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“Demographic Research Has Become a Methodologically Highly-Developed Discipline”

BiB Director Prof. Dr. Norbert F. Schneider on how the EPC 2016 has benefited research.

The picture shows Professor Norbert Schneider at the EPC 2016. Prof. Dr. Norbert F. SchneiderProf. Dr. Norbert F. Schneider talks about the situation and orientation of international demographic research. Source: BiB

Professor Schneider, the motto of the conference was “Demographic Transition and Policy Implications.” How do you assess the potential for policy action in order to tackle demographic processes (fertility, ageing, migration)? To what extent can policy-makers exert any influence here at all?

The opportunities available to policy-makers depend on which specific demographic process we are talking about. For instance, much more direct action can be taken on migration, such as by closing a country’s borders. This is direct intervention. Policy-makers can, however, only exert an indirect influence on other topics such as fertility. They can create conditions within society that make it easier for couples to opt for children. They can improve possibilities for reconciling family and work, or improve childcare infrastructures, also with the aim in mind of perhaps influencing the birth rate. When it comes to ageing, there is a need to openly acknowledge the societal consequences, and then to develop suitable political measures to mitigate the undesirable consequences such developments may have.

This year’s European Population Conference, which was attended by a total of 900 population researchers, presented a broad spectrum of academic topics that met with considerable interest. What have you learned from the conference about the situation and orientation of international demographic research?

First of all, demographic research in Europe and worldwide is becoming better and better in qualitative terms. The conference made it clear that the range of topics covered is becoming increasingly broader. Topics refer not only to demographic processes, but increasingly also to methodological issues and policy fields. All these are highly positive developments. The conference also revealed that demography has become a highly developed discipline in methodological terms. It can now develop more and more new macro-data that previously were not accessible to scientific evaluation, making additional knowledge available to researchers. The opening of new datasets is a highly positive development at this juncture.

By contrast, demography still has shortcomings when it comes to theory development. Methodologically highly elaborate research, for instance, frequently stands on a weak theoretical foundation. In my view, greater attention should be paid in future to interdisciplinary methods, combined in “social demography,” and efforts should be undertaken to place demographic research on a more solid theoretical foundation.

A large number of sessions also analysed the consequences of migration processes on demographic developments such as fertility or life courses. Many repeatedly assert in this context that increasing immigration can have a positive impact on the consequences of the demographic transition. Can you confirm this from a scientific viewpoint?

What we experienced in 2015 in immigration is a one-time peak with regard to the number of people and their regions of origin. This will not remain the case in the long term. We can, however, presume that migration pressure to Europe will persist at a high level. We need to take a look at Africa first and foremost. A comparatively small number of people are arriving here from Africa at present, but we must adjust to this changing in future. Migration pressure towards Europe will remain high in the future. We need to consider that migration as such cannot completely compensate for the demographic consequences of ageing and shrinking populations. There may be a slight mitigation of the consequences of the demographic transition; ageing will slow, and the population will shrink less pronouncedly. But very high immigration numbers would be needed in order to completely compensate for this, which I consider completely unrealistic.

We also need to draw a very fine line between the different forms of immigration. We have absolutely no way at present of exerting any political influence on intra-EU migration in view of freedom of mobility. Labour migration from third countries needs to be managed differently than immigration by persons seeking protection. And family reunification is different again. With regard to this topic, the conference also made clear that migration means more and more that people are not coming here intending to remain permanently. More and more fluid forms of migration can always be observed, which lead not to permanent residence, but to residence that is temporary or circular. This multiplicity of forms of migration means that policy-makers need to pay attention not only to people who wish to remain here permanently, but also to increasingly look at those who are only in the country on a temporary basis. Here too, questions arise with regard to integration, which however takes place differently for these groups, and has to be managed with different mechanisms.

You stated in your opening speech that the image of the family has changed in the countries of Europe in the past 30 years and that it is possible to make out both converging and diverging developments. From today’s point of view, where do you see the family 30 years hence? How will it change? Will there be even greater diversity?

The development of the family will continue to be marked by increasing diversity. This will, however, exert a weaker impact on family forms as they are perceived from the outside, but diversity will develop more pronouncedly in terms of the internal structure of families, for example in the division of tasks between the genders and generations, and that it will develop over life courses, for instance through a further splaying of age at family formation. It is also likely that the dynamics of separation, divorce and re-establishment of relationships will increase further. Various forms of step-parenthood will become more common than is the case today.

If we look at the topics that were covered at the conference, we see that the terms “transition” and “diversity” that you apply to family development can also be transferred to a large number of other demographic research fields. Will international population research have to adjust in future in general terms to the need to analyse greater diversity and change?

There will be a continuation of the dynamic pluralisation, both in the family, and particularly when it comes to migration events. There will also be greater diversity of forms here, and transnational families and relations will also become more common. Migration events will increasingly develop social relationships across countries and continents that are essentially orientated towards economic transfers to family members who remained in the home countries. This will also lead to the creation of new social structures that as yet have not been the subject of very much research.

In closing, has this conference provided stimuli for future research interests and projects at the BiB? What have you learned from the EPC for the research work at the BiB?

When it comes to large numbers of core research topics the BiB is very well positioned. The institute has also taken up an ideal position in the international research landscape for the future with its focus on international comparisons, its life-course orientation, its strong theoretical foundation as well as its high methodological standards. (Interview: Bernhard Gückel, BiB)

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