Professor Jane Elliott is the Chief Executive of the ESRC.
On Thursday evening (25 June) I attended an event hosted by the British Academy and organised by the British Society for Population Studies. The aim was to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of ESRC and the role we have played in supporting research in demography.
Sir Ian Diamond gave a very interesting presentation on ‘Fifty years of Population Change’. Two of the key messages that stood out for me were first that due to increasing longevity, the meaning of age is changing (at least in relation to mortality). Whereas back in 1951 a man aged 50 had a one per cent chance of dying in the next year, by 2011 a man needed to be aged 62 before the probability of dying in the next year was as high as one per cent (for women the equivalent ages are 56 and 67). As Sir Ian framed it – you could argue that for men 62 is the new 50. Second the percentage of women remaining childless has been increasing so that for the cohort born in 1945 only 10 per cent remained childless, whereas for the cohort born in 1965 20 per cent were still childless by age 45. As Sir Ian highlighted it is important to reflect on what this means for later life, if we fast forward to 2045, approximately one in five women aged 80 will have no children who can provide practical or emotional support.
Sir Ian also highlighted the numerous ways in which ESRC has supported demographic research over the past fifty years including supporting high quality data for research. For example, longitudinal studies such as the British Birth Cohort Studies and Understanding Society (see CLOSER for more details of the broad portfolio of studies supported). ESRC has also been central in providing funding for numerous programmes and research centres focusing on demographic research. These include the Cambridge Group (CAMPOP) and more recently the Centre for Population Change (CPC), whose research underpins the figures above.
There was a lively discussion after the lecture which continued over drinks. In particular two questions that came up were ‘How good is demography at predicting the future?’ and ‘How interdisciplinary is demography and has it become more so over time?’ Although there were no straightforward answers to these questions, it was suggested that demography is very good at predicting the future as long as there are no major externalities which influence the system. It could then be argued that if future prediction is the aim, an interdisciplinary approach is needed to help identify and understand the external factors which may have a major impact on changes in the structures and nature of populations.