A Tale of Four Pyramids

by Carl Haub, senior demographer, PRB

There has been quite a bit made in the media and in blogs about low birth rates in industrialized countries. Quite correctly, many people (and countries!) are concerned that unprecedented aging and a dearth of younger people are leading to serious pressure on national budgets from a rising burden of support for the elderly because of  a declining group of tax-paying workers. But the situation is far from equal everywhere, and less is written about that.

The contrast between the age structures of the two country pairs below is striking, to say the least. All four countries have rather stable birth rates. If they stay that way, the demographic future of all four seems quite clear but in very different ways. These differences have profound implications for the future. Sharp shifts to an aging population will result in growing budgetary constraints, less ability to provide aid, and limited foreign policy options.

Populations of France and Germany, by Age and Sex

France and Germany

Source: for France: Institut national d'études démographfiques; and for Germany: United Nations Demographic Yearbook 2011.

France and Germany are neighboring countries with a long joint history. But their population pyramids are vastly different. France’s pyramid has developed into a fairly straight-sided example. If women in France continue to average about two children each, which they seem to be doing, the pyramid will evolve in a predictable way. Future numbers of women of childbearing age will be about the same as at present, keeping the population young and avoiding natural decrease (more deaths than births). In 2012, there were 1.4 births for every death, the same as in 1990. But, in Germany in 2012, there were only 0.8 births for every death. Deaths have outnumbered births in Germany since 1972. But there is another large difference between France and Germany. If Germany’s birth rate remains the same as it has been for many, many years, about 1.3 to 1.4 children per woman, deaths will continue to outnumber births by a larger and larger margin.

Populations of the United States and Japan, by Age and Sex

France and Germany

Source: for the U.S.: U.S. Census Bureau; and for Japan: Japan Statistics Bureau.


Comparisons between the U.S. and Japan, two economic rivals, are similar, with some differences. Japan is the world’s “oldest” country, with one-fourth of its population already ages 65 and over. Very low birth rates came later in Japan than in Germany. Women in Japan have averaged 1.4 children since the mid-1990s and deaths have now drawn equal to births. In the U.S., where women typically average about 2 children, there are 1.6 births for each death and the pyramid suggests that the pattern is likely to continue for some time. However, positive natural increase is primarily due to younger immigrants, particularly Hispanics.

So, the demographic picture in the industrialized countries is far from uniform. That will likely change the roles played by these countries on the world stage.

3 thoughts on “A Tale of Four Pyramids

  1. Carl:

    Given that the population “pyramid” got its name based on its shape, isn’t it time to retire that out-dated, shall we say, “ancient,” visual metaphor for something more accurate and modern?

    We tell people the population pyramid is dead. What we have today, certainly in most developed countries, looks more like a population skyscraper — and our preferred metaphor is the 102-story Empire State Building, with each floor representing a year. More width at the base for the first 25 floors, then straight upward until about floor 65, then tapering to 85 and rapidly tapering after that to the tip.

    Using a more modern and accurate depiction of the population distribution by age might help increase awareness among policymakers and leaders that the demographic shifts due to longevity, the Baby Boom and lower birth rates, are profound. And it’s time to think differently because these changes are also permanent.

    • Matt,

      I certainly agree with that, that “pyramid” is no longer applicable in quite a few countries. In fact, we had an article on the PRB site “Pyramids to Pillars:”
      http://www.prb.org/Articles/2013/population-pyramids.aspx
      making that very point.
      But, while pyramid isn’t descriptive of some industrialized countries, it still is for most developing countries, so what to do? One name does not fit all. Even among developed countries, there are differences. France, I think, does fit your Empire State Building idea quite well as it’s rather slab-sided. But Germany? A population fire hydrant perhaps? It would be great if some particularly imaginative individual could come up with a single term and preferably a lot shorter than something like “horizontal population histogram by age and sex!”

  2. Gains from productivity growth are projected to swamp any costs of supporting a larger elderly population with fewer workers. Notice how we can feed more people now with ever fewer agricultural workers?

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