Paula Prenzel is a 4th-year PhD student in Economic Geography. Her research focuses on the socio-economic consequences of regional demographic change. Demographically speaking, as an expat German of childbearing age without children, she is probably part of the problem rather than the solution.
What are you writing about? What is the puzzle in your thesis?
My PhD is about consequences of demographic change on a regional level. I look at different aspects of regional economies that are changing as the population ages and shrinks, such as infrastructure provision or the composition of the labour market in terms of education and skill-levels. Most of these changes can be predicted quite easily. For example, as population ages, we will need different kinds of public services: fewer schools and more elderly care. But whether these changes in infrastructure are actually implemented – do older regions indeed close more schools? – is a different question. Also, some places, such as big cities, continue to grow while others are ageing and shrinking quickly. So, how do these demographic changes affect regional disparities? In general, what will life be like for people in ageing and shrinking regions?
Why is this something worth studying?
With improvements in health care provision, we have seen immense increases in life expectancy. At the same time, people are having fewer and fewer kids and both of these trends together mean that the population in almost all countries is getting older and may eventually start shrinking. For entire countries, population shrinkage without war, diseases or famines has actually not been widely observed historically. But countries with a very old age structure, such as Germany, are starting to exhibit this trend. So demographic change is something that will eventually affect a lot of places but there is very little empirical evidence on it because the effects are only starting to appear.
This sounds like something that will be very relevant for decision makers in the future. But how are you studying this?
I am studying this quantitatively for the country with the oldest population in Europe: Germany. Germany has actually had a “birth deficit” since the 1970s, so more people die each year than babies are born. This means that all population growth in Germany since 1972 has been due to immigration! That really puts anti-immigration sentiments into perspective and shows why Germany is such an interesting case to study for demographic change. As an Economic Geographer, I am looking at regional patterns within Germany, comparing trends in districts (“Kreisebene”, NUTS3) with different demographic structures over time. You may have heard that the Federal States in the east of Germany are shrinking in population, but at a smaller geographical scale, roughly half of all districts actually saw their population fall between 1996 and 2010. In my PhD, I look at how the demographic structure in these regions is related to socio-economic outcomes, such as primary school provision or the availability of highly skilled labour in a region.
Something you said, just caught my ear: What is an Economic Geographer?
Well… Economic Geography is many different things. But for me: I am an economist who likes maps. So I am an economist but I like thinking about where economic activity occurs. What I find interesting about this is that people don’t experience national averages. They experience economics on a much smaller, a regional, a local scale. And Economic Geography allows me to study this.
And what does, for example, your grandma think about your research?
I am not sure what my grandma would think about it actually. But my mother finds my topic a bit depressing because I think about ageing and death on a daily basis. She asked me once why I couldn’t study something more light-hearted. But that is actually exactly why I study it. There is such a focus on growth in economics that we hardly ever speak about decline. And if we do, it’s because we consider decline itself a problem. But it does not need to be. Demographic change is the result of our lives and preferences changing, often to the better. It is also very difficult to prevent or reverse, so the question for me is mostly: how do we best deal with the consequences?