Blog Post

Demography as Possibility

By: Dr. Pamela Perlich, PhD

Our newly organized Demography Team just initiated an ambitious research effort to produce detailed population projections for all Utah counties. We embark on this multiyear program of work with the clear understanding that the future is neither known nor knowable. So, how and why do we do the work?

The “methods and materials of demography” are based on a well-established set of techniques and practices that have been successfully implemented and continually extended to advance the field. Demographers and actuaries share common principles that resemble accounting. In its most basic formulation, demographers begin with a particular population that has specific characteristics, then add births, subtract deaths, add in-migrants, and subtract out-migrants. These techniques, combined with plausible ranges for expected fertility, mortality, and migration provide time paths for reasonable ranges of future populations.  This conceptual framework, combined with a rigorous treatment of regional economic conditions, potential futures, and constraints (e.g., land-use), bracket the range of possible future populations.

Our objective in this work is not to forecast the future, but to provide a framework to consider future reasonable possibilities and how our actions may lead to different results.  After all, we are not spectators watching reality materialize around us. We are purposeful actors whose decisions shape how the future unfolds. We explicitly recognize that uncertainty increases as we consider conditions further into the future. Our structural long-range projection models are tools that allow us to explore alternative futures. We build on the well-established practice of this work in Utah that dates back especially to the Utah Process Alternative Futures work in the 1970s.

We are communities of individuals who require assumptions and understandings of the future in order to find meaning and purpose in our lives. The more complex and large scale our connections to each other, the greater the imperative to systematically consider our future possibilities and how our combined actions and intentions affect current opportunities and impact future generations.   As Nathan Keyfitz, who is widely credited as having established modern mathematical demography, has explained: “Standing against the absolute impossibility of knowing the future is the absolute necessity of a picture of the future if behavior is to have any sense. One cannot act purposefully in any small respect except within a picture of what the world will be like when the action produces its effects.”

It is in this spirit that we pursue our academically rigorous demographic research. We do this by incorporating what we know about the inevitable (e.g., death). But we expand on this by providing the larger community with an analytical framework and set of tools that allow us to collectively develop an enlightened and informed understanding of the future.  Demography is indeed possibility.

Pamela Perlich is the director of demographic research at The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, specializing in Utah demographics, applied regional economic studies, and economic and demographic modeling.