Marlboro College

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 detail—the 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 subjects—namely, their own lives—the 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 talk—not about me or about you—but 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 age—finishing 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 world—the 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 people—over a third—to 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 dramatically—once again, especially in the poorest countries. In 1980, the expectation of life at birth in the developing countries was less than 59 years—and 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 lifetimes—all 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 lives—helping 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, and Indonesia.

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 born—6.8 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 development.

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 us—shaking us out of our complacency about our safety and our world view. In some ways, September 11th was a great equalizer—giving 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 11th—not to discourage you—but 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 maker—a teacher, an artist, a periodontist—you 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 again—we and the world are counting on you.


Contraceptive use—United 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 Botswana—US Census Bureau, .

Literacy and education data, Annan quote—World Bank, World Development Indicators 2001 (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2001).

Population, fertility, and mortality data—United Nations, World Population Prospects: the 2000 Revision, Vol. I (New York, NY: United Nations, 2001).

Shaw quote—Peter G. Peterson, Gray Dawn (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000), p. 249.

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