Investigating global population and economies

The extent and implications of population change and the dynamics of economies raise questions that demographers and social scientists alike are working to better understand. Taken together in a global context, the number of questions only increases. Yet both population and economies affect our lives, our choices and our policies.

At the Prentice Institute for Global Population and Economy at the University of Lethbridge, global population challenges are explored from different angles and potential solutions are investigated in new ways.


Like many people, John Prentice of Calmar, Alta., dreamed of making a difference in the world. But the late agri-business entrepreneur and philanthropist didn't just stop there; he wanted to change the course of history altogether.

It was an ambitious goal – and one that prompted Prentice, along with his wife Connie, to donate more than $8 million to the University of Lethbridge in 2006. The endowment marked the largest-single gift in the University's history and established the Prentice Institute for Global Population and Economy. The institute, which was officially launched in 2009, studies changes in the world population and their lasting impact on demographics, economies and societies.

Just a short time later, the Prentice Institute has become a leading research centre, one of only a few worldwide that is focused on global population changes and the economy. What's more, the institute has attracted many external research grants and is building graduate programs, along with bringing together 20 research affiliates from across eight departments at the U of L.

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From looking at how people move through life stages in different economies with different demographic structures, to questions of food security, ethnic diversity, immigration and international trade, the Prentice Institute for Global Population and Economy at the University of Lethbridge is at the cutting edge of demographic research.

"It's magical when you get that cross-pollination of expertise," says Dr. Trevor Harrison, a U of L sociology professor who served as the Prentice Institute's interim director between 2007 and 2009.

At the Prentice Institute, sociologists, historians, anthropologists and economists work alongside experts in such diverse fields as nursing, public health, political science and women's studies. Those researchers, in turn, create partnerships with experts across Canada and around the world. The result: global population challenges are explored from different angles and potential solutions are investigated in new ways.

"John Prentice was a big thinker," says
Dr. Susan McDaniel, the institute's current director. She also holds the Prentice Research Chair in Global Population and Economy, the first endowed position of its kind at the U of L. "John was a Renaissance man who understood how things were connected."

Indeed, many forces and factors affect – and are connected to – the global population and economy. But the links between the former and latter are not well understood. Prentice Institute researchers are advancing our understanding of this relationship and using data to verify or refute popular beliefs about demographic changes. This "myth-busting" practice can be applied to numerous situations, says McDaniel.

"We often hear, for instance, that providing health care to an aging population will bankrupt the system," she explains. "In reality, there are much wider concerns. Medical treatments are expensive, and there is a deepening problem of poverty and the health issues associated with it."

To that end, Prentice Institute researchers are studying various issues that appear, at first blush, to be unconnected. They include international trade, migration, aging and family size. But while the subjects may seem disparate, McDaniel says cause-and-effect relationships are at work – and they are having a major impact on the world's citizens.

"Growing inequalities, for example, are happening in developed countries, such as Canada and the United States, and in developing countries, too. These inequalities cause health problems and lower everyone's life expectancy," says McDaniel. The process, she explains, is similar to an illness spreading through a classroom. If one unvaccinated child becomes sick, others will inevitably be affected.

That concept of social ramifications is one in which McDaniel is well versed. An internationally recognized sociology researcher and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, her expertise includes demographic aging, generational relationships, family change and the social impacts of technology. Before joining the Prentice Institute and the U of L Department of Sociology two years ago, McDaniel was a professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah and a senior scholar at its Institute of Public and International Affairs.

Having lived in Alberta before, McDaniel's return north of the border has helped attract other researchers to the Prentice Institute. Among them is Dr. Kathrin Komp, a post-doctoral fellow from VU University Amsterdam. Other researchers, such as Drs. Harrison and Alexander Darku, who were U of L faculty members before the Prentice Institute was created, currently serve as the institute's associate directors. Their collective experience and expertise have made a significant impact on the institute.

For example, Darku, an assistant professor of economics at the U of L, previously taught at McGill and Concordia Universities. He has also served as a consultant to the World Bank at its Washington, D.C., headquarters and has worked as an economist in Ghana. Through his association with the Prentice Institute, Darku has noticed a shift in his research interests.

Whereas he was previously focused strictly on economic policies and international development, he now studies the interplay among international trade, migration and health. Specifically, Darku is currently looking at the growth of multinational companies in developing countries and the resulting impact on populations' eating habits. The situation, Darku has found, contributes to a "nutritional shift" within a population and can increase obesity rates.

"The interdisciplinary nature of the Prentice Institute has brought many new dimensions to my research," says Darku.

Harrison, meanwhile, has shared his research with new audiences; he has spoken at a number of presentations hosted by the institute. Once a visiting professor at the University of Alberta and Hokkai-Gakuen University in Japan, Harrison was the 2010 Fulbright Visiting Research Chair in Canadian Studies at Georgia's Kennesaw State University. As a researcher and guest lecturer at the university, he brought a Canadian perspective to the relationship between Canada and the United States since Sept. 11.

Today at the Prentice Institute, Harrison – like Darku – balances his research with administrative responsibilities. And it seems both areas involve big-picture thinking.

"We're developing programs that will keep the institute moving forward. Ultimately, we're creating a research infrastructure that supports creative thinking and incubates good ideas."

One example is a policy concept known as a guaranteed annual income (GAI). While there are many different approaches to a GAI, the initiative would essentially provide each citizen with a base sum of money. Harrison has studied this complex issue since the 1970s, and while the logistics of implementing a GAI system would be considerable, it would also offer a number of advantages. They include administrative efficiencies, the reduction or elimination of poverty and an increasingly mobile workforce that can afford to move around the country.

GAI supplements, however, are just one of many ideas being analysed at the Prentice Institute. And it's all part of an effort to inform public and private policies that will better reflect, and keep up with, a changing Canada and world. To raise awareness of this vital work, Prentice Institute researchers participate in conferences and dialogue sessions, and contribute to articles, journals and books. Finally, there are future plans to build international partnerships with sister institutes.

"There are many challenges that governments, corporations, education systems and individuals have to address," says McDaniel. "But once they have the information they need, they have the potential to act upon it.

"People are hungry for knowledge. And we're training them how to look beyond myths and build a better society. It will lead to better voters, parents, consumers and caregivers."

What can we learn from other countries with regard to population aging and social policy?

Population aging and economic challenges have raised questions about how social policy regimes are, or will be, affected in various types of economies. Some research indicates a downward convergence across countries is inevitable as global economic and demographic pressures work to bring greater homogeneity to social policies. Other studies suggest that demographic and economic pressures can actually have stimulating effects on social policies.

To address these issues, Prentice Institute researchers are investigating Japan, which has experienced population aging and economic challenges simultaneously. Scholars are analysing changing relations among demographics, economics and social policy. They ask what opportunities can be discerned from the experience of Japan for re-creation of social policy regimes elsewhere in the 21st century. Ultimately, researchers will widen the comparative lens to include other Asian and developed countries. The findings from this crucial research will guide policy-makers in various countries facing similar challenges.

Is there a "Canadian exceptionalism" in issues related to immigration and diversity?

The rapid rise in ethnic diversity in immigrant-receiving countries has resulted in a general anti-diversity, anti-multiculturalism sentiment. Some studies indicate that a generalized trust is more difficult to foster in a multicultural society, resulting in a loss of sense of community and togetherness. However, other research suggests that Canada might be immune from these largely European trends.

At the Prentice Institute, researchers are investigating the extent of, and the reasons for, this Canadian exceptionalism. A clearer understanding of the differences among ethno-racial groups in terms of labour-market integration and social capital could make a significant difference in the lives of Canadians and the global community.

To what extent is population, at root, a problem with respect to food security?

Food is a basic resource essential for human survival. It is estimated that at the end of 2009, more than one billion of the world's population did not have adequate food to meet basic nutritional needs. As the most populous country in the world, China is constantly challenged in providing food for its citizens. Given the sheer size and strategic prominence of China, food security there is a global concern.

As leaders of an international team, researchers at the Prentice Institute are examining the stress points related to food security in various regions in China. The set of indicators of food security and rural development they develop will be an important assessment tool in China and around the world.

How can we achieve economic equality in developing countries?

Throughout most of human history, the conditions of human life have varied from difficult to tolerable, from starvation to subsistence. In some parts of the developing world, these conditions have not changed much, while in others, progress has been made. Disparities in the distribution of economic assets and income exist in a wide range of societies and their nature and cause are issues our world must address.

Researchers at the Prentice Institute are studying how international trade can lead to growth and the distribution of income, especially in developing countries. Another crucial line of research focuses on the relationship between business cycles, poverty and income inequalities.

How will social policy address our aging population?

Wayne Gretzky is credited with saying, "You must skate to where the puck will be." In contemplating the future of aging populations, policy often skates instead to where the puck is now. The presumption is that by studying those who are older now, we can understand those who will be older in the future. But... the older of tomorrow will be very different, as will the socio-economic contexts in which they live.

As leaders of a Canada/U.S. multidisciplinary team, Prentice Institute researchers are studying how people in mid-life in Canada and the U.S. are aging in terms of health and overall well-being. How they help (or not) younger and older relatives now and as they age, and how they anticipate their later years relative to their older relatives now and their younger relatives as they reach their later years, are two of the important questions being addressed. These studies will yield a wealth of information that is critical to addressing policy and family needs in the future.

This story first appeared in SAM Magazine. For a look at SAM in a flipbook format, follow this link.