Current understanding of life-history evolution and how demographic parameters contribute to population dynamics across species is largely based on assumptions of either constant environments or stationary environmental variation. Meanwhile, species are faced with non-stationary environmental conditions (changing mean, variance, or both) created by climate and landscape change. To close the gap between contemporary reality and demographic theory, we develop a set of transient life table response experiments (LTREs) for decomposing realised population growth rates into contributions from specific vital rates and components of population structure. Using transient LTREs in a theoretical framework, we reveal that established concepts in population biology will require revision because of reliance on approaches that do not address the influence of unstable population structure on population growth and mean fitness. Going forward, transient LTREs will enhance understanding of demography and improve the explanatory power of models used to understand ecological and evolutionary dynamics.