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Business News/ Economy / What to read to understand why population changes matter
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Six books on the under-appreciated science of demography

People argue both that the population is far too big and, with equal conviction, too small (Photo: Pratik Chorge/Hindustan Times)Premium
People argue both that the population is far too big and, with equal conviction, too small (Photo: Pratik Chorge/Hindustan Times)

Economists seem to be everywhere; demographers, not so much. As Danny Dorling admits, when demographers like him are asked at parties what they do, sometimes it is easiest just to lie. Their zero-rated public profile seems to reflect the state of their science. People may disagree about what economics has to say but no one doubts there exists a vast body of economic science which must say something. With demography, there is no such certainty and, as the world population passes 8bn, what might charitably be called intuition has rushed into the cognitive vacuum. People argue both that the population is far too big (to feed or for the health of the planet) and, with equal conviction, too small (for economic growth or to look after grandma). So this list of demographic books begins with a primer, laying out the basics of demographic science and explaining what is known, why it matters and where are the contested frontiers.

Why demography matters. By Danny Dorling and Stuart Gietel-Basten. Wiley; 225 pages; $25.95. Polity; £17.99

Demography matters, argue the aforementioned Mr Dorling, of Oxford University, and Stuart Gietel-Basten, of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, not because of panic-inducing headline numbers but for more subtle reasons. Shifts between different age groups, changing fertility rates and what might be called the various component parts of the demographic whole are all intimately connected with—and help explain—social change. Better education and public health, for example, drive down fertility rates and smaller families in turn spend more on schooling and medicine. The authors are sanguine that population growth will not turn out as disruptively high or low as many fear and are good at busting demographic myths, such as that migration damages most societies.

Demographics Unravelled. By Amlan Roy. Wiley; 320 pages; $39.95 and £30

Amlan Roy ran the demographics and pensions research division of Credit Suisse, an investment bank, for years. His book, published late in 2021, explains how demography affects financial markets, asset prices, pensions, health services and macro-economic policy. It is aimed at investors, rather than the general reader. Even more than Messrs Dorling and Gietel-Basten, Mr Roy emphasises the importance of the specific: broad groupings of countries based on age or fertility rates are not very useful because different people in the same age group often behave very differently. Mr Roy shows that “mere demography"—births, deaths, ageing, fertility—can only take you so far. Because of changes to education, taste and behaviour, age groups (for example, retired people) now influence markets in ways never seen in the past.

The Great Demographic Reversal. By Charles Goodhart and Manoj Pradhan. Palgrave Macmillan; 260 pages; $26.90 and £22.99

Charles Goodhart, formerly of the Bank of England and the London School of Economics, and Manoj Pradhan, founder of Talking Heads, a research firm, take some of the basic ideas explained in the previous two books in this list and use them to advance a broader and more controversial thesis. In the four decades after 1970, the share of the world’s population which was of working age gradually expanded, underpinning a long period of economic growth. These favourable global demographic trends, combined with the entry of China into the world economy, have resulted in decades of low inflation, low interest rates, relatively low wages and rising economic inequality. But that “demographic dividend" peaked in the early 2010s and is now in decline—and China is retreating from integration. That will lead to the converse: higher inflation, higher interest rates, higher wages and less inequality. Their thesis, which predated the rise in inflation in 2021-22, deserves attention.

The Wanting Seed. By Anthony Burgess. Norton; 288 pages; $15.95 and £9.99

Strangely, the same decades which saw the slow diffusion of the demographic dividend also produced the most overwrought prognostications of doom. Most of those prophecies have worn badly. But a sense of this demographic dread shines through an earlier dystopian novel by Anthony Burgess, published in the same year, 1962, as author’s more famous “A Clockwork Orange" and described by him as “a Malthusian strip cartoon". Britain is cramped and over-populated. Homosexuality is encouraged. Heterosexuals are discriminated against and pregnancy is illegal, with a Population Police to enforce the ban. Britain is fighting fake wars with the sole purpose of the killing off surplus young men, while “dining clubs" serve up murdered humans to their members. Yet the novel’s ending turns from this bleakness. The estranged central couple whose vicissitudes drive the plot meet again on a beach. “And she prayed for someone, and the prayer was at once answered…She clung to him." The last words quote a French poet, Paul Valery: “The wind rises…we must try to live."

Fatal Misconception. By Matthew Connelly. Harvard University Press; 544 pages; £20.95

Long before the 1960s, exaggerated fears of overpopulation led to a worldwide movement to shape and control demographic trends. This movement is the subject of Matthew Connelly’s book, a compilation of all the terrible ideas visited upon the world in the name of population control. These include the eugenics movement of the 19th century which aimed to “improve" the genetic quality of human beings and was enthusiastically adopted by the Nazis; forced sterilisation in India and China in the 1970s and 1980s, encouraged by the American government which threatened to withhold food aid to India unless it made its policies more draconian; and the subsidised export of medically unsafe intrauterine devices (IUDs) throughout what was then called the Third World. Critics of Mr Connelly’s book have pointed out that these ills lie deep in the corners of history and do not trouble current birth control and reproductive-rights policies. That may be true but the Columbia University professor has still produced a salutary reminder of the official callousness, sexism, racism and downright incompetence of rich men who considered they knew what was good for poor people better than the poor people themselves.

One Child. By Mei Fong. Oneworld Publications; 272 pages; £9.99

The first three books on this list explore the connection between demography and economics. This one describes in more detail its links with society. It tells the tragedy of China’s one-child policy, in place between about 1980 and 2015 (ie, after Mao’s tyranny). It does not hold back on the cruelties inflicted upon the Chinese people by local officials whose careers were being assessed by superiors on the basis of how many births they managed to prevent in their areas. But Mei Fong, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, also provides moving testimony to the suffering and forbearance of their victims. She argues that the decline in China’s fertility would have happened anyway, if not perhaps so fast. But the restriction to just one child encouraged many families to ensure that that one was a boy, resulting in millions more men than women than would have occurred naturally. The policy also changed expectations so that when the Chinese authorities woke up to damage they had wrought, one child had become the family norm and the policy continues to haunt China after its abolition. The world’s most ambitious population policy was not just a crime; it was a blunder.

Read more: According to the UN, the world’s population passed 8bn late in 2022. We explained why that’s no reason to panic and what to make of global demographic trends. China, however, does face great demographic difficulties as we have flagged. One big concern is “gendercide" and the unbalanced numbers of men and women in countries such as China and India. Meanwhile social trends including delayed marriage have been changing the demography of East Asia.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on

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Published: 11 Apr 2023, 03:42 PM IST
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