Comments (II)

Dudley said earlier he was going to set the hounds on Wolfgang, but that’s hardly what’s happening. I think I have to agree with what both Wolfgang and Professor Rostow have said.

There is one thing, though, I think we need to remember, which is that there’s a tendency to focus on the falling fertility rates and the lowering of projections of world population as being the good news and the important news for the future. I would like to remind everybody there are parts of the world where the old fashioned population explosion that we all read about and heard so much about around the time of 1970, around the time of the first Earth Day, when Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb really called this to everyone’s attention.

For the first half of the 1990s, my family and I lived in Bangladesh. If you remember the map that Wolfgang showed of population densities in 2000, there was one little dark maroon patch around the left armpit of the Indian subcontinent, and that was Bangladesh.

The densities there are unimaginable for Americans. I used to explain this to neighbors and to students by asking them to think—just a thought experiment— think of everyone in the world— the Pope, Deng Xiao-ping, everyone in the world—moving to the U.S. tomorrow. The average densities in the U.S. would then be a little over half what they are today in Bangladesh.

The population is still growing. They have far more people entering the labor force each year than can be found jobs in the modern sector. They’ve had great success with exporting clothing and textiles, but they really need a new industry like that practically every two years in order to keep up with population growth.

So we have to hold two ideas in our heads at the same time. There are the old fashioned population bomb ideas that are relevant for many parts of the world, important parts of the world, and there are the more recent concerns about population aging and declining fertility relevant for still other parts of the world.

There’s one other thing I’d like to do, which is to personalize this a little bit. I think in the U.S. we often feel we’re a nation apart, and in a lot of ways we are. We look at what’s going on in the developing countries today and think that this is part of our remote history or something, but it’s really not. The demographic transition is part of our family history for Americans.

We’ve talked mostly about fertility rates. I’d like to talk about mortality rates.

This graph shows death rates by age for males. I apologize for making it males. Males for demographers are the weaker sex, but there’s a reason and I’ll tell you in a moment.

The top line shows death rates by age for males in the U.S. in 1918. The middle line is Kenya for the late 1980s, fairly typical as Wolfgang said for a developing country in Africa now. The bottom line is for the U.S. in 1997, which is the most recent available. What you see is the tremendous progress that has been made in the U.S. in one lifetime. Mortality rates have fallen at every age, especially in infancy and childhood.

Now, I chose these dates because I think about these numbers in relation to my family. My father was born in 1917 in Tennessee, so the rates in the top line are those that were prevailing nationally in his first year of life. Tennessee at that time was almost certainly worse than the national statistics, if they had kept good statistics, which they didn’t. It was developing country statistics then, exactly as Wolfgang said for Africa.

The infant mortality rate was around 125 per 1,000 babies, and life expectancy at birth for men was about 53 years. That’s less than the life expectancy now for men in Ghana or Togo. Now, for African Americans at that time it was certainly worse. Life expectancy for them was a little under 40 years then, which is as bad as the African countries where AIDS is the worst problem today.

My father, like most members of his cohort, lived right through the Depression and World War II, well past what we would have calculated as their life expectancy in 1917, because mortality rates were falling at every age during most of his lifetime. By the time I was born in 1953, infant mortality in the U.S. was 35 per 1,000 and life expectancy was about what it is in Egypt today.

In 1980, when my oldest son was born, infant mortality was down to 14 per 1,000 and life expectancy for males was 70 years, which is the equivalent of Jamaica today.

So my father was Togo, I was born into Egypt, and my son, Jamaica. That’s a big portion of the variability in the world today in mortality rates. It’s a lot of progress, all in my father’s lifetime—three generations of an American family.

Comparable changes have been even quicker for the people in Asia, Latin America, and now even in many parts of Africa. I began in this business working on demographic surveys in Malaysia. There, all of this decline that I talked about for the twentieth century in the U.S. was packed into a much shorter period, a few decades, in Malaysia. What was wonderful about traveling around the country and interviewing people and talking to them was that the older women in our sample were remembering a time when Malaysian rates were like those in the poorest parts of Africa.

The youngest people in the sample were telling me about a time that was very much different. In fact, mortality rates in Kuala Lumpur were better than the mortality rates in the District of Columbia, where I live. So you could get basically this massive change in human history just by interviewing either 40- or 50-year-old women or 20- or 30-year-old women in the same country.

So it’s been a remarkable experience, this demographic transition. We’ve lived through it in our country, and it’s much more recent than people think. It’s part of all of our family history.

These child deaths are nearly all preventable now throughout the world. We have very good and very cheap technology for saving children.

Again personalizing: In my father’s family, Germans in Tennessee, right about that time when mortality rates were comparable to those in West Africa now, there were three little boys all younger than ten, all coincidentally named Otto, and they all died the same year. This was a devastating tragedy for the family. It was something that I heard about, and it’s the kind of thing one hears about in family histories.

Death was a common experience. I think everyone here, in all of our families, there would be something similar if we went back into nineteenth century history or even the early twentieth century. Maybe they’re not all named Otto, but there would be a story about devastating child deaths. Even though it was so common, it was still a human tragedy for the families involved. So when we look at these declining mortality rates, it’s interesting for us statisticians, but it’s an amazing change in the possibilities of life for the families that are part of the populations that we’re studying.

Thank you.