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Wolfgang Lutz

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Wolfgang Lutz

Researcher of the Month

From an aging to an exploding population - Education will decide humanity’s future

It has been known for years that the world’s population development is very uneven, and that Europe faces very different demographic challenges than developing African countries. WU Professor Wolfgang Lutz, founding director of the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital (IIASA, VID/ÖAW, WU), has been cooperating with international demographics experts to investigate expected future population developments and how to make it possible for a future population of nine billion to live together in peace. Their results indicate the education plays a much more important role than previously believed. In developing countries, education for girls and women is a key variable: Higher levels of education make it more likely that women will have only as many children as they want and are associated with improved women’s health and reductions in child mortality. Education also plays an important role in Europe.

The population in Eurrope is barely growing, but aging fast, while in Africa, it continues to grow unchecked. The second largest continent on Earth is currently home to approximately one billion inhabitants; by the end of the century it will be between two and four billion.  “It is becoming increasingly apparent that our planet’s resources are limited, and more people require not only more food, more fuel, more water, etc., but also destroy more of the environment, log more forests, pollute more water, and contribute more to climate change,” explains WU Professor Wolfgang Lutz. He continues, “At the same time, there are enormous differences between poor and wealthy countries in these factors. The people that actually contribute the least to climate change are those that will suffer from its effects the most.” Lutz works with scientists around the globe to develop approaches to solving the huge challenges the future will bring. One aspect is increasingly clear: Education is a key factor, both with regard to stabilizing birth and death rates in Africa and securing Europe’s social systems.

Large-scale demographic project

WU Professor Lutz and his team chose a total of three different approaches. The investigations were based on a huge collection of demographic data from all over the world, gathered by national statistics authorities and large-scale representative surveys. A comprehensive review of international scientific literature on the predicted developments of the countries and regions included in the study was also conducted. Finally, a worldwide online survey of international demography experts from almost all countries of the world was conducted, to compile existing knowledge on the factors population, age, gender, education, birth and death rates, and their expected future developments. This data was then interpreted into alternative population development scenarios for all the world’s countries.

Step 1: Education for girls and women

The most significant factor by far in controlling birth and death rates was shown to be education for girls and women. In all countries worldwide, better-educated women had lower child mortality rates and longer life expectancies, because they are better informed about how to stay healthy. Better-educated women in developing countries want fewer children, are better equipped to defend their reasons in the face of traditional norms, and thus actually have fewer children than their less-educated counterparts. “For example, in Ethiopia, women with no formal education have an average of six children, while women who have at least a middle-school education have only two. Education allows these women to make an informed decision on the number of pregnancies they want to have. In fact, education in women proved to be an even stronger indicator than household income, which is the factor economists tend to think of first. To put it another way, our study shows that what’s inside people’s heads is more important than the contents of their wallets,” says Lutz. These findings are highly significant from a political perspective, especially since education was shown to have an impact on health.  

Step 2: Improved health

These results show that as a developmental goal, universal schooling for all young people, men and women, should be a top priority in national and international development. “Basic education and the closely correlated basic health enable people to help themselves. Helping people to help themselves needs to be today’s prescription for development,” Lutz explains, and continues, “All other factors like economic growth, food security, clean air and water, energy, and efficient governing, while certainly important, will follow.”

Europe needs education, too

Education is not only the central answer to the challenges of population growth in developing countries, it is also a key factor in addressing the problem of an aging society in Europe. “To be able to maintain stable social security systems in Europe, education will have to enable the ever-smaller working-age population to become more productive,” says Lutz. His studies show clearly that increased education in a population, especially higher education, is closely correlated to economic development, leading to an upward spiral. “Higher levels of education leads to more participation on the job market,” he says, “Many people choose to invest their modest wealth in middle-to-higher education. This makes societies more productive, allowing fewer people to achieve more. A dynamic development process begins.” It is important to remember, however, that it takes around 20 years after enrolling more children in school for the first economic changes to take effect, meaning that the positive effects will not be visible and quantifiable for quite some time. Europe’s goal should be to encourage more people – especially those with a migration background – to obtain higher education. In combination with a higher level of participation of women in the labor market and a higher retirement age, models predict that in Austria, for example, there will be enough workers available to keep the system afloat.

The full results of this study have been published in the 2016 book “Wer überlebt? Bildung entscheidet über die Zukunft der Menschheit“ by Rainer Klingholz and Wolfgang Lutz (CAMPUS Verlag).  

Many of his most current findings about world’s population development have been published in the book “World Population and Human Capital in the 21st Century” (Oxford University Press 2014), edited by Wolfgang Lutz, William P Butz, and Samir KC.