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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Will the Protests in the Arab World Have a Demographic Impact?

With the sudden and unexpected momentum of street demonstrations in Arab nations, especially in Egypt, many people are trying to take stock of what it means for the future. Anthony Shadid in the New York Times gets at what seems to be the heart of the matter throughout the region--people are tired of repressive and corrupt governments that are holding the people back from accomplishing what they believe they can do with their lives, if only given a chance.

“Dignity” was a word often used Wednesday, and its emphasis underlined the breadth of a movement that is, so far, leaderless. Neither the Brotherhood nor a handful of opposition leaders — men like Mohammed ElBaradei or Ayman Nour — have managed to articulate hopelessness, the humiliations at the hands of the police and the outrage at having too little money to marry, echoed in the streets of Palestinian camps in Jordan and in the urban misery of Baghdad’s Sadr City. For many, the Brotherhood itself is a vestige of an older order that has failed to deliver.
“The problem is that for 30 years, Mubarak didn’t let us build an alternative,” said Adel Wehba, as he watched the tumult in the square. “No alternative for anything.”
The lack of an alternative may have led to the uprising, making the street the last option for not only the young and dispossessed but also virtually every element of Egypt’s population — turbaned clerics, businessmen from wealthy suburbs, film directors and well-to-do engineers. Months ago, despair at the prospect of change in the Arab world was commonplace. Protesters on Wednesday acted as though they were making a last stand at what they had won, in an uprising that is distinctly nationalist.
History suggests that, when given a chance in a region where education is already highly prized and where there is a long history of business and commerce, the freedom to be more economically productive will likely lead to an improvement in the overall level of living--the rising tide that may lift all boats. This could allow people to reverse the steep trend toward delayed marriage for both males and females. This might, in theory, lead to an increase in the birth rate unless married women remain highly motivated to have small families. But, of course, the opportunity costs of children are bound to rise with an improved standard of living, and that may well have the effect of accelerating the decline in fertility in the region, rather than raising it.

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