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date: 17 August 2017

The Age-Structural Theory of State Behavior

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

Demographers use the term age structure to describe the distribution of residents by age. Due largely to declines in marital fertility (and to a lesser extent, to increases in life-expectancy at older ages), the populations of the world’s states have been engaged, over the past century, in an age-structural transition. In those states that have passed through this transition, populations have been dramatically transformed—from distributions in which the majority is composed of children and young adults, to distributions numerically dominated by mature adults and seniors. For the vast majority of post-colonial states, this transition began after World War II.

Since the late 1950s, demographers have recognized that progress in some economic, social, and political transitions are associated with changing age-structural conditions. Some have theorized that relative cohort sizes (proportions of children to working-age adults, and to seniors) influence how institutions perform, how societies function, and ultimately, how states behave. Others assume that these associations are the outcome of feedbacks between family size, educational attainment, and household income, which in turn drive systemic socioeconomic and, ultimately, political changes.

Over the past decade, researchers—using various measures of age-structural maturity—have discerned that increased age-structural maturity makes significant statistical contributions to levels of per capita income, to per- child investments and educational attainment, to declines in the frequency of onsets of intra-state conflict, and to the likelihood of achieving and maintaining liberal democracy. Using the demographic projections (updated biennially) of the United Nations Population Division, researchers have relied on the strong statistical association between age structure and stable liberal democracy to forecast, several years in advance, democratization in North Africa, and democratic instability in West Africa.

However, critics remain skeptical of age-structural theory’s murky causal connections and point out anomalies that suggest weaknesses in the theory. Meanwhile, the theory’s proponents counter that causality in this system is complex and is less important than age-structural theory’s positive qualities: it is a forward-looking theory; its analyses are readily repeatable and are among the most successfully tested in institutional research; its forecasts have outcompeted regional experts; it can be adapted to the needs of intelligence foresight, defense planning, and foreign policy analysis; and (perhaps most importantly), the theory has yielded a surprising number of “novel facts”—new knowledge of the pace and timing of political, social, and economic behaviors.