’The Human Tide’ and the Baby Boomlet in Population Books

On destiny and demography.

April 3, 2019

The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World by Paul Morland

Published in March of 2019.

We are in the midst of something of a baby boomlet of demography books. Fans of population science can read the recently published Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline (2019) and Demography: A Very Short Introduction (2018).

With The Human Tide, we have a nonfiction demographic trifecta.  Not only is The Human Tide the third book on population that I’ve read in the past few months, it also the best of the bunch.

Those not trained in population science are often challenged to grasp the power of demography to explain the past and shape the future.

Trends that are often ascribed to ideology or technology often contain deeper demographic drivers.

The Human Tide does an admirable job of placing the story global social and economic change through its proper demographic lens.

As societies moved from a world in which children have a high chance of dying to a high probability of surviving, due to advances in both sanitation and preventive medical care, parents respond by having fewer children.  Lower childhood mortality, combined with increasing levels of female education and urbanization, has resulted in an incredibly rapid transition to lower fertility.

The result of all this is that almost everything that we think we know about low-income countries today, and high-income countries tomorrow, is either incomplete or wrong.

As Morland demonstrates through a masterly synthesis of demographic data, the worry that population growth threatens either economic or environmental sustainability is mostly misplaced. In everywhere outside of Sub-Saharan Africa, fertility has either reached a level below replacement or will do so soon.

The challenge of the future will not be in feeding a growing population, but in finding enough workers to take care of (pay social benefits for) an increasingly old and long-lived population.

What The Human Tide does particularly nicely is to point out the advantages, as well as challenges, of a world in which women have few children and in which life expectancy keeps increasing. (Yes, Morland does cover the recent data showing early death among some elements of the population - deaths of despair - but concludes (as I do) that this is a statistical blip rather than a long-run trend).

Aging populations are challenged to pay for social insurance and medical care - as almost every social insurance system is pay-as-you-go.  On the positive side, older populations exhibit much lower levels of crime and much higher levels of social cohesion.

I have my doubts that supporters of building a giant wall on the US / Mexican border will read The Human Tide.  If they do, however, they will learn about both the benefits of immigration to the receiving country (us), and about how trends in Mexico will reduce the push to leave. Mexico is rapidly moving to a replacement level total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.1, a rate that is likely to go much lower in the years to come.

As Mexico ages, wages for young workers will rise.  In the future, the US may find itself offering inducements for Mexican citizens to come North to take care of all of our old folks.

American readers of The Human Tide may find the European (and particularly British) focus of the book either fascinating or challenging.  I never knew that European demography could be so exciting.

I look forward to the reactions of The Human Tide from my friends who are political scientists and economists. If you believe Morland (and I do), demographic factors offer the best explanations for events as diverse as the 20th-century world wars and the 2016 American presidential election.

For those of us who think about not much else besides the future of higher education, the first place we might want to look for clues are factors such as family formation, fertility, and migration. Everything else may be mostly noise.

What are you reading?


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