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Policy Insights

Doomed to Compare

Copyright: Upyanose

Population science is a fortunate discip­line, methodologically speaking. As demo­graphers, we enjoy a wealth of available data and our subjects—birth, partnership, death, movement—are fairly clear cut. They are also easily subjected to interna­tional comparisons, which offer insight into general and country-specific trends.

For example, while the prevalence of be­low-replacement fertility in Europe is un­deniable, comparisons show the extent of decline can vary considerably from country to country. We find that no single institu­tional measure but the whole institutional package—i.e. family policies, childcare in­stitutions, labour market regimes, and a society’s values—drives differences.

This conclusion may not be immediately helpful in a practical sense. So why bother with comparisons?

Comparative studies are indispensable, because they help us avoid developmental fatalism and ascribing all demographic ac­complishments to policymaking. Europe is delightfully diverse. Institutions, tra­ditions, and policies all affect each other, creating, when we’re lucky, natural exper­iments. Demography therefore stands to benefit from standardised life events data. But because of that very diversity, we are perhaps doomed to compare.

Zsolt Spéder, Hungarian Demographic Research Institute, Budapest