NewsLinda G. Martin, Commencement Speaker
Ladies and gentlemen, it is indeed a privilege to be a part of
the beginning of the next stage of the lives of this remarkable
group of graduates. This is the day for all of us to recognize and
applaud your talent, your hard work, and all you have accomplished.
Marlboro College with its distinctive program of study and exceptional
faculty has magnificently prepared you to be citizens of the world.
Of course, I recognize that the faculty and staff of Marlboro were
not exactly handed blank slates when you arrived, so all due credit
also goes to your parents and families for doing what they did to
get you to Marlboro in the first place.
Last week I had the opportunity to read the brief summaries of
your plans of concentration, but obviously I do not know each of
your personal histories in detailthe agonies and the ecstasies
of your college lives, those all-nighters to study for an exam or
finish a paper, the joys of discovery and learning, that special
faculty member who inspired you, and no doubt, the life-long friendships
forged here at Marlboro.
Nor do I know about your specific hopes and dreams for the future.
So it seems a bit presumptuous of me to try to advise you on how
to reach your goals or on how to live a successful life, as many
commencement speakers attempt to do.
I understand that a frequent fallback of some speakers, who typically
do not know their audiences either, is to talk about their favorite
subjectsnamely, their own livesthe twists and turns
on the road of life that brought them to this moment in the spotlight,
standing at a podium in a funny hat. But since my own parents and
family are not in the audience here today, I decided that such a
personal approach would have only very limited appeal.
So instead, I thought that I would take a really broad view and
talknot about me or about youbut about a much bigger
group that at least in the abstract, I, as a demographer, know something
about. And that is the other 6 billion or so people with whom we
are today sharing the planet Earth.
You may be interested to know that of those six billion, one billion
people are ages 15 to 24, and that this graduating class is part
of the largest ever generation of young people coming of agefinishing
their educations, entering the labor force, starting families, and
planning for the future.
I know that I don’t have to tell this well-educated group
about how lucky you are in comparison to most of the rest of that
one billion young people around the globe, especially the 900 hundred
million of them who live in the poorer countries of the worldthe
so-called developing countries. Plus, commencement addresses should
be uplifting and not make you feel guilty. So instead of harping
on just how fortunate you are in the grand scheme of things, I thought
I would focus on just how much life has indeed improved for many
of your six billion fellow residents during the 20 or so years that
most of this class has spent here on Earth. I’m not sure
that any of you can yet take enormous personal credit for the broad
improvements, despite your remarkable accomplishments thus far.
But you have only just begun, and I know that all of us here today
have great hopes that you will make things even better in the remaining
seven or eight decades of your lives.
I apologize in advance that there will be quite a few facts and
figures, but as George Bernard Shaw is reputed to have said, “The
mark of a civilized man is to be deeply moved by a statistic.”
Whether or not he is right, I promise at least that no advanced
mathematics or pop quizzes will be involved in what I have to say.
Let’s start with the really big numbers. In 1980, around
the time when I am assuming that many of you were born, there were
4.4 billion people on earth. So in your lifetimes world population
has grown by 1.6 billion peopleover a thirdto six billion.
Now for those concerned about world poverty and man’s potentially
negative influence on the environment, that extra 1.6 billion might
not seem like much of an improvement. But it’s all relative.
The good news behind those figures is that in 1980 the rate of world
population growth was 1.7% per year, and if that growth rate had
remained constant, we would be looking at an even bigger population.
Instead, the world’s annual rate of growth has declined
in your lifetimes from 1.7% to only 1.2%, and is expected to decline
further to 0.5% in the year 2050, leading us to “only”
9 billion people then. Behind the decline in population growth rates
is a remarkable decrease in the number of children that couples
around the world are having. This decline started back before you
were even born. In 1965, women in the poorest countries that make
up over 80% of the world’s population, were on average having
six children each. By 1980, the number was down to four children
each. And by 2000, the number of children per woman in the developing
countries had dropped to about three.
The reasons for this decline are twofold: First there is the greatly
increased availability of safe, effective contraceptives that people
who want to limit their family sizes can use. About 38% of married
women of childbearing age in the poorer countries were using contraception
back in 1980, but by 1998 the figure was up to 55%. But an even
more important reason behind the slowing of the population growth
rate is the overall social and economic development that has occurred
around the world, which has in turn vastly improved chances of survival.
One of the reasons that in the past women had so many births was
that so many of the babies died at very early ages. If women wanted
to have at least two or three children survive into adulthood and
possibly help their parents if they became sick and unable to care
for themselves in old age, then these women needed to have six or
more children, since so many died along the way.
In your lifetimes though, mortality rates have declined dramaticallyonce
again, especially in the poorest countries. In 1980, the expectation
of life at birth in the developing countries was less than 59 yearsand
I would have been close to reaching the end of the line. Today life
expectancy at birth in those countries is over 64 years. So there
has been a huge increase in life expectancy of five years in the
poorer countries over just the 20 or so years of your lifetimesall
as a result of improvements in sanitation and water, nutrition,
standards of living, and health care.
The story of improvement is similar when we look at survival in
the very critical first year of life. In 1980 in the developing
countries, out of every 1000 live births, 88 of the babies died
in the first year. Today the number is down to 56 out of 1000. So
a child born today has a one-third better chance of surviving through
the very vulnerable first year of life. And consequently women do
not have to have so many births in order to have a child who will
make it to adulthood.
Another factor behind the decline in the number of children being
born per woman in the poorer countries is that parents around the
world are recognizing the importance of investing in each of their
children. They are especially recognizing the importance of educating
their children, as your parents have. Instead of looking for safety
in numbers and having a family with a lot of children, parents are
opting for investing in the “quality” of their children,
instead of the quantity. By quality I mean that parents are spending
more for each child in the areas of health and education. For example,
today in East Asia and Latin America almost all children receive
at least a primary education. In the Middle East, the figure is
86%, in South Asia 73%, and sub-Saharan Africa 60%.
Now primary education may not seem like much to a group of college
graduates, but simply being literate, being able to read and write,
makes a profound difference in all aspects of people’s lives.
So there has been enormous progress in worldwide human development
in your lifetimes. But, of course, I have been talking in averages,
and as all of you who have studied statistics know, behind each
average can be a wide distribution of experiences. Some countries
are above average, but others are below. And here is the challenge
for the rest of your liveshelping those who are below average.
One below-average country that is much in the news today and that
is playing an increasingly important geopolitical role is Pakistan.
One cannot help but compare it with its next-door neighbor India,
because until 1947 they were jointly ruled. But in the ensuing decades
they have followed quite different development paths. For example,
Indian women today are having fewer than three children each, but
in Pakistan the number is still above five. The adult literacy rate
in India is 57%; in Pakistan it is 45%, where India was 15 years
ago. Some really good news for Indian women is that they now outlive
men, as is the case in all the countries of the world where women
have equal access to food and health care. In Pakistan, men still
live a little longer on average than women. And lest you think this
is just a story of religious differences, I should point out that
Indonesia, the largest Muslim population on earth, is even further
ahead than India on all these measures of human development. And
what happens to these three countries is very important for the
future: The United Nations projects that the five largest populations
in the world in 2050 will be India, China, the United States, Pakistan,
Perhaps even more troubling than the Pakistan story are the circumstances
of many African countries. Ethiopia the 19th largest population
in the world today, is likely to be number 9 by the middle of the
century. In Ethiopia, the number of births per woman is virtually
the same today as it was when you were born6.8 children per
woman. Life expectancy has not improved; people live on average
43 years. Over 100 infants die in the first year of life out of
every 1000 born, and adult literacy was only 37% in 1999.
The experience of Africa also points out that we cannot take for
granted that change will always be in a positive direction. The
HIV/AIDS epidemic is ravaging the countries of southern Africa in
particular. For example in Botswana, the hardest-hit country, 36%
of all adults are HIV positive, and life expectancy has been reduced
from over 60 years in 1985 to only 36 years in 2000. Not only is
this a crisis of health, it also is diminishing the hopes for future
economic development, as young people your age are especially vulnerable.
The epidemic is also killing many people already in their prime
productive years, including the teachers and professors preparing
the younger generation. So it may well take Botswana decades to
recover to its previous, pre-epidemic level of economic and human
Moreover, I believe that the events of September 11th reinforce
the message that we cannot take for granted forward progress. September
11th was a wake-up call for all of usshaking us out of our
complacency about our safety and our world view. In some ways, September
11th was a great equalizergiving us perspective on what matters
most in our lives. But it also emphasized that we are part of a
global society and that we cannot assume our continued good fortune
or neglect the needs of our fellow residents of Earth.
I mention these negative examples of Ethiopia, HIV, and September
11thnot to discourage youbut to challenge you. I hope
that the success that I have mentioned has demonstrated that tremendous
progress in human development is possible in a matter of a few decades.
But as Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations stated
last year, “. . . the world’s people . . . are telling
us that our past achievements are not enough. They are telling us
we must do more, and do it better.”
So we are counting on you. Whether you end up being a butcher,
a baker, a candlestick makera teacher, an artist, a periodontistyou
all have contributions to make either directly or indirectly. Simply
by being someone who thinks globally even if you act only locally,
you can do your part.
You and your one billion brothers and sisters around the world
have an enormous responsibility as you begin your stewardship of
this precious Earth and its people. And you, as a select group of
Marlboro graduates, are blessed with the talent and the opportunities
to make a truly positive difference. So all of us here today wish
you very well in the great adventure of life on which you are embarking.
I’ll say it againwe and the world are counting on you.
Contraceptive useUnited Nations, Recent levels and trends
of contraceptive use as assessed in 1983 (New York, NY: United Nations,
1984) and Levels and trends of contraceptive use as assessed in
1998 (New York, NY: United Nations, 2000).
HIV figures for BotswanaUS Census Bureau, www.census.gov/ipc/hiv/botswana.pdf
Literacy and education data, Annan quoteWorld Bank, World
Development Indicators 2001 (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2001).
Population, fertility, and mortality dataUnited Nations,
World Population Prospects: the 2000 Revision, Vol. I (New York,
NY: United Nations, 2001).
Shaw quotePeter G. Peterson, Gray Dawn (New York: Three Rivers
Press, 2000), p. 249.