Media Briefings


  • Published Date: March 2013

Providing children with the foundations for a longer and healthier life gives them the incentives to value the future more and to make better choices for society as a whole. That is one of the conclusions of research by Professors David de la Croix and Omar Licandro, published in the March 2013 issue of the Economic Journal.

Their study explores the long-term changes in human longevity and fertility known as the ‘demographic transition’ and their links with industrialisation and economic growth. The analysis suggests that the idea that childhood development is a prerequisite for growth is of fundamental importance for today’s developing countries. Health and nutrition policies are a fundamental complement to educational policies for creating the conditions for economic development.

The researchers begin by noting that the demographic transition is one of the most important changes experienced by human society in the last millennium. But the question of whether it was the cause or consequence of the Industrial Revolution is like asking ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg?’

Among the possible triggers of both phenomena, the researchers stress the fundamental role played, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, by improvements in health attitudes and knowledge as well as better nutrition conditions, all of which benefited childhood development. They conclude that better childhood development led to increased adult longevity, giving the opportunity for people to invest in their future, the most powerful engine of growth.

Prior to the demographic transition, human population was growing slowly, facing both high fertility and high mortality. For example, a typical family in Sweden in 1780 had five children, among whom three would survive until adulthood. Those three would get fewer than two years of education and would live on average until the age of 55.

The economic changes that took place around the beginning of the Industrial Revolution modified this pattern, generating first lower mortality and faster population growth, followed by changes in fertility, which, at some point, reduced the rate of population growth. Today, at the end of the transition, the typical family has two children, both surviving to adulthood almost for sure, going to school for at least 12 years and expecting to survive beyond the age of 80.

Research in epidemiology stresses that life expectancy depends greatly on physical development during childhood. Both better nutrition and lower exposure to infections lead to taller people (a reflection of better health) and longer life. This process started as early as the eighteenth century. Indeed, although almost no improvement was effected on the grounds of disease theory (mainly based on traditional ideas), significant advances were made based on practice and empirical observations.

For example, the effectiveness of the treatment of some important diseases was improved thanks to the practical use of new drugs coming from the New World. In addition, personal and domestic cleanliness became popular before the nineteenth century, as witnessed by the growing number of books about lifestyle published between 1750 and 1800.

Gains in prevention were also obtained by reductions in the price of washable cotton, along with the mass production of soap. Nutrition also played a key role. For example, after potatoes were brought to Europe from the New World, the annual potato crop soared.

All of these changes made it possible for parents to invest effectively in the health and then the physical development of their children. Once these children became adults, they had better chances of survival, which pushed them to invest more in their own future by accumulating, in particular, human capital. Being richer also meant that their fertility was reduced.

A distinctive implication of the researchers’ theory is that improvements in childhood development should precede the increase in education, which itself precedes the drop in fertility. Taking height as a proxy for childhood development, they observe in historical records that height increases do indeed precede increases education, which in term precede falls in fertility.


Notes for editors: ‘The Child is Father of the Man: Implications for the Demographic Transition’ by David de la Croix and Omar Licandro is published in the March 2013 issue of the Economic Journal.

David de la Croix is at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium. Omar Licandro is at the Institut d'Anàlisi Econòmica (CSIC) and Barcelona Graduate School of Economics.

For further information: contact David de la Croix +32-10-473453 (email:; or Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email: