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.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Demographics of Happiness (and Unhappiness)

The terrorist attacks in Brussels this week and in Paris in November are among the many horrific reminders of unhappiness in the world. Indeed, here in the US, the candidacy of Donald Trump is largely about unhappiness among a subset of Americans. Economist Richard Easterlin, a Past President of the Population Association of America, has been a leader in the research studying unhappiness. I mention that largely to point out upfront that demographers are interested in happiness, because there is almost certainly a strong correlation between demographic characteristics of a nation and its residents happiness. This is borne out by a recently released World Happiness Report, sponsored by the United Nations, although written by outside experts, including Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia University (who is, however, a special advisor to the UN).

The NYTimes covered the story, with the headline about Denmark being the happiest nation on earth and Burundi the unhappiest. Denmark, as everyone knows, is a small country with a high life expectancy (81 years, one of the highest in the world), low fertility (1.7 children per woman--low but not disastrously low), high income ($46,140 per person per year--one of the highest in the world), and characterized by a political economic system of democratic socialism. Burundi, on the other hand, is a relatively small East African nation that has low life expectancy (59 years, one of the lowest in the world), high fertility (6.2 children per woman, one of the highest in the world), low income ($790 per person per year--one the lowest in the world) and a history of violence and trouble, as I noted recently (for an overview, see the US State Department Humanitarian Information Unit website).

Denmark did not come by its success easily. My wife's maternal grandparents migrated from Denmark to the US in the late 19th century because of the deep rural poverty in Denmark at the time. But Scandinavia in general gave birth to the world's first major increases in life expectancy and declining fertility, increasing the status of women, and distributing societal resources in a fair and just manner. On the other hand, Burundi, like many developing nations, is wrapped around by corruption and mutual distrust. The remedies cannot be easily imposed from the outside, but they can at least be encouraged from the outside and rewarded as much as possible. 

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