An Eye-Opening Measure: The Vital Index

by Carl Haub, senior demographer, PRB

The vital index, the annual number of births per 100 deaths, is a simple measure but can often be eye-opening. Only a few countries publish the index on a regular basis. While that may not sound exciting at first, the measure can teach us a lot about population dynamics. Recently, the index did receive some national news: when the number of deaths of non-Hispanic whites in the United States exceeded births, for the first time in history.

In the table, we can see that the current level of the total fertility rate (TFR), or the average number of children per woman,  does not necessarily show where a country stands with regard to births and deaths. The present vital index is a result of a number of factors: how recently the TFR declined to a low level; the proportion of the population in the older ages; the number of young people who have moved into childbearing ages; and the effect of immigration, which normally consists of workers and their families who are themselves in the childbearing ages. All of these factors play into the vital indices in the table in different ways.

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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.

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