Coordinated by Roberta PACE, Alain PARANT



Demographic dynamics and population issues

in the Mediterranean

Roberta Pace

 Università degli Studi di Bari “Aldo Moro”

Alain Parant

 Institut National d’Études Démographiques (INED), Futuribles, Paris


Abstract: The Mediterranean Basin is an area of sharply contrasting trends in demographic growth and socio-economic development; the effects of their interactions are becoming increasingly urgent and difficult to manage. Fewer children are being born - whether this is due, as Adolphe Landry would have said, to an individual principle of rationalising life or, as for Frank Notestein and Kingsley Davis[1], supporters of the demographic transition theory, to the emergence of a modern form of economic development - and it is causing population aging that is both marked and rapid. When fewer children join the sustained trend towards longer lifespan, this aging can soon become a major challenge for the societies involved[2]. Aging is nothing new in the Mediterranean; it has long affected the populations of the northern littoral. But now it touches them all, whatever its speed, pattern and effects, which vary by country; and it is due to intensify in the next few decades, albeit at varying rates. And as globalisation increases with the emergence of new centres, competition heats up between economies subject to successive crises, as some countries fall short in political stability and governance, while others ignore or attack each other, aging requires careful attention.


Keywords: Prospective thinking, Mediterranean Basin, Policies.



For various reasons - technological, economic, financial, cultural and political - change is accelerating, interdependence increasing, risks of breakdown growing, and uncertainty and unpredictability reinforcing each other. Unlike the past, where the facts we know cannot be acted upon, and unlike the present, hard to interpret, which we only pass through as best we can, the future is not settled. It is not pre-determined but indeed more open than ever to a number of futuribles (to use a term coined by Bertrand de Jouvenel from future and possible)[3].

Hard times for the “knowing subject”, who must learn to live with uncertainty. Good times for the “acting subject”, for whom these undetermined futures open up fields of freedom, margins of self-determination.

Since the range of possible futures is not only open, but also continually shifting - futuribles come and go -the knowing subject must undertake a continual watch. We must identify, analyse and evaluate long-term trends, those that began long ago and retain considerable momentum for the near and medium term. We must examine the major uncertainties that, clearly or not, even in the very short term, open up the likely range of future developments in certain variables. We must also track down what Pierre Massé called the “future-bearing fact” (we would now say “weak signal”), “the sign, very small as far as its present dimensions are concerned, but immense as regarding its virtual consequences, that announces a technical, economic or social change”.

In this arduous future watch, we, as “knowing subjects”, must

·            define the right indicators and use the available sources of information with certain degree of critical thought;

·            avoid deferring to certain mental patterns, a priori principles, conventional wisdoms and the like;

·            compare points of view;

·            avoid foreshortening time horizons and ignoring the tempo, however divergent, of the phenomena and events observed;

·            resist as far as possible our attraction to the present and our (too) marked preference for the short term.

But a future watch, however conscientious, makes no sense if it does not serve a purpose; as Seneca put it, “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable,” (Moral Letters to Lucilius).

Meanwhile, the “acting subject” must have a driving purpose, a system of values for setting objectives, for forging the vision of a desirable future: something to be done, even if it is only an image of the possible quite removed from any actual project. A project, in the sense used by futurists, is the expression of a desire which, in order to be achieved, must necessarily occur over time, a period of time that will need to be longer the more the execution of the project involves a break with the existing order, and the use of resources that may not necessarily be available at the moment. And this is where the subtle balance must be struck between dream and reason, where the former produces “visions” of a better future; visions that, once filtered by reason (feasibility studies, say), will become the real drivers of the action.

Essential stages in “inventing the future” are the following: apprehend reality in all its many aspects; integrate the dimension of the long term (past and future) to reveal the underlying dynamics of systems; assume instability, discontinuity and radical change (desired and unintended). Then, after choosing the right horizon in terms of the system’s inertia, the schedule of decisions to be taken, the decision-making authority and resources, the reluctance and motivation of players, one must devise contrasting scenarios both exploratory (clarifying the range of possible futures) and strategic (examining the range of desired futures and laying down the timetable of actions to be taken); compare the pros and cons of possible strategies; and, not least, decide the trade-off between these strategies.

Apart from the theory, what does “inventing the future” in the Mediterranean mean in practice?

• Inventing the future involves having the best prior knowledge - the most varied and thorough - of past and present situations.

In strictly demographic terms, this knowledge is by no means always certain, and may be fragmentary. The reason is that population estimates, essential for calculating robust indicators, and the collection of the events that will be the rate numerators, are out of date and partly or totally deficient. One example is our knowledge of international migrant flows; the figures deduced from census and specific survey data show that these flows around the Mediterranean Basin are quite significant. But what about the size of the various flows from a given home country to a given host country? What about the distinction between native and non-native migrants? To answer these questions we need information —migrants’ place of birth, region of origin, nationality at birth—that is rarely collected in one place and even more rarely at sub-national level, which is where population movements have the most decisive impact on the demographic and socio-economic dynamics of the places of arrival and departure.

Our knowledge is equally imperfect and incomplete, again purely in the demographic field, with respect to the factors that determine the level and development of the three key components of population renewal (fertility, mortality, migration), and the explanatory factors for forming or breaking a couple and how these vary over time according to territory or group of individuals.

Prospective thinking requires making available to as wide an audience as possible a large mass of quality data. Although the producers of data cannot deny the incomplete and deficient nature of some published information, or the attempts some of them make, for obscure reasons, to change data collection rules known to be valid and effective, much of the responsibility for this situation rests with the users of the data. The quality of public statistics to meet the need for knowledge is a direct function of the users’ demand for quality. It is the users’ task to persuade the producers to maintain their diligence in producing reliable, varied and complex information. And public authorities would be well advised to add their pressure in this direction, too.

• Inventing the future is a multidisciplinary system-based approach that seeks to apprehend discontinuity and inflection points

Let us remain, as before, with demography.

Even if the collection of statistics were to meet all our needs, demographic forecasting would still have to perceive the phenomena of human fertility, mortality and international and regional mobility not as totally exogenous, but rather as the highly complex micro-systems they really are. In current population projections, the levels reached at a given point in time by the chosen indicators (total fertility rate, completed family size, mortality rate by age and gender, net migration rate by age and gender, net migration number) are the product of extrapolations and choices that may or may not be reasoned, within ranges that are generally rather narrow and set with no concern for how they will actually occur. These figures are not the result of comparing contrasting developments in the prime explanatory variables for each of the key sub-systems. And yet these sub-systems comprise fundamental elements of a social, cultural, legislative, economic, technological nature that must not be ignored; and perhaps even more importantly so in the Mediterranean Basin than elsewhere.

The forecasters in national statistical offices and specialist supranational bodies are hardly about to stop confusing the effective operation of a given sub-system - fertility, mortality and mobility, in this case - with a structural transformation of that sub-system; they are not about to see a “significantly higher” or “significantly lower” figure (children per woman, year of lifespan, net migration) as differing radically from its initial value; not about to adopt a genuine role as prospective thinkers.

They will probably have to be “shaken up” a bit in order to adopt the basic attitude of prospective thinking, “It is better to be vaguely right than exactly wrong” (Carveth Read, attr. Keynes), and to stop misusing the term “contrasting scenario”. Contrasting scenarios are based on differing morphological patterns. “[…] Not just a little more or a little less of one thing, but another thing entirely, another story altogether built on structural changes to the system” (Hugues de Jouvenel, transl. Helen Fish, 2004)[4]

• Inventing the future expresses a strong political will

From the phase of initially expressing a still vague project for action in a poorly defined territory where there are many players, where authority is divided and interests conflict, to the phase of interactively evaluating the strategy finally proposed, political will has many occasions to demonstrate itself and be duly assessed.

Projects are not formed, and have no chance in principle of being realised, where there are no forums for citizens’ expression, where intellectual dissent cannot be heard. Encouraging large numbers of these forums is the first duty of any politician who wants to change things in a territory. Their second duty is to seek and widely share knowledge that is to be found in many sources and to be processed. The politician must cope with technocratic inertia and ensure that all the knowledge available, even if not all that is required, is organised - by some ad hoc structure - as a rapidly operational database in order to formulate a shared analysis and then the various scenarios essential for outlining a strategy. But for the project to be rooted in its territory, the politician must, as the decision-maker of last resort, opt for one strategy and agree to have it evaluated in the future. These are the two criteria by which the politician’s attachment to the initial project will be judged and, to some extent, their own authenticity as a politician.

To breathe life into a society, the orchestra needs a conductor. The politician, by their very nature, is cut out for the job. They need not have any particular knowledge or even an especially visionary mind; they can always employ others who have and will share these things. However, what the politician must demonstrate is an innate concern for the public good and the ability always to take firm, timely decisions to that end.

Although we know that between revealing a project and producing a plan and then an action programme the path is long, even too long - as seen by the stalemate in the Lisbon strategy and the failure of the Union for the Mediterranean - we refuse to believe that this type of man and woman is currently becoming extinct in this part of the world we once called Mare nostrum.

This issue comprises articles by demographers and researchers specialising in population questions in the Mediterranean. Some of them work at France’s Observatoire Démographique de la Méditerranée (DemoMed) at Aix-en Provence, whose mission is to develop a system of monitoring for demographic systems and their trends, population dynamics and structures, geographic settlement patterns and development; undertake prospective thinking; share methodologies for defining indicators, data collection and processing, simulation and scenario design; disseminate knowledge via a collaborative website and by holding research conferences. Other authors, who also seek to produce knowledge and links around the Mediterranean, do so via university exchanges - the University of Bari Aldo Moro has set an example with its firm links to fellow institutions in Romania (Lumina University, Bucharest), Hungary (Central European University, Budapest), Portugal, Spain and France - or by participating in international research projects.

The aim that brings them together here is not to paint an exhaustive demographic panorama of the Mediterranean region, but the much more modest one of shedding some light on the main trends and addressing particular questions with no excessive didactic or theoretical pretentions.





DAVIS Kingsley, “The World Demographic Transition”, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1945, New York.

De JOUVENEL Bertrand, L’art de la conjecture, Éditions du Rocher, Monaco, 1964, SEDEIS, Collection Futuribles, 1972.

De JOUVENEL Hugues, Invitation à la prospective. An invitation to Foresight, Futuribles, Collection Perspectives, Paris, 2004.

LANDRY Adolphe, La Révolution démographique. Études et essais sur les problèmes de population, Éditions Sirey, Paris, 1934. Republished by INED in 1982.

MASSE Pierre, « Planification et prévision », La Table ronde, n° 117, Paris 1962.

NOTESTEIN Frank, “Problems of Policy in Relation to Areas of Heavy Pressure”, Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly, vol.22, n°4, 1944, Chicago; “Population: The Long View”, in SCHULTZ Theodore, Food for the World, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1945.



[1] Frank NOTESTEIN, “Problems of Policy in Relation to Areas of Heavy Pressure”, Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly, vol.22, n°4, 1944, Chicago; “Population: The Long View”, in SCHULTZ Theodore, Food for the World, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1945.

Kingsley DAVIS, “The World Demographic Transition”, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1945, New York.

[2] Adolphe LANDRY, La Révolution démographique. Études et essais sur les problèmes de population, Éditions Sirey, Paris, 1934. Republished by INED in 1982.

[3] Bertrand De JOUVENEL, L’art de la conjecture, Éditions du Rocher, Monaco, 1964, SEDEIS, Collection Futuribles, 1972.

[4] Hugues De JOUVENEL, Invitation à la prospective. An invitation to Foresight, Futuribles, Collection Perspectives, Paris, 2004.