This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

If you are a user of my textbook and would like to suggest a blog post idea, please email me at:

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Why Let a Good Commencement Speech Go To Waste?

I was asked this year to be the commencement speaker for the College of Arts and Letters here at SDSU. Besides keeping it short, there were no rules about what I should say, and of course that opened the door for comments about population. There is nothing new here to anyone who has my book, but I figured that most of the several thousand people in the audience have not done so. Thus, the following comments seemed appropriate. I took them back to my own undergraduate days at Berkeley in the early 60s when I first discovered demography working for Kingsley Davis...
...In population studies back then, everyone was concerned about high birth rates. To be sure, this was the era of Paul Ehrlich and the population bomb. But, actually, the more dramatic change quietly taking place all over the world was the decline in mortality.
We didn’t go from just one billion people alive only two hundred years ago (a mere blink of an historical eye) to more than seven billion people now just because of high fertility. Rather, it was the decline of death rates that produced population growth, since people don’t immediately stop having kids when they realize that their children are going to survive, rather than die early.
And why do you care about that? Because this dramatic improvement in life expectancy over the last century has transformed our lives in immeasurable ways. A century ago in this country, life expectancy was in the 40s, and less than a third of babies born survived to age 65. Now, life expectancy for females is 81 years, and nearly everyone survives to age 65.
We don’t have to give much thought to death until we get older, and that has given us “scope” in our lives that was unthinkable in human history until—actually--about the time i was born. It may seem as though this makes us the luckiest people ever born, but it isn’t luck. It all comes back to the unprecedented increase in education that has been taking place ever since the enlightenment took root in Europe in the 17th century--getting more and more people to understand the classics, philosophy, history and geography, and especially overcoming tradition and superstition in order to expand scientific endeavors (including the sciences that have allowed us to control death and live these long lives).
OK. So, you’ve got a longer life ahead of you than anyone who came before. And, by the way, an even longer life because you’re well educated, than if you had failed to get the degree you’re being awarded today. Each year of education turns out to add to your life expectancy.
What are you going to do with these bonus years? Well, here is where an old-timer like me comes in handy because i’ve been around the block—i know what’s out there. I promise not to quiz you on this, but you might want to pay attention anyway.
And what are those lessons? Watch this space for Commencement Speech 2. 

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