December 15, 2017 | News | News

The Future of Demography

More than a hundred population scientists met at the MPIDR to celebrate the 21st birthday of the institute. At the event, they bid farewell to founding director James Vaupel and discussed the future of their field.


What is the future of demography? How can scholars of demography raise awareness of its importance? What can be done to ensure that the field prospers and grows, and that enough young demographers are educated in the future?

These pivotal questions were discussed by more than a hundred scientists from the broad field of population studies who met at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) on October 19 to celebrate the 21st birthday of the institute, and to bid farewell to its founding director, James Vaupel, whose directorship comes to a close at the end of this year.

James Vaupel and Jan Hoem in October 2000 at the ground-breaking ceremony for the new MPIDR building, which is located on Konrad-Zuse-Straße, facing the Warnow River. © MPIDR

James Vaupel became the first director of the MPIDR when it was established in Rostock in 1996. The MPIDR was and has remained by far the largest independent demographic research institute in Germany. Three years later, Jan Hoem joined the institute as the second director.

“It was James Vaupel’s leadership that turned MPIDR into one of the leading – if not the leading – institutions of demographic research in the world,” Karl Ulrich Mayer said in his welcome address. It was Mayer, a sociologist who has long served as the head of the Leibniz Society, who proposed in the 1990s setting up a Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research.

At that time, shortly after the country had reunified, demographic research was marginal in Germany. The image of demography had suffered significantly because of abuses in the era of National Socialism, and the discipline never really recovered in the post-war period.

Within the scientific community, it was seen as an achievement of historic proportions that under its founding director, James Vaupel, the institute caused attitudes about demography to change quickly in Germany. According to Mayer, the MPIDR has since become an “international hub of excellence in population science.”

“James Vaupel was and is an institutional innovator,” said Mayer, pointing to the wealth of scientific institutions and connections “Jim” Vaupel initiated during his time at the MPIDR. For example, with his help, Rostock University set up professorships for demography and founded the Rostocker Zentrum in cooperation with the MPIDR. Since then, Rostock has become the nucleus for the education of demographers in Germany.

Education has always been of great importance to Vaupel. He established the Maxnet Aging Research School (MNARS) and the European Doctoral School (EDSD). Vaupel also showed a strong commitment to bringing young demographers to the institute, and to helping to advance their careers by teaching and working with them.

Is the Future of Demography in Danger?

Vaupel’s interest in young demographers is reflective of his interest in the future of demography, which was the subject of the anniversary and farewell symposium at the MPIDR. Renowned keynote speakers provided a range of perspectives on the state of demography and its ongoing challenges, and discussed these issues further in a concluding panel session.

Panel on the Future of Demography. From left to right: Roland Rau, professor of demography at Rostock University; MPIDR founding director James Vaupel; moderator Björn Schwentker; Annette Baudisch, professor of biodemography at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense; Albert Esteve, director of the Centre d'Estudis Demogràfics (CED) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona; Frans Willekens, former MPIDR chief research coordinator and former director of the NIDI in the Netherlands. © MPIDR

James Vaupel warned that the future of demography is anything but secure, and that the discipline is in danger. Vaupel noted that when the MPIDR was founded in 1996, there were four professorships for pure demography at German universities, whereas now there are only two. He argued that demography will have to fight for recognition going forward, and that demographers will have to put extra effort into educating their successors.

Other panelists and scientists from the audience indicated they did not fully share Vaupel’s pessimistic view, noting that the field of population studies is attracting more and more scientists from various disciplines. These speakers also pointed out that it might not be a disadvantage if scientists do not call themselves demographers.

Do Demographer have a Common Identity?

One of the crucial questions for the field, the symposium participants agreed, is whether demographers share an identity, or whether they have a common definition of what their science actually consists of.

Frans Willekens, a former MPIDR chief research coordinator and a former director of the NIDI, argued that formal or mathematical demography represents the core of demography, as mathematics render demography perceivable as a discipline. Willekens stressed that demography is defined by the population figures it deals with. He predicted a bright future for the discipline if it goes back to its roots in formal demography, and further develops them.

Roland Rau, professor of demography at Rostock University, added that demography should not be seen as a sub-field of sociology, but that it is a field in its own right. Rau thus argued that demography should be clearly identifiable as a separate discipline within the structure of universities.

This view was challenged by Annette Baudisch, professor of biodemography at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense , who noted in her keynote speech how many disciplines she had encountered when working at MPIDR. Her list of the 18 subjects she came across included disciplines like anthropology, economics, political science, physics, and even law.

Baudisch called for a new way of thinking that goes beyond disciplines, and that instead focuses on how scientific questions can be answered collectively.

Annette Baudisch presenting the scientific disciplines she has encountered while working at MPIDR. © MPIDR

Mikko Myrskylä, MPIDR director since 2014, said he welcomes multiple disciplines at the institute. He also observed that he does not see a shortage of skilled scientists able to do high-level demographic research at the MPIDR. Myrskylä reported that the only difficulty he has encountered in recruiting researchers for his research groups has been the sheer number of good applications he has received from scholars in disciplines other than demography.

Think Big!

Albert Esteve, director of the Centre d'Estudis Demogràfics (CED) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, exhorted his fellow demographers to “Think big!” Esteve contended that coming up with an exact definition of demography is not his main concern. Instead, he called upon leading demographers to network and build up institutions that will ensure the survival of the field. The bigger such networks and institutions are, Esteve said, the better.

Esteve also advised demographers to do more outreach to save their institutions. These efforts should, Esteve said, include producing and preserving knowledge of crucial importance for policymakers and the public. He argued that demographers should not be reluctant to share their knowledge, as they have the power to shed light on a range of societal problems. He further recommended that even if demographers are not being asked about their latest paper at the forefront of research, but about the basics of population science, they should respond to these questions, as non-experts typically do not know the answers.

An Optimistic Outlook

Vaupel said he agrees with Willekens and Rau that the core of demography should be formal in nature. He also emphasized that demographic knowledge and tools could prove useful for many other disciplines, as they are necessary when the interactions of individuals are being investigated at the population level. He noted that such investigations are hardly rare.

Vaupel therefore proposed calling demography a “super-field” of other disciplines like sociology, rather than a sub-field thereof.

Acknowledging that many demographers in the audience are less pessimistic – or are even optimistic – about the future of demography, Vaupel conceded that the outlook for the field might indeed be brighter than he had initially suspected.

It is, however, important to note that Vaupel remains worried about the discipline he spent most of his scientific career focusing on. His concerns can serve as a reminder of the need to take care of demography and of the people who are involved in the discipline.

When, at the end of the ceremony, Myrskylä gave Vaupel the original spade Vaupel and Hoem had used to break ground on the new MPIDR building in 2000, it was discovered that there was still old soil on it.

Mikko Myrskylä gives James Vaupel the original spade with which Vaupel and Jan Hoem had done the first delve for the new MPIDR building in 2000. © MPIDR

When Vaupel leaves the institute at the end of this year for the University of Southern Denmark in Odense  – where he will continue to challenge the status quo of demographic knowledge – he will take the soil with him. The institute that filled the hole he dug in the Rostock ground will remain his legacy.

Population scientists from all over the world came to MPIDR to celebrate at the anniversary and farewell symposium on October 19, 2017. © MPIDR

The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.