On 7 November 2016, the BISR Population, Environment and Resources Working Group hosted a talk on ‘The Demographic Basis of Democratization’ by Professor Tim Dyson from the London School of Economics. Here Rachel Pinto, an MSc student at Birkbeck, reflects on the event.

Last week, I listened to Professor Tim Dyson give a fascinating talk at Birkbeck on how the changing profile of births and deaths in a given society can promote the spread of democracy.  His argument centred on how the transition from a mainly younger population to a largely adult one speeds up the transition from autocratic rule to a more democratic one which accounts for the will of the people.

So what can we learn from his work?

Linked to demographic transition theory (see Frank W. Notestein, 1983), Dyson starts by making a compelling case. He describes the first stage of demographic transition. These are pre –industrial societies characterised by high fertility and equally high mortality.  In this environment, times are tough with women primarily concerned with child-rearing activities, and men working hard to support their growing families, often working in physical labour.  He argues that this is not a breeding ground for democracy to flourish, and therefore a despotic power tends to be the dominant force.

However, through the process of industrialisation, we see the growth of technology, modern medicine and new cities (amongst other interrelated developments). This brings us to the next stage of demographic transition – a decline in mortality rates. Suddenly, there is a surge in the adult population and this is the ideal breeding ground for democracy, as more people are living and working for longer, and therefore taking more of an interest in political affairs.  As mortality rates fall, this is followed by a drop in the birth rates, with women having more choice to engage in work and have fewer children. So as life gets easier, a largely adult population is able to mobilise, grow stronger and find their political voice.

While Dyson’s argument sounds plausible, how does it stack up with available data sources?  To test this, Dyson looks at the relationship between two key variables – median age (MA) and an age adjusted index of democratisation (AID) (see Tim Dyson, 2013Ben Wilson & Tim Dyson, 2016). There’s no point in saying that a population like Uganda where the average age is 15 has a low voter turnout for its population since most cannot vote. The AID measure looks at voter turnout among those old enough to be eligible to vote, as well as the extent to which there is political competition (i.e. the proportion of votes going to political parties besides the main one). The findings are convincing, especially when looking at a turbulent time period in Europe.  In his own words, ‘for all countries in Europe from 1890 -1930 there is a positive and significant relationship between the two variables. With MA being the best predictor of changes in AID.’

It’s easy to be critical of this analysis, as you could clearly argue that other factors play a key role in promoting democracy, such as mass education (particularly for women) and even economic drivers. Dyson responded by recognising other factors, but also arguing that calculating the middle age of a population and tracking this over time, in conjunction with objective measures on political participation better predicts democratisation than change in economic measures such as per capita income.

For me, Dyson’s work raises interesting points about the links between political participation and age, which are seen in a different guise today.  For instance, the rise of young activists in the Labour Party is a testament to the renewed spirit of democracy. In essence we can learn a lot from this work, and in turn derive useful insights on how the demographic profile of a society can shape the political climate.

Listen to the podcast of the lecture

This blog was contributed by Rachel Pinto. Rachel works in employment relations policy and has an interest in ageing population structures and its impact on the world of work.  She’s currently studying a part-time MSc in Politics of Population, Migration and Ecology at Birkbeck.

Follow Rachel on twitter: @Rp1nto

The Population, Environment and Resources (PER) Working Group examines global connections between population, environment and resource dynamics and their links to politics.

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