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 13th (it will be out in January 2020), 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.

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Friday, November 15, 2013

Reading (or Misreading) Demographic Tea Leaves in Chile

Any reader of this blog knows that politics and demographics are a heady brew, mixed up together all the time, and I like to encourage that kind of thinking. But sometimes people get things wrong (hey, I do too occasionally). A good example of misreading the demographic tea leaves is an article in discussing this weekend's presidential election in Chile.
Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet of the center-left Concertacion coalition seems poised to win the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for Nov. 17. She will supersede Sebastian Pinera who replaced her in March 2010; Chile's constitution forbids consecutive terms.
Pinera entered office at a time of change in Chile. The country has a comparatively young representative government, having moved out of dictatorship and into a democratic system in 1990. In the wake of the dictatorship, there was a small population boom, the outcome of which was an upsurge of people who are now between the ages of 15 and 30. This new generation is composed of Chileans who have no living memory of the dictatorial regime of Chilean President Augusto Pinochet and grew up in an increasingly open social environment that permitted the development of a protest culture. This, combined with the economic challenges facing society, has produced a sustained period of public unrest that began under Bachelet's last administration and has intensified under Pinera.
I underlined the demographic component that seems to underly the analysis of what Bachelet will face when she takes office. A population pyramid of Chile, based upon UN estimates for 2015, even accompanies the story--very nice. The only problem is that there wasn't actually a population boom, small or otherwise, in the wake of the dictatorship. There will be a bulge of people aged 20-29 in 2015 (not 15-30). Those aged 20-24 were born right after the return to democracy, whereas those 25-29 were  born in the last years of the Pinochet dictatorship. So, we are on shaky ground attributing either one to the kind of government in place when they were born. In fact, during this entire time, the average woman in Chile was having fewer and fewer children. If anything, the decline in fertility accelerated after the return to civilian rule, and is now below replacement level--consistent with the demographic trends in the European countries from which most Chileans can trace their roots. That boom came about entirely because 1985-1995 represented the peak years for the absolute number of women of reproductive age in Chile--a legacy of higher birth rates in the pre-Pinochet years. This created an unusual bulge in births between 1985-1995, but it had nothing to do with the desire for more children, nor seemingly anything to do with politics more generally.

If anything, the age structure of Chile is poised to be economically advantageous--a potential demographic dividend. The bulge of young workers, less burdened with children than previous generations, can and should be the cornerstone of new economic policies in Chile. This is a fleeting moment in Chile's demographic history--they have to use it or lose it.

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