Is Structural-Demographic Theory Predictive?

Peter Turchin


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Last week I wrote about Jack Goldstone’s article, which introduced the most recent issue of Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution celebrating the 25th anniversary of Jack’s book Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World. In today’s post I want to discuss an equally interesting article by Oscar Ortmans and co-authors.

The central question of the Ortmans et al. article is: Is Structural-Demographic Theory (SDT) predictive? In the Introduction they cite from the review of Goldstone’s book by a well-known scholar of revolutions Timur Kuran (Kuran, T. 1992. Contemporary Sociology 21:8-10). According to Kuran, the SDT is merely a tool to “reconcile exceptional cases” and was bound to “fail as a predictive tool.”

Twenty-seven years have passed since the publication of Goldstone’s book—enough time to evaluate its potential as a predictive tool. In the United States, for example, the negative structural-demographic trends began developing in the late 1970s, and by 1991 someone who understood the theory could already see that the country was moving in the wrong direction. The section in Goldstone’s book (remember, published 27 years ago) about the contemporary US (the US of 1991) reads eerily prescient today.

I’ve written elsewhere about my path to the same realization during the early 2000s. By that time, the writing was literally on the wall.

Using Cross-National Time-Series Data, Ortmans and co-authors plot the incidence of anti-government demonstrations in the United States, to which I have added arrows indicating the publication of Goldstone’s book and my Nature piece on the political instability during the decade of 2010–2020:

I think this graph speaks for itself.

But what about other countries? Previously a group of researchers, led by Andrey Korotayev, a cliodynamicist based at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow (Andrey is also one of the “et al.” in the Ortmans article), published a series of analyses of the Arab Spring revolutions. Incidentally, Andrey speaks Arabic fluently and visits Arab countries, like Egypt, regularly. In particular, he was on Tahrir in Cairo during some of the key moments of the Egyptian revolution. But what’s more important is that his group’s research shows that the Arab Spring fits really well into the general framework of the SDT (for example, see this article).

In the latest article, Ortmans et al. apply the SDT to the case of the contemporary United Kingdom. Of course, the US and the UK share the same Anglo-Saxon culture, but it is still remarkable to see the degree of parallelism in the structural-demographic dynamics of these two societies. The personalities are different, but they play very similar—one may even say identical—roles. The administrations of Reagan and Thatcher signaled the dramatic abandonment of the post-war concensus on social cooperation between employers and workers. Blair and Clinton cemented the shift by moving their formerly left-leaning parties to the center-right. Of course, UK doesn’t have a Trump (unless one counts Boris Johnson). On the other hand, the 2016 presidential elections in US and Brexit in UK both were both a surface manifestation of deep structural-demographic trends, which I have documented for US in The Ages of Discord, and Ortmans et al. document for UK in their Cliodynamics article.

In both countries the oversupply of labor developed at about the same time and for similar reasons. In both countries the spread of the Neoliberal ideology and the suppression of labor unions removed restraints on the downward pressure on the wages, which resulted from the unfaborable balance of labor supply in relation to demand. Relative wages (wages in relation to GDP per capita) started declining about the same time.

We now have two case studies of structural-demographic dynamics in economically developed mature democracies. These results show that such societies are not immune to the disruptive social forces that have caused innumemrable revolutions and civil wars in past societies. My guess is that other European democracies, in particular, Germany, are also not immune. However, based on what I read in the newspapers, Germany is about 20 years behind the US (and UK). Other parts of Europe, in particular the Nordics, may have even more time before they are faced with a full-blown structural-demographic crisis. There is time to take steps to avert the worst, but are our political elites capable of learning the lessons of the SDT?

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Edward Turner

Restrictions on immigration will increase the wages of working Americans and Britons. If you have a structural-demographic crisis the last thing you need is to exacerbate it importing more competitors, and in UK in particular putting more expense on the welfare state.

Donald Trump’s massive infrastructure building programme will create jobs and leadership positions for those in charge of them – and the vast scale planned will mean they will be important and highly sought after positions.

Space programmes such as a Mars mission is a further area where new elite positions can be created.


Edward, President Trump has revealed his promised trillion-dollar infrastructure plan, and, though details are still lacking, it turns out to be much smaller than his campaign promise — only $200 billion, and that from unspecified sources. It is hoped that it can leverage an additional $1.3 trillion from state, local and private sources, though none of those would seem to have such funds available (

You might contrast President Trump´s hands-off approach with the history of President Obama´s quick and forceful effort to pass Obamacare, in which details were fought over for months, the president took an active part in negotiations, personally engaging opponents in debate, and finally saw its passage in Congress, even postponing the vote until a senator of the opposing party was able to take his seat.

But supporting Dr. Turchin´s mention of the curious parallels between the recent histories of Britain and America, such an apparent loss in institutional capacity to conduct and conclude a major initiative in an orderly way seems to be replicated on the other side of the Atlantic, where Theresa May´s Brexit negotiations seem to be flailing (“Brexit disarray finally brings UK business out fighting
Looming deadlines have now caused companies to increase their pressure on government” — — behind a paywall, sorry).

As for immigration, it is a perennial complaint of employers in the industries that semi-depend on illegals (agriculture and shellfish, that I know of), that they can´t find Americans who will do the work. Of course, if the immiseration of American labor continues….

Edward Turner

//they can´t find Americans who will do the work.//

Myth. If employers are depressing wages with slave/illegal labor of course you are not going to find Americans to do the work. Pay enough, they’ll do it. Systems will evolve to get them to the fields.

Infrastructure plan – Trump never asks for everything in one go. It’s not his style.

Brexit – there is no loss of institutional capacity to conduct negotiations. The Civil Service, if they didn’t have their own plan already, had it all laid out for them by Dr Richard North and Co for free. Flexcit, the the only way to leave the European Union without significant economic trouble, and related Monographs (visit website) were put together over years.

The struggle is caused by 1. Prime Minister Theresa May who supported the ‘Remain’ campaign and is not interested in a successful exit 2. foreign financial capital that wants a bad Brexit to pick up cheap assets 3. Media and authoritarian elites – linked to 1 and 2 – who constantly feed inaccurate information in the media to prevent an informed debate about exit strategy. This has almost entire suppressed Flexcit. The author, the most expert individual the country has on European law, has never been interviewed by BBC Newsnight, for example.


Edward, I know that you would rather believe in propaganda rather than facts in the real world, but in the real world, Trump actually kills infrastructure plans, not further them:

Your idea that Trump opposes the GOP and vice versa also is something that comes from fantasy land. If you’ve looked at what Trump has accomplished rather than what he says (passed tax cuts that mostly benefit the rich and corporations, appoints far-right judges hostile to labor, and furthers US involvement in wars in the Middle East), you’ll see that he is merely a cruder dumber more sexist and more racist Dubya Bush.

Edward Turner

1. Cheap talking point. Trump’s not got around to infrastructure plans yet. So busy in his first year in office.

2. I disagree with your analysis. The argument Donald Trump hates the worker necessarily implies the average American is an idiot for voting for Trump and giving a 49% approval rating. That’s not respectful and it’s not true, Trump’s delivered.

TPP – out. Paris Climate Accord – out. Clean coal – back on. Black employment – highest ever. Tax cuts for the average worker. Personally encouraged companies like Chrysler and Apple to return to the US to make stuff. He’s performed a 180 degree turnaround for the economy in just one year because his philosophy is America First – a radical difference to previous regimes. Now he’s trying to make America safe again and when he achieves that there will be more positive feedbacks.

There is for sure a demographic-structural crisis but Donald Trump is so far doing many of the things I’d suggest to solve it.



Actions speak louder than words.

Killing off the biggest infrastructure project currently around in the US (promised by Obama) is an action. Not cheap talk.

And you must think that tax cuts for the rich and corporations, anti-union judges, and more wars in the Middle East help American workers (not to mention, not a break at all from Republican orthodoxy).

Did you support Reagan, Edward? He believed in trickle-down economics and union-busting as well.

BTW, it has not escaped my attention that when facts are pointed out that contradict your fantasy interpretation of the world, you just choose to ignore them, not address them at all, and keep on believing your fantasy. With so many delusional kool-aid-drinkers like you around, it isn’t surprising that a charlatan like Trump could get elected.

Edward Turner

Slogans speak of an emptiness of thought.

Corporations got tax cuts so that they would return to America to employ Americans. This is not money trickling down, it’s jobs flooding back from overseas. Medium-sized companies also got tax cuts and so did the non-rich.

Pioneers deal with the now. Reagan’s socio-economic circumstances were very different from Trumps, he did not have a demographic-structural crisis to deal with.

I know little about Obama care except that it wasn’t working and in many parts of America it created insurance company monopolies who charged massive premiums people couldn’t afford. Maybe where you lived it worked okay but think of Americans who have no money or Mexican slaves.

Loren Petrich

Donald Trump has fallen down miserably. He ought to have talked about it the first thing when in office, instead of that stupid wall or trying to keep out Muslims. A plan that involves the Federal Government paying only 20% — that’s an insult. He doesn’t seem to talk much about such grandiose dreams as high-speed-rail networks connecting most of the more populous US cities. Like an “Atlantic Axis” that extends the Northeast Corridor along the East Coast to Maine and Florida. For someone who likes to have his name on things, that is awfully strange.

As to colonizing outer space and other celestial bodies, that strikes me as a grotesquely expensive pipedream. It also involves living in environments that make Antarctica seem like Club Med, environments where one will have to live in enclosed habitat modules along with all one’s crop plants and farm animals. Floating cities would be a lot cheaper, and while there are lots of floating-city enthusiasts, they have not succeeded in building even one floating city. Deserts and tundras could also be colonized, but to make living in such places attractive, one would need lots of greenhouses and indoor farms and the like.

So unlike in the past, colonization is not a good way to relieve population pressure.

Peter van den Engel

Fully agree. The psychological explanation for it is, when you promess to make Anerica first again (the political proposition is its positioning), you don’t do what others are doing already. Whether this leads to a higher efficiency is extremely doubtfull, considering the average intelligence of real estate speculators/ however intelligence connected to reductionist objectives is even more dangerous than being dumb.

Loren Petrich

Wanting to do something very different? I don’t see much evidence of that for Donald Trump. Consider his recent proposal for a big Soviet-style military parade. He saw a military parade in France and he now wants a bigger one. As to DT himself, I get the impression that he wants all the glory of the presidency without any of the work.

As to high-speed-rail lines, the Atlantic Axis would be about 3000 km long, about the distance between Cadiz and Amsterdam in high-speed trackage. There are other sorts of big projects that DT could push, like renewable-energy development and desalination of seawater. But DT considers wind turbines an eyesore, and he has tried to keep them from being built near his golf courses.

Peter van den Engel

It would be a better idea to decentralize politics; our main current problem everywhere; and not focus on what one president might be able to do/ in combination with a new central financial system enabling much more freedom for independant evolutions, which are being blocked now.
Governers of states with their community fi could develop all sorts of new efficiencies. So you also get back to local scale human economy.
Next to that I guess other overall issues are finding new solutions for energy and robotisation (AI), which are scientific opportunities.
Forget (don’t forget) about Trump and elite politics. It’s like the role of monarchy before enlightment took over.

alfred loomis

i think political elites seldom learn humility, until the gun is under their nose. predicting unrest may be of intellectual interest, and pays better than turning burgers, but i believe that there is a psychological component that is not well integrated: what turns unrest into organized revolution? any number of societies have gone through periods of unrest, without making any substantive and enduring changes to conditions in the lower class.
there needs to be some unifying goal, and perhaps a charismatic, or at least competent leader, before unrest becomes a significant factor.

J. Daniel

Read Turchin’s book and his answer will stare you in the face.

Roger Cooper

I am questioning the graph. Where there really no anti-government demonstrations in the US in 2010? At the height of the tea party movement. 0 anti-government demonstrations in 2003, when the US invaded Iraq. I remember demonstrations.

Unless a graph references a well-known data set, it should be explained. How was this compiled? What constitutes an anti-government demonstration?


Yeah, I was thinking the same thing Roger. In the early 2000s I lived in the DC area and was present at enough protests that make me sceptical. I’d love to see the data and a good description for the coding scheme here.

J. Daniel

A graphic reprinted in the NYT,shows school shooting increasing year by year since at least 2014.

Peter van den Engel

Yes, interesting. I use fundamental properties of the universal time/ energy model for predicting and explaining behavior and group interest in terms of social selection and economy. So it predicts evolutions, not on terms of demography/ but of course demography trends are parallel and confirm the equation.

Since our money system reflects economic behavior; it’s at the same time an energy equation on its own; it shows similar parallels with its surrounding economic evolution. It is predictable when labor cost is the inverted relation to consumption income, both (social/ economy) have opposite intentions. It is also predictable inflated labor costs will exile its labor spread and foretell the inverted relation when immigrants coming in, compete with what’s left over, in broad terms.
The same trend in demography at the time was seen as profitable, so social reaction explains its economic stage of evolution being the inverted one. No question about it.
Repairing that does not solve the underlying problem, nor do wage increases. Although for the time being potentially create some peace in the political equation. Buying time.

There are two main factors in its evolution. The first is the last financial crisis was related to real estate and state debt, two fundamentals for money growth the industry uses itself, explaining it is not the usual labor related crisis/ but this time the system itself is concerned. The same missing labor relation was later confirmed by the immigrants crisis in Europe and US simultaneously. As part of still the same evolution.
The second factor is, as I understand it the transformation into a knowledge economy; not by coincidence in parallel to the internet evolution happening at the same time/ which behaves very differently from material economy in time/energy terms and so has (should have) consequences for the money system.

It’s very well possible to find a temporary balance in isolation and seclusion of economy and social culture/ but nevertheless people want to grow and don’t accept blocking their future. Actually the solution is in the system itself, just by better understanding its proper connections/ in stead of rather comic searching in self blocking inverted unproductive logic, as also not by coincidence represented by our law systems creating impossibilities, so we miraculously land in the demography of the last elections, as if people knew it all along. ‘Miracles’ happen.

Karl Kling

I am not so sure that Germany and the Nordic countries are 20-30 years off their respective “cliff” – I expect them to follow the general trend in the western world and that it might happen quite abrupt.

For one thing, municipalities do most of the welfare services (health care, schools etc) the citizens enjoy. This is one subject that many analysts forget when analyzing these economies (unlike say the UK health care isn’t done by ‘the state’ but on local levels and in turn these agencies are compensated for it through local taxation together with a generalized support from the state – same principle applies to other welfare services). Most analysts look at the state level and concludes everything is currently just fine. This article from the Economist doesn’t adress it either (but they do point towards a future of state fiscal crisis):

As municipalities in the Nordic countries and Germany can’t declare bankruptcy (unlike the US where Detroit was subject to such arrangement from 2013) a fiscal crisis in one municipality will quickly spread to the state level, affect the ratings on capital markets etc. And demographic trends point towards a massive reduction in local tax payers (due to retirements of a huge part of the older work force, low TFR etc) and these municipalities at the same time have to pay for many of their pensions. For now many of these municipalities are saved by state transfers but these arrangements are of course becoming more impopular among those living in ‘rich’ and ‘functioning’ municipalities (for one thing bad local administration aren’t punished by such system to give credit to their complaints). There are several Swedish municipalities that borrow funds to finance daily operations – If they put a stop to it tomorrow then there’ll be no more welfare payments to those on public support, no salaries for teachers and firefighters etc.

Municipal economies and pensions will trigger a fiscal crisis in these countries within a few years for sure.

Peter van den Engel

That’s a correct observation. Although there are some differences. The nordic scadinavian states have a stronger social cultural bond than most other European countries and posess rather large natural resources, so there is a financial cushion under central bank borrowing, allowing for social priorities. Of which immigrants should be excluded of course.

Anyway as such it represents the general trend overall, with a difference in social allowance for debt building or not and between states.
In Germany a more conservative (if you want to call it that) financial policy is persued, where local municipalities are (offically) not allowed more budget. The reason for AFD to florish.

Overall the demographic elite groups involved in this potential conflict are those representing state interest: should it be more or less social/ more or less strict on labor performance alowing more debt or not, with lawyers and accountants in between (nobody in social society agrees with/ but somehow they deserve respect from the state, so cannot be swept sideways without penalty; actually eating most of state budget whenever it cannot deside what to do) and as third party social representatives of the people.

The balance hinges between either allowing more social benefits, athough they seem financially corrupt/ or risking a social uprise (revolution) – and allowing for questionable financial accounting, risking a financial crisis/ depending on international agreement, or central bank support.
The first risk is more certain than the second, so the status quo is to keep things under the blanket, paradoxly simular to the old communist 5 year plans known for their statistical lying.
America is more on the labor side, not allowing for social debt, but overall the situation is no different.

The heart of the problem though is none of that. It lies within the financial system itself. It is perfectly normal economic efficiency leads to less necessity for labor. But if you make labor necessary by law and by accounting, there is no way around it, nor social nor fiscal.
The problem is there is no better designed financial system available/ in combination with political shame.
My guess is in the end lawyers and accountants will be sacrificed (put under the guillotine in those days), to get to the next level of human evolution. There are striking similarities with the enlightment preriod. Under what conditions though predictions cannot foretell.

Karl Kling

Here is one current example on decreased willingness to pay for others of your fellow countrymen: 34 mayors in metropolitan Copenhagen (not only but among them there are the most affluent municipalities in the nation) want to cut back on paying state transfers to the rest of the nation. “Affluent” municipalities pay to “neglected” (measured in a composite index of income, distance to larger labour markets etc) in order to ensure equal access to welfare services across the whole country. Included in the article is a map where you can see for yourself how much your municipality “loses” to this scheme and which parts “win”:
(article in Danish. Though the 34 mayors mostly single out “Jylland” (Jutland, or in this case the areas of the province away from flourishing Aarhus-Billund region) it also includes islands such as Bornholm and a large part of Funen – as well as western and southern Zealand 70-100 km away from the capital. In my estimation some 2 million Danes out of a pop. of 5.7 live in these areas )

As for abrupt change, I see it as a function of small domestic markets (which can’t compensate in case of sudden loss) and export (oil and fish in Norway, agribusiness in Denmark, machine tooling and machinery in Sweden – The export tree maps from Harvard are quite helpful). The Nordic economies are all very export-oriented thus what happens around them can change conditions domestically quickly. A change for the negative mustn’t have that much to do with domestic policies in itself (though Sweden leading in the EU when it comes to immigration per capita will surley get more blame on domestic policies and different dynamics ).


At the end you wrote: “There is time to take steps to avert the worst, but are our political elites capable of learning the lessons of the SDT”.

I wonder how they could be capable or have ever been capable to do so in such a crisis. One of the signs of a crisis is increased intreelite competition, decreased elite cooperation. Averting the crisis would be a huge collective effort. How can that be done in a time of crises.

I don’t see what could be done on the individual level to avert the crises. Elite parents no longer sending their children to collegue to reduce elite overproduction? No way, every parent will do what’s to possible make their children part of the elite.

If an individual tries to go against the trend of decreased elite cooperation, the general trend is still there. So I expect that most (i.e. more than at otehr times) other members of the elte will simply abuse and betray that benevolent, cooperative individual.


OK, so the best we can hope for is a social movement. Don’t see what a social movement has to do with political elites being capable of learning the lessons of the SDT (or anything from history for that matter). Anyway, how can a social movement help? Let’s say it starts somehow. As soon as it gains momentum some members of the divided elite will join it and try to use it to get an edge for fighting other members of the elite. Then some members of the elite will oppose the movement simply because other member of the elite have joined it.

I understand that a social movement can accomplish change for the better. I fail to see how it can do so in a structural demographic crises. Do you have any examples of social movements that avoided or at least mitigated a structural demographic crises?

Examples for a social movement making the crisis worse might be the Reformation and the 30 year war. (Just speculating, I truly don’t know and I’m no expert)

Loren Petrich

That reminds me of a criticism of Communism that I once saw, that Communist revolutionaries all had middle-class or upper-middle-class class origins. This makes them all bourgeois by Marxist standards, thus giving them bad class origins.

But that does make them fit into the theory as elite aspirants. The same may be true of revolutionaries in other notable revolutions, I think, like the American and French ones.


I wouldn’t hold my breath about elites taking SDT seriously. Leaders are primarily concerned about insuring their political survival TOMORROW, not in 15 years. They also suffer from status-quo bias, they tend to believe that the status-quo will continue. While there is reason to support this or that piece of legislation because of the support it will buy you with this powerful and influential group in the next election cycle, there is no reason to support some legislation that will leave the country better off in 15 years. You will probably be retired from politics, anyways.

Now if Corbyn takes power in UK and turns it into some Stalinist paradise, or Alternatives for Germany takes over and has all the populace goose-stepping, I suspect other world leaders might start paying attention. But I think political reform generally only takes place in the shadows cast by the guillotine.

Edward Turner

Chairman of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), Christopher Giancarlo at the February 6th 2018 hearing with the Congressional Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs:

“It strikes me that we owe it to this new generation to respect their enthusiasm about virtual currencies with a thoughtful and balanced response, not a dismissive one, and yet we must crack down hard on those who try to abuse their enthusiasm with fraud and manipulation.”

“we owe it too this generation” i.e. millennials, concern for their future prospects. Seems like the government is thinking in demographic-structural terms.

Jason Guerlain

I was curious where Canada was in structural-demographic terms, and took a skim over violent incidents within Canadian history. Interestingly, I was able to clearly discern the signal of the father-son cycle, going back to before Confederation into colonial times, but I could not detect any trace of a secular cycle. Canada is old enough it should have gone through at least one full cycle, but the worst things (ignoring Native genocides) in its internal history seem to be the Riel rebellions and the FLQ crisis, and those are smallish events that line up tidily with peaks of the father-son cycle.

If there is something Canadian society does that keeps it on an even keel with a flat, or nearly-flat, secular cycle, perhaps this should be more widely emulated?

Loren Petrich

You might try looking for the sorts of demographic variables that our host had looked for: largest personal wealth / average wage, fraction of population that is foreign-born, etc.

Peter van den Engel

I guess the popularity of Jordan Peterson surely indicates there is an over production of law elites, since governent rights for equality between man and woman irritated him to the degree he decided to revolt and use his logical mind for that in the first place, trumping misunderstanding.
The overproduction of law elites is not a national issue/ but at least continental. On his side it would suggest an overproduction of scientists.

Since I explain an overproduction in elites in terms of opposition between two choices, it ultimately is about the subjets of the choices/ not just the numbers.
In relation to time/energy it seems law systems which started from fundamental rights have ended up in an overreach and are paralyzing societies not being able to react properly. An issue manifesting itself in immigration problems as well. So it is structural.
The disadvantage not being able to react properly, of course is unacceptable for human culture. Evolution is often, if not always involving opposites, so nailing certain rights in one opposition/ naturely brings about its unworkability. So specially nations looking for perfection in this area, create their own obstruction.

J. Daniel

Canada came dangerously close to breaking up a few years ago, when Quebec had its secession referendum. Many non-French origin residents of Quebec were made to feel rather uncomfortable and unwelcome. If you check on a map of Canada you’ll see that losing Quebec would be an existential crisis for the rest of the country too. Maybe Quebec is in a low portion of the cycle.


The Potential Stability of Germany and Northern Europe is kinda interesting, since French Demograph Emmanuel Todd says actually the opposite.
(I recommend DeepL as translation tool for this article.)

Of course, Todd is very left (he voted for the Communist Party during the Late 90’s) and the Far left is extremly cirtical of Germany’s Economic Doinace in Europe.


The article is about his latest book,

As said, imo. Todd became far too bitter about Germany’s dominace during the past two decades, as well as the future of democracy.

He’s also a heavy opponent of Globalisation, the Euro and in favour of National Protectionism.
A Decade ago, he still saw the EU as a potential protectionist block, but that quickly went away.
The only economist he afaik likes is Friedrich List.)

His Theories about Family Structures are interesting and he correcty showed in his early work, how certai nnegative demographic trends (like increasing child mortality) can bring a nation to fall. (In his case: the Soviet Union.)

But imo. ,you Dr. Turchin are more on the right path ,with the whole intraelite conflict.

(I actually had a discussion with a friend yesterday, how he thinks that his generatiion gets screwed over by boomers and their fear of brown people.)


Forget to say:

Thanki you providing the link to the SD Analysis of Great Britain. It’s great to see the forumlas, that you provided in Ages of Discord coming more into use and I can’t await to see other countries (specially Conitental Europe) to get more analysed in detail.

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