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Population Diversity Beyond Ethnicity

Insights from the Berlin Schlossgespräch and 8th Berlin Demography Forum

Population Diversity Beyond Ethnicity


Population diversity is one of the major growing trends of the future. Today, cities have an increasingly heterogeneous population, not only in terms of ethnic background, but also with regard to their socio-economic status, family situation, educational attainment, and the like. At the policy level, this implies demands to provide an appropriate infrastructure (housing, education, health and social services, public transport, internet access, etc.), sustainable job prospects, opportunities for political participation and adequate social security. This also applies to rural regions where the challenge is more about providing services and sustainable infrastructures in places where the population is shrinking or more spread out.

To highlight the various facets of population diversity, two events were organised on 21st and 22nd of  January, 2019 at the ESMT Berlin. The first day was organised by Förderfonds Wissenschaft in Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, the German Federal Institute for Population Research, the Hertie School of Governance and the Stifterverband with the objective of better understanding the concept of population diversity from an scientific perspective (Schlossgespräch). On the second day, stakeholders from research, policy and societal organisations were brought together to discuss the social consequences of population diversity in Europe (Berlin Demography Forum, BDF), organised by Diakonie Deutschland in cooperation with Allianz, Ecclesia, ESMT Berlin, F/L Think Tank e.G., the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth , the German Federal Ministry of Health and Population Europe.

A full list of the presenters at the Schlossgespräch can be found here. A list of the BDF participants can be found here.


Population diversity is more than ethnicity

At the Schlossgespräch, presenters highlighted different aspects of population diversity, which ranged from the most well-known concept of diversity (racial and ethnic diversity) to the more specific regional, genetic and family diversity.

For example, the presentation by Frans J. Willekens, Professor Emeritus at the University of Groningen, explored the actual concept of population diversity and concluded that diversity is an outcome of heterogeneity and mobility, while Anette Fasang, Professor at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, looked at diversity by analysing economic and racial diversity in the United States in the context of work-family life. Other presentations introduced the other sides of population diversity: Philipp Lersch, Associate Professor at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, discussed diversity of families and specifically how different family structures can have an impact on the wealth of children in adulthood. The presentation by Emilio Zagheni, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, explained the need for better data on migration in order to better understand migrant diversity, and presented results using digital trace data (“big data”). Heike Klüver, Professor and Chair of Comparative Political Behaviour at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, presented her research on the (lack of) diversity among political parties, specifically in Germany, and the efforts of parties to maintain or re-gain the support of right-wing voters. Melinda Mills, Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science and Nuffield Professor at the University of Oxford and Nuffield College, introduced the audience to the important need to consider genetic diversity because her research has found that those with a certain genetic propensity tend to delay having children. Norbert Schneider, Director of the German Federal Institute for Population Research, emphasised regional diversity and has found that in Germany the assumed differences between east/west and urban/rural do not exist.

On the following day, the BDF also focused on diversity, but had a stronger focus on social equity, social inequality, integration and social cohesion. As was mentioned by several speakers, population diversity must be taken into consideration when creating policy because they need to address different groups of people – which constantly change over time. By forgetting or ignoring this diversity, the resulting policies may not be as effective in the long-term because they are not able to address the needs of the greater majority of society in a comprehensive manner.

Therefore, diverse societies need adequate policies that tackle inequity and social inequality while promoting social cohesion, are more life course oriented and seek to achieve integration of all individuals. But how do we achieve this? The challenges are many, and for this reason, these topics were intensively discussed in four round tables on social cohesion, the life course, equity and integration. Researchers, policymakers and representatives of civil society organisations discussed the main direction that should be followed by modern societies in order to adequately govern diversity.


Diversity of the life course

First and foremost, a consistent policy set to govern diversity should be oriented towards the life course, meaning it should focus on the different stages of individuals’ lives. Recently, society has become more aware of the reality that the life course is not as straightforward as the traditional model used in the past with three basic phases (education, work, retirement). The possible paths an individual’s life course could follow have changed substantially over the last decades to become more individualised and diverse. This ability to independently structure one’s life implies more choices being available to individuals, but also creates a larger degree of insecurity due to the expansion of non-standard employment. These changes mean that societies need to consider how they can support people with different backgrounds in order to give them the same chances in life, independent of the stage they are in their lives. This should already begin in early childhood (with free access to high quality preschool education starting from age 0 and adequate living conditions), and goes to older ages (e.g. with fair pension systems that consider gender and wealth inequalities). In order to achieve this, governments and societies need to consider restructuring their institutions, etc. to be more accommodating to these different life courses.

The later part of the life course was also discussed with participants expressing concern about what happens then because life conditions and decisions throughout the life course strongly impact what happens in older ages. Widening social inequalities among pensioners is a real risk societies are currently facing with extending working lives because those that can continue working longer are usually those with higher salaries. Concerns have been raised about reforms of the social security system that are based on average life expectancy and average citizens, as it does not consider inequalities in a more diverse population. Overall, participants agreed that the demographic structure of societies are not a problem per se, but it is about how the governments deal with changing population composition.


What does a fair distribution of resources mean?

Inequity is understood as unfair or avoidable differences arising from the distribution of resources due to, for example, poor governance. What can be done to foster a more fair distribution within societies? Experts stressed the importance of guaranteeing equal treatment for all and the validity of rules for all. Regional disparities in the provision of services and infrastructure were highlighted as a key aspect to be tackled, as well as the importance of providing sufficient access to these services (e.g. schools, internet access, transport) in all cities, independent of their size. The experts also agreed that when debating improvements to infrastructure, the specific needs of the area and the voices of the local people should be taken into consideration more since there is great diversity in what areas need and how to successfully address their needs.


Youth participation in public affairs

Another key priority highlighted during the discussions was to invite and promote the involvement of young people in public affairs, to have them participate in high-level decision-making environments, and to further promote dialogue between generations to achieve more fair societies. Younger generations tend to be left out of these important discussions that impact their lives just as much, if not more since they will be living with the consequences longer.


Solidarity: An unrealistic goal?

In order to address diversity and combat social divisions within countries, there is a need to build solidarity among social groups. How can this be achieved? Participants provided multiple examples to illustrate that social mobility and dialogue among different social classes is still at below optimal levels. Experts at the meeting insisted on the importance of creating social spaces for dialogue, possibilities for more social interaction, and the promotion of educational and work opportunities in order to improve social solidarity. It is crucial to ensure that citizens from all social classes have a voice and channels to express their opinions within societies. This will allow people to be exposed to the large variety of perspectives that exist and realize how diverse the society that needs to be addressed is, whether at local, regional, national or international levels. The greater the diversity in the voices that are invited to the debates, the more likely the policies will reflect a wider section of society.


The role of education

Experts stated that one can manage diversity and increase social cohesion by improving access and quality of education. Different voices highlighted the significance of promoting universal access to all educational levels (starting from the first few months of life), specific training to promote a sustainable dialogue among civil society and lifelong learning in order to encourage more cohesive societies. Nonetheless, serious concerns about the role of educational systems in lowering social distances has also been raised, which is in line with recent research.


Integration, but not just for immigrants

Researchers, policymakers and stakeholders were particularly concerned with the provision of easy access to rights and public services so newcomers can quickly adapt to the receiving society, feel that they have equal opportunities and can equally participate in social life, and can partake in dialogue platforms promoting intercultural interactions.

Participants also stressed the importance of focusing on commonalities and not on differences between natives and immigrants, and the crucial role played by the media in addressing integration in order to avoid prejudices and discrimination.

Integration is not only about diversity, but also about social inequalities. Therefore, some participants suggested that integration should be about all citizens, independent of their origin, and that a better social policy package for all should be pursued as a priority. However, many participants highlighted that integration of migrants is a specific issue that needs to be tackled separately. It may take several generations before full integration is achieved in terms of language skills, working lives or access to appropriate housing, as recent studies show. In general, participants agreed that integration policies at the local and community levels should be strengthened.