is practically all of the industrialized world – Europe, the Anglo-Saxon world, Eurasia – at or below replacement level fertility rates (TFR), but countries like China, Turkey, Iran, Algeria and Brazil have joined them. Population growth in these countries is now driven primarily by the (artificially) low death rates and high birth rates typical of young populations.

As the map of world fertility rates below shows, there are now practically no regions outside Africa where women are expected to bear three or more children, even in traditional societies like the Middle East.


There are few exceptions. These include particularly poor countries like Pakistan (4.0), oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia (3.1) where resource wealth has charged ahead of socio-economic development, and countries like Israel (3.0) that are afflicted by conflict demography.

2. Fast-breeding Muslims will soon take over Europe and create a “Eurabia” Caliphate. This theory that fecund Muslims will stage a demographic takeover of Europe because of their innate hatred of Western civilization only really enjoys support from assorted yahoos like radical Islamists, European fascists and American neocons like Mark Steyn in his book America Alone (which I reviewed here). More serious demographers tend to dismiss these scenarios because they rely on many questionable assumptions such as the following:

  • There are already hordes of uncounted Muslims in the EU. At least on paper, that is not the case – most estimates give Muslims around 15m-20mn of the EU’s 450mn+ population; only in France do they approach 10% of the population. Though it is possible some are uncounted, there is no convincing evidence for this.
  • Muslims form a monolithic, illiberal entity resistant to secularization. While there are such pockets in Europe’s inner cities, Islam in Europe is so differentiated by ethnicity and levels of religiosity that it makes little sense to speak of a united Islamist front. The future of religious fervor is nigh impossible to predict, but the current pro-Islamist trend may – or may not – last as long as the post-colonial nationalist one from 1945 to the 1970’s.
  • Muslim fertility rates are much higher than native Europeans’ and will not converge to their level. As a rule, Muslim fertility in the EU tends to be around one child higher than amongst the indigenous population, though there are plenty of variations by region and Muslim ethnicity. Furthermore, these is a general trend towards convergence of Muslim fertility towards European averages. Though Muslims can be expected to keep expanding their share of the population due to their younger age profiles (lower death rates, higher birth rates) and immigration, at current trends they will not become majorities any time soon.
  • Europeans will take in ever bigger numbers of Muslim immigrants to support their failing welfare states. But most Muslim countries are already far advanced in their demographic transitions. Traditional people exporters like Turkey or the Maghreb are hardly bursting at the seams nowadays, and economic growth is bringing opportunities to their youth. Why would they want to migrate to sclerotic Europe that is, furthermore, becoming increasingly right-wing on immigration?
  • More Europeans will “revert” to Islam, while ever more Christians leave emerging Eurabia for America Alone. While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence for both trends, they do not seem to have any significant impact in absolute numbers.

In conclusion, all or most of these assumptions will have to be fulfilled for Europe as a continent to become endangered by the specter of “Eurabia” within the next decades. As it stands, however, the 1) retention of post-religiosity, 2) intensified clash of civilizations, or 3) return to fascism, must all figure as more likely scenarios for Europe’s future than the Crescent*.

3. Europe is a demographic abyss whose welfare states are doomed to collapse under their aging and shrinking populations. This is a favorite of American neocons and European right-wingers. Though this is a serious threat to some European states (particularly Club Med), the picture across Europe is far more varied and complex. In terms of their demographic health, there are three main groupings.


[The TFR’s of the five biggest European countries 1960-2008.  Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators – Last updated June 15, 2010.]

First, the Scandinavian states, France, and the UK have total fertility rates (TFR’s) of 1.7-2.1 children per woman, which corresponds to long-term demographic stability. Barring severe fiscal mismanagement or vulnerability to energy cutoffs (both most visible in Britain) their current welfare states are probably sustainable.

Second, the East-Central European nations have an uncertain future. Although their fertility rates plummeted during the early 1990’s, they may yet recover in the years ahead – though it is important that they do so before the big 1980’s cohort passes its child-bearing years. This is more likely in pro-natality and energy-rich Russia, less likely in indebted Hungary or crippled Latvia. Poland lies in the middle.

Third, the countries in the worst positions are in the Teutonic and Mediterranean regions. The German fertility rate fell well below the replacement level rate of 2.1 children per woman back in the early 1970’s and has since hovered below 1.5. They have not been replacing themselves for a full generation now – and with desired TFR’s at 1.8, the lowest in Europe, they are not going to start doing so any time soon. Their fall into a “death spiral” is now near inevitable, albeit its consequences will be mitigated by Germany’s enduring fiscal and industrial strength.

Though the TFR of Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece fell below 1.5 children per woman about ten to fifteen years after the Teutons, their futures may be even bleaker because they have unsustainable debt loads and few competitive export industries. Their coming economic collapse will pull them further into the demographic abyss.

4. People in developing nations are dying like flies. Much like the myth of their high fertility rates, this is no longer true in most cases. Most countries in Latin America, the Middle East, East Asia, and even South Asia have life expectancies above or approaching 70 years. This is not much different from the typical life expectancy in an advanced industrialized nation which is typically at 75-83 years. This is not surprising. Once a country acquires basic sanitation, obstetrics, vaccination and antibiotics services, life expectancy usually rises to around 70-75 years. Advanced – and very expensive – healthcare adds on the additional decade seen in the most developed nations.

[Beyond a certain minimal level of income, life expectancy approaches the boundaries of its theoretical maximum. Source.]

Today, the only world region that has not acquired the rudiments of basic healthcare is sub-Saharan Africa. Places where life expectancy is somewhat lower than expected relative to their income are 1) nations like South Africa or Botswana afflicted with uncontrolled AIDS epidemics and 2) post-socialist nations like Russia or Ukraine which drink far too much**. Likewise, even relatively poor or middle-rank countries like Cuba or Costa Rica can achieve developed nation life expectancies though good policies and health environments.

5. Demographic projections, such as those of the UN, are reliable for both individual countries and the world. In reality, they become largely useless after about a single generation.

First, fertility trends are extremely difficult to predict. Back in the 1920’s, one statistician’s “low scenario” indicated that France’s population would fall to around 29 million by 1980 based on a linear projection of current trends; in reality, it rose to 54 millions. Predictions of an Iranian population spiraling into the hundreds of millions in the 1980’s have been invalidated by the unprecedentedly rapid fertility decline in the Islamic Republic. Much the same criticism can be made of the apocalyptic visions generated by linear extrapolations showing Russia’s population falling to 100 million or less by 2050.

Second, these global forecasts all tend to ignore the intimate relation demographic trends have with the economy, politics, and the environment. According to the findings of the Club of Rome, the world’s population has already overshot its limits and cannot be sustained in the long term without major transformations. If their darker forecasts materialize, the world’s future demography could be determined by the geography of economic collapse, Malthusian crisis and climate refugees by as early as 2030.


[The alternate future of the Limits to Growth “standard run”. Source.]

* I’ll be doing a more detailed post on the assumptions behind the Eurabia debate in the future.

** However, the alcohol epidemic mostly afflicts middle-aged men in Eurasia. It has little to no discernible impact on the mortality of women before or during their child-bearing years and as such does not much affect those countries’ long-term demographic prospects. Ironically, it actually strengthens their fiscal position, because many men die before reaching their retirement age.

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