Migration, population growth, shrinking societies: in public debate these topics fuel more emotions than most others. Demographer Wolfgang Lutz concentrates on the big picture of social developments. Once the education levels of the population – and especially that of girls – were included in development analyses, this revolutionized his research field. It also resulted in different forecasts when it comes to the pressing issues facing humanity, such as the climate crisis.

“If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years.” This was the gloomy forecast. It was nevertheless possible, the same text continued, to alter these growth trends and to establish a state of ecological and economic equilibrium. And: the sooner humanity were to begin working to attain this goal, the better. That was back in 1972, more than 50 years ago.

Commissioned by the Club of Rome think tank and published in 1972 under the title The Limits to Growth, the seminal report on the future of humanity, including the economy and the environment, was written at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The study was based on computer simulations. Donella and Dennis Meadows, she a biophysicist, he a business economist, and their collaborators at the Jay Wright Forrester Institute for Systems Dynamics simulated the long-term trends of industrialization, population growth, malnutrition, depletion of raw material reserves and habitat destruction and their mutual interactions.

Wolfgang Lutz sees this report as a “paradigm shift”. “Even though there were many inaccuracies in terms of the content, it was a completely new approach that was multidimensional and global,” he notes. Even if today’s model calculations, such as the ones by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are incomparably more detailed and comprehensive, the basis for this approach was laid at MIT in the early 1970s.

In a nutshell

With his basic research, Wolfgang Lutz expanded demography to include other factors such as educational structure and labor force participation. This has had decisive consequences, as the multidimensional approach provides greater insights. The inclusion of the education of the population - and in particular that of girls - in the development analyses has further advanced his field of research.


Wolfgang Lutz leafing through a large atlas
Demographer Wolfgang Lutz has a broad, global view of social developments. Including data on education – especially of girls – in development analyses has revolutionized his field of research. © Herbert Neubauer/picturedesk

“The decline in birth rates depends on education – specifically that of girls.”


This same approach was continued at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), where Wolfgang Lutz currently serves as scientific director. The Institute, located at Schloss Laxenburg near Vienna, focuses on developing this systems-analysis approach to precisely the pressing issues affecting the future of humanity, such as climate change, energy security, aging populations and sustainable development. Set up in 1972 on the initiative of the USA and the USSR as a bridge between East and West, IIASA today boasts some 400 scientists from 52 countries, who conduct politically relevant interdisciplinary research in areas that are too vast or too complex to be tackled by a single country or scientific discipline.

The study published by the Club of Rome in 1972 was also what inspired the young Wolfgang Lutz to engage with these fundamental questions. After studying theology, philosophy and mathematics at the universities of Munich, Vienna and Helsinki, he went to the USA to study demography at the University of Pennsylvania. When Lutz, who is now 66, returned to Austria he realized that the German-speaking countries were a “demographic wasteland”. The reasons for this are historical: “During the Nazi era, demographic science drifted towards racial theory, and after 1945 it disappeared completely,” Lutz notes. The fact that this situation did not propel him back to the USA was due to a stroke of luck: in 1983, the management of IIASA’s demography program was entrusted to Nathan Keyfitz, an emeritus Harvard professor considered as the founder of mathematical demography.

Wolfgang Lutz joined IIASA and achieved a groundbreaking feat: he expanded the hitherto narrowly defined notion of demography, which until then had mainly looked at population size and age structure, to include other factors such as educational patterns and the percentage of people in gainful employment. This had a major impact, because taking a multidimensional look at population development delivers different results. “If you include not only the number of people but also their capabilities (productivity) in the analyses, forecasts on problems such as aging and climate change have different outcomes,” explains Lutz, and he gives an example: “In countries with low birth rates such as China, the education level of the young population is much higher, which means they are more productive and better able to compensate for the low growth in population .”

Short bio

Wolfgang Lutz is the interim scientific director of IIASA, whose World Population Program he has headed ever since 1994. Between 2002 and 2022 he was Director of the Institute of Demography at the ÖAW and since 2008 has held professorial chairs first at the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration and, since 2019, at the University of Vienna. His numerous awards include ERC Advanced Grants from the European Research Council in 2008 and 2017 and the FWF Wittgenstein Award in 2010. In 2011, he used the funds from this research grant to bring together various research units under the umbrella of the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital. Lutz studied theology, philosophy and mathematics at the Universities of Munich, Vienna and Helsinki, and demography at the University of Pennsylvania.


The two determining factors for the growth of a population are birth rates and mortality rates. If mortality rates in a society decline due to better healthcare and nutrition, followed – with a short delay – by a drop in birth rates, this is known as demographic transition. “The fact that different societies are at different stages in this transition is currently one of the greatest global challenges. Africa is still in a growth phase, whereas in Europe and East Asia populations are aging and, in the absence of immigration, shrinking,” Lutz explains.

In places where birth rates remain high while mortality rates are on a decline, the population will grow very rapidly and migration pressure increases , as is the case in Africa and West Asia. Europe itself experienced just such a demographic development phase in the early 20th century. Lutz gives a historical example: “In Austria, there was strong population growth around 1900 which led to massive waves of emigration overseas. We sometimes forget that.” The big difference: back then, there were sparsely populated continents that were open to immigrants. Africans find it much more difficult to relocate today.

The point in time at which the birth rate starts to decline depends crucially on the level of education of a society – and specifically on the education level of girls. For, with rising levels of education, women tend to have fewer children and have them later in life. By incorporating educational categories into demographic methodology , Lutz set another important milestone for demographic sciences. “So much depends on education: state of health, life expectancy, labor market participation, income – even democratization,” says Lutz, a winner of the FWF’s Wittgenstein Award. He notes that education also plays an important role in successful integration, both relating to the immigrants themselves and to the population of the recipient countries, because “educated people are usually more flexible”.

In 2011, Lutz, the winner of multiple awards, took another important step by founding the Wittgenstein Centre – with funds from the FWF Wittgenstein Award he received in 2010. He did so with the objective of bringing together the expertise of three research teams that he had previously been in charge of: the Institute of Demography of the Academy of Sciences (ÖAW), the World Population Program of IIASA, and the Department of Demography of the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration, and, later, the Department of Demography of the University of Vienna, established in 2019. In 2014, the Wittgenstein Centre released its first major publication, World Population & Global Human Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which explored human capital development scenarios for all countries worldwide. Today, Vienna is considered the epicenter of demography in Europe.


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