Demographic facts all students should know right now

Here’s the 2021 update of a series I started in 2013. A few pandemic-specific facts below.

If anyone tells you that “facts are useless in an emergency,” give them a bad grade. Knowing basic demographic facts lets us run a quick temperature check on the pot we’re slowly boiling in — which we need to survive. The idea is to get your radar tuned to identify falsehoods as efficiently as possible, to prevent them spreading and contaminating reality. Although I grew up on “facts are lazy and facts are late,” I actually still believe in this mission, I just shake my head slowly while I ramble on about it (and tell the same stories over and over).

This year, in pursuit of this mission, I created the Demographic Fact A Day Twitter account, which started tweeting one fact per day at the start of 2021. Some of these are more advanced, some very simple. Here’s a figure from that account, for a taste:

Image

Everyone likes a number that appears to support their perspective. But that’s no way to run (or change) a society. The trick is to know the facts before you create or evaluate an argument, and for that you need some foundational demographic knowledge. This list of facts you should know is just a prompt to get started in that direction.

The list below are demographic facts you need just to get through the day without being grossly misled or misinformed — or, in the case of journalists or teachers or social scientists, not to allow your audience to be grossly misled or misinformed. Not trivia that makes a point or statistics that are shocking, but the non-sensational information you need to make sense of those things when other people use them. And it’s really a ballpark requirement (when I test the undergraduates, I give them credit if they are within 20% of the US population — that’s anywhere between 266 million and 400 million!).

This is only a few dozen facts, not exhaustive but they belong on any top-100 list. This year, many of the most important facts are about the pandemic, but they’re not included here — these are some of what you need to understand the upheavals of the day. Feel free to add additional facts in the comments (as per policy, first-time commenters are moderated).

The numbers are rounded to reasonable units for easy memorization. All refer to the US unless otherwise noted. Most of the links will take you to the latest data:

NumberSource
World Population7.8 billion1
U.S. Population333 million1
Children under 18 as share of pop.22%2
Adults 65+ as share of pop.17%2
Official unemployment rate (July 2021)5%3
Unemployment rate range, 1970-20183.9% – 15%3
Labor force participation rate, age 16+62%9
Labor force participation rate range, 1970-201760% – 67%9
Non-Hispanic Whites as share of pop.60%2
Blacks as share of pop.13%2
Hispanics as share of pop.19%2
Asians / Pacific Islanders as share of pop.6%2
American Indians as share of pop.1%2
Immigrants as share of pop14%2
Adults age 25+ with BA or higher32%2
Median household income$62,8002
Total poverty rate11%8*
Child poverty rate14%8*
Poverty rate age 65+9%8*
Most populous country, China1.4 billion5
2nd most populous country, India1.3 billion5
3rd most populous country, USA (CIA estimate)335 million5
4th most populous country, Indonesia275 million5
5th most populous country, Pakistan238 million5
U.S. male life expectancy at birth756
U.S. female life expectancy at birth806
Life expectancy range across countries53 – 877
World total fertility rate2.410
U.S. total fertility rate1.710
Total fertility rate range across countries0.9 – 6.810

* These are pre-pandemic poverty rates.

Sources

1. U.S. Census Bureau Population Clock

2. U.S. Census Bureau quick facts

3. Bureau of Labor Statistics

5. CIA World Factbook

6. National Center for Health Statistics

7. CIA World Factbook

8. U.S. Census Bureau poverty tables

9. Bureau of Labor Statistics

10. World Bank


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