Policy Paradigm Shift: The Need to Consider Human Capital and not Just Population Growth in Evaluating Population Trends

The twentieth anniversary of the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) is approaching. As a strategic meeting around world population issues is in preparation (ICPD beyond 2014), this is a good  time to review past achievements and define new challenges. The UNECE countries of Europe, Central Asia, and North America constitute a globally relevant laboratory in which much can be learned about population trends and the relationship between policies and outcomes that may subsequently play out in other parts of the globe.

The interplay between fertility, mortality, and migration in the context of population age profiles determines the observed and projected population outcomes. In the last two decades the UNECE countries had in common a progressive ageing of populations, an increase in mean ages of childbearing, and a growing importance of net migration effects on overall population trends. These developments invite policy-relevant questions about the character and mechanisms behind these trends and their future consequences. A recent IIASA study authored by Jana Vobecká, William Butz and Gerald Reyes in collaboration with UNFPA (Vobecká et al., 2013) takes up these issues.


The report focuses on four “Hot Questions” that drive policy debates on population prospects in most countries in the UNECE region and beyond.

Hot Question 1: Is population ageing a threat for the UNECE countries?

None of the ECE countries can escape ageing, but its burden and opportunities can vary. Chronological ageing of the population is going to accelerate in the decades to come, but relative population ageing as measured by fitness, health, disability and cognitive capacity will progress much more slowly than chronological ageing in most UNECE countries. What hampers national economic performance is not population ageing, per se. It is rather insufficient activity of national governments and firms to prepare for population ageing and adjust to it. National governments should design policies to: educate younger cohorts so as to maintain their economic productivity at older ages; keep older persons in economic activity by adjusting age at retirement to growing healthy life expectancy; adjust pension schemes to the increasing remaining time people can be expected to remain in pension; reduce smoking and obesity; and control unhealthy emissions.

Hot Question 2: Is migration a threat or opportunity for development?

For many countries in Western Europe, North America and the Russian Federation, migration has partially compensated for the smaller cohort size of the “native” population compared to the generation of their parents. Most migrants migrate in younger adulthood. They contribute to the size of the reproductive cohort and therefore contribute to the host society not only by their economic activity but potentially also as parents of children born in the host country. Moreover, apart from explicit policies to attract student migrants, the host country did not bear the burden of their schooling and rearing. When well integrated and employed, migrants are an asset for the host society. The causes of difficulties are invariably inadequate integration, social exclusion and unemployment of migrants, challenges that are much easier to state than to overcome. On the other hand, in the countries that have experienced massive net out-migration, productivity, ageing, family support systems and sustainability are negatively affected by the migration losses, despite the remittances by migrant workers. Neither increased investments in physical capital and infrastructure, nor productive uses of remittances can make up for the varied but lost contributions to a society of educated and ambitious young adults, gainfully employed.

Hot Question 3: Is fertility in the UNECE countries too low?

The optimal fertility in most UNECE countries is below the replacement level of 2.1, due to the increasing productivity of people with higher educational attainment and better health, which is more prevalent both among the young than among the older cohorts and in some UNECE countries because of the age-specific net migration gains. Family- and gender-related policies that reduce the time and money trade-offs between employment and childbearing for women can moderate very low fertility. However, research indicates that in the fertility range of most, if not all countries in the Region, it is far more important to invest in education, health and gender equality to assure that families reach their desired number of children than to spend substantial resources trying to increase fertility to any per se defined numerical goal.

Hot Question 4: Are ECE countries becoming less equal societies?

Inequality of economic and social outcomes, and even of opportunities, persists among the members of society in every UNECE country. Still, many of these countries are among the international leaders in addressing inequality and creating equal opportunities, and the general situation is seemingly improving. However, children, young adults, older women and some ethnic minorities are the most vulnerable. Older women are at higher risk of poverty or social exclusion than are men in every country. These trends indicate the importance of focusing on populations at risk, not just country-level indicators, as well as looking beyond the obvious economic indicators.

The key message for the ICPD beyond 2014 debate

The slowdown of population growth and even its reversal is a reality today for the UNECE countries, as well as their expected future. This fact brings into question the paradigm of population growth as a measure of success. How to make prosperous societies without numerical population growth? This is a key policy challenge not only in the UNECE region but globally.

Within the constraints of history and culture and the more immediate challenge of recession-generated limitations, a better choice than investment in the quality of people – their schooling and health – will be hard for countries in the UNECE region to find. The economic returns are substantial, extending into the retirement years and forward into the next generation. The returns beyond economics are also substantial. Fortunately, there is no mystery about how to make these investments and no starting point in 2013 too modest or too advanced that measurable progress cannot be made.

This entry was posted in Ageing, Education, Migration, Mortality by Jana Vobecká. Bookmark the permalink.
Jana Vobecká

About Jana Vobecká

Dr. Jana Vobecká holds a PhD in Demography from the University of Burgundy in Dijon and Charles University in Prague. She is a Researcher in social demography at the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital (Vienna Institute of Demography, Austrian Academy of Sciences). Her research focuses inter alia on spatial population dynamics and its effects on social inequalities, local governance, and historical demography. She has published in journals such as Population, Space and Place, Czech Sociological Review and Central European Journal of Public Policy. Her first book 'Demographic Avant-Garde, Jews in Bohemia between the Enlightenment and the Shoah' has been published in 2013.

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