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  • Shifts in the Focus of Population Policies:Concluding Remarks on the XXXV Chaire Quetelet Symposium
  • Nico van Nimwegen

Scope of this contribution

The symposium, "Population Policies in Europe and in North America", XXXV Chaire Quetelet, Louvain-la-Neuve, 18-20 October 2009, covered a wide range of studies treating major issues on the interface of population trends and policy implications. The studies reported ranged from migration to family issues, labour market and social security but also included theoretical, methodological, ethical and data issues. Also experiences from a host of geographical areas were reported. In this contribution I will not try to summarize the outcomes of the symposium other than to say that the harvest of contributions was very rich and diverse and the conclusion is warranted that the field of policy studies has entered a new and very dynamic phase. Also I will not try to answer the question which scientific innovations were presented and how the symposium managed to advance our insights into the population-policy nexus. It was however very clear that in the field of policy studies a shift is taking place from more descriptive to more analytical studies. Finally I will definitely not try to distill policy recommendations from the diverse set of studies although in my view at least some of the work that was presented is very relevant to policymakers. In the following I will present a few general observations which result from the presentations and discussions at the symposium.

Types of policies

First of all it is useful to make a distinction in the broad domain of "population policies". Here two types of policies are distinguished. The first type of policies may be labeled as "population policies in the strict sense". These policies are designed to have an impact on population trends and processes like fertility, migration, mortality or population growth. The objectives of these policies are formulated in demographic terms, mostly as quantitative targets (such as the curbing of population growth or increasing fertility). These policies set out to influence demographic trends: they wish to change the course of demographic developments. There is a whole body of literature which suggests that it is very difficult to change demographic trends and that the impact of policies should not be overrated (see for example Hoem, 2008, Gauthier, 2007, Gauthier & Hatzius, 1997, Neyer & Andersson, 2007). This implies that we need to be very modest when we speak of the impact of policies on demographic trends. Most examples of population policies in the strict sense are policies in the field of fertility, either pro-natalist or anti-natalist in nature.

The most striking example of an effective population policy is of course China's one child policy. From a human rights perspective this policy (as well as other examples such as the forced sterilization campaigns in India in the 1970s) can be severely criticized which created a negative image that has long been attached to population policies. Less intrusive population policies, such as pro-natalist measures that introduce financial incentives to parents like birth premiums, are found to be less effective to promote lasting demographic change.

The second type of policies is generally referred to as "population-related policies". These policies are developed for other than demographic reasons such as gender equity, wellbeing, poverty reduction or to increase labour force participation. The policies are linked to population dynamics (hence the name population-related). They may also take demographic considerations into account. However, the policies are not introduced or primarily motivated by demographic reasons; they do not intend to change the pathways of demographic processes. They may however have a demographic impact. Labour-market policies and most family policies fall under the heading of population-related policies. In both cases it will be clear that these policies may have demographic consequences. Generally they are, however, not introduced to reach a specified demographic target. As is the case with the other type of policies, also the demographic impact of population-related policies is difficult to establish.

Policy shifts

In the last decades of the 20th century the world witnessed a shift away from population policies (which were not very popular, at least not in most developed countries...