What All Those Pie Charts Actually Mean

How population statistics will inform the future

Numbers man
Dr. John Plant, a retired colonel, will break it down.
Portrait by Rachel Pressley

With politics dominating the news as a presidential election year approaches, this month’s “Political Demography” course at Blue Ridge Community College’s Lifelong Learning Center seems especially timely. Bold Life spoke with Dr. John Plant — a retired U.S. Army colonel and former defense advisor to the government of the Czech Republic — who will be teaching the class, running in November and December.

Is this a relatively new discipline, or an outgrowth of an existing one?

Political Demography is an offshoot of Political Science and Public Policy. There’s a growing interest in the field, and several books on the political aspects of demography have been written this year and profiled in The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Affairs.

How do you feel that shifting populations centers and an aging electorate have influenced our present political climate?

Population change has influenced political climates across the globe, [not just in] America. Immigration, a major component of population change, has been a key component of our politics almost since the beginning of the republic. Aging and declining birth rates are also key drivers of population change. That said, there are many contributors to our current national political climate. Population change is one of them.

The recent controversy over a citizenship-status question for the next census, and North Carolina’s redistricting news, seem directly related to your area of study. Do you think both of those developments were predicted by your discipline?

Changes in congressional representation via the census have always influenced politicians. While I had not planned on covering how the citizenship question is impacting, or could impact, North Carolina, I will discuss the topic and the importance of censuses to demographers. American demographers are concerned about anything that might impact census accuracy. The Population Association of America, our nation’s largest demographic organization, lobbied very hard against the citizenship question out of fear that it would result in reduced and inaccurate responses.

The course description mentions that “the future and the past are foreign countries.” Can you elaborate a bit on that statement?

One need only look at the population statistics for 1900, 2019, and the projections for 2050 to see how different these worlds were, are, and will be. A world of 1 billion people is significantly different than one of 7 billion that we see today, or one of over 10 billion, which the UN population division projects by 2100. I will explore many of the nuances in the differences and how they impact governments. One example: In 1950, 8.3% of the US population was over 65. Today, those over 65 account for 16.6% of our population, and in [2050] it will rise to 22.4%. These changes make the world they represent difficult to fully comprehend.

What do you hope your class takes away from the course?

I hope when they open their newspapers or turn on the TV to see some chart or graphic showing population statistics, they will be better able to understand and assess the relevance of the data. I hope a lightbulb will go on, and they will look deeper into what is presented and better understand it.

Dr. Plant’s course on Political Demography will be offered over four consecutive Tuesdays starting on Nov. 19, 10am-noon, at Blue Ridge Community College’s Patton Building (180 West Campus Drive, Flat Rock). Cost is $50 or BRCCLL members, $60 for nonmembers. For more information and to register, call 828-694-1740 or visit brcll.com.

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