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The first in a series of pieces on the Stanley Kurtz article "Demographics and the Culture War".
The world is getting older. In East Asia and in Europe fertility rates have dropped well below replacement levels. In America the fertility rate remains the highest of any industrialized nation, yet even here it is below the replacement rate of 2.1 children. In Latin America and throughout much of the rest of Asia fertility rates have been following the wealthy nations on a downward trend. These same trends can be seen at work even in parts of the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, the two areas where more traditionally high fertility rates have held up to a greater degree than anywhere else in the world.
This transformation of fertility presents an enormous challenge to policy-makers in rich nations, because up to now all models for economic growth and for the administration of national pension schemes have been based around the assumption of growing populations. The question that must now be asked is, can the economy grow if the population is shrinking and the percentage of the population that is over sixty years old exceeds 30 or even 40 percent?
The current edition of Policy Review has an excellent overview on the subject from Stanley Kurtz entitled "Demographics and the Culture War," which is a combined review of four different books on the subject of demographics and the "birth dearth". He begins by laying out the essential facts of the matter, before going on to discuss the possible cultural, economic and political effects of declining fertility and a shrinking population. The four books he looks at are The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It, by Phillip Longman; Fewer: How the New Demography of Depopulation Will Shape Our Future, by Ben Wattenberg; The Coming Generational Storm: What You Need to Know About America’s Economic Future, by Laurence J. Kotlikoff and Scott Burns; and Running On Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It, by Peter G. Peterson.
Global fertility rates have fallen by half since 1972. For a modern nation to replace its population, experts explain, the average woman needs to have 2.1 children over the course of her lifetime. Not a single industrialized nation today has a fertility rate of 2.1, and most are well below replacement level.
In Ben Franklin’s day, by contrast, America averaged eight births per woman. American birth rates today are the highest in the industrialized world — yet even those are nonetheless just below the replacement level of 2.1. Moreover, that figure is relatively high only because of America’s substantial immigrant population. Fertility rates among native born American women are now far below what they were even in the 1930s, when the Great Depression forced a sharp reduction in family size.
Population decline is by no means restricted to the industrial world. Remarkably, the sharp rise in American fertility rates at the height of the baby boom — 3.8 children per woman — was substantially above Third World fertility rates today. From East Asia to the Middle East to Mexico, countries once fabled for their high fertility rates are now falling swiftly toward or below replacement levels. In 1970, a typical woman in the developing world bore six children. Today, that figure is about 2.7. In scale and rapidity, that sort of fertility decline is historically unprecedented. By 2002, fertility rates in 20 developing countries had fallen below replacement levels. 2002 also witnessed a dramatic reversal by demographic experts at the United Nations, who for the first time said that world population was ultimately headed down, not up. These decreases in human fertility cover nearly every region of the world, crossing all cultures, religions, and forms of government.
This is an enormous and unprecedented transformation. Never before in history have fertility rates dropped so low and for so long in peacetime. Already nearly 40% of the world's nations, some 88 countries, have dropped below replacement fertility.
And it is as yet unclear as to what can be done to reverse the process. Quite a few countries have attempted to boost fertility rates, through the introduction of family incentives as well as the expansion of state-provided childcare, with mixed results. For instance, Singapore has aggressively tried, through both government exhortation and through tax incentives, to combat the problem, yet the fertility rate is still, as of 2003, at 1.24 children per woman - far below the replacement level. On the other hand, France has seen a consistent rise in fertility since the mid-1990's, an increase attributed at least in part to government policy.
There are several factors driving this worldwide decline in fertility. The primary cause, on the global level, is urbanization. In 1900 only about 10% of the world's population lived in urban settlements, whereas now it is around half. The twentieth century saw the process of urbanization, which started in Western Europe and the United States in the 19th century, spread to the rest of the world. As an example, in the United States in the 19th century the urban population went from about 5% to around 40%, and today it over 75% (including suburban areas).
Why does urbanization play such an important part of reducing fertility? In a rural society children are a boon to family productivity. At a very young age they can begin assisting their parents in tasks in the fields and around the farms. Urban children are, in contrast, an expense to be borne. They can not so easily work on the family's behalf, although of course there are many children working in the world's poorer cities, in sweatshops and as street salesmen. It is also easier to provide for larger amounts of children at the subsistence level in rural areas, because rural families tend to have the option of growing some, or even most and occassionally all, of their own food on small plots, a cheap way to fill extra mouths that is not available to city dwellers.
Urban life also has certain psychological impacts that tend to retard fertility. Generally speaking, and with the necessary caveats of course, rural life tends to be more socially and religiously conservative than urban life. This is as true of the new megacities of today such as Tehran and Rio de Janeiro as it was of London and Berlin a century ago. Life in a major city in its atomisation and anonymity is very different from the social closeness of the countryside. Of course, attempts are made to maintain traditional ways of life, but for rural migrants the city inevitably makes its changes. The aspirational nature of city life, the living in proximity to great wealth, the tantalizing possibilities with which the city is associated no matter their availability to the average man, all tend to dampen the urge towards the huge families traditional in the country. The only groups that tend to maintain very large families in such situations are those with a clear religious purpose, small and somewhat insular communities where many of the older social pressures towards big families are recreated in an urban setting; a prime example of which can be seen in Hasidic Jewish communities.
An excellent example of the effect of urbanization on fertility can be seen in South Korea. Between 1944 and today the urban population of Korea went from 13.2% (for the whole of Korea) to 83% for South Korea. In the same period the fertility rate dropped from 5.4 children per woman to 1.56, a drop of over 70%.
The other important factor, especially in the West, but also increasingly in other parts of the world, has been the growing independence of women, especially in regards to their economic destiny. Today, many many many more doors are open to women in career terms, especially for middle and upper class women. Today, having children is a lifestyle choice, as opposed to a necessity - something that is expected. The spread of contraception technology, from condoms to abortion to birth control pills, has given women much greater control over their fertility than was ever possible before. At the same time, women marry much later, if at all, and so do not have children throughout many of the years of their peak fertility. This trend is particularly pronounced among middle-class families, where the general trend to illegitimacy has made fewer inroads than further down the social scale, so that many woman end up working on their careers and waiting to marry to the point at which it is too late to have children, or too late to have more than one.
An example of this can be seen in my father's family. On his father's side he is very close to his cousins. The twelve Helms first cousins, including him, have produced eighteen children, for an anaemic family fertility rate of 1.5 children per woman. Indeed, just three members of this extended family (my father and his two sisters) have accounted for seven of the children. Of the eighteen second cousins only one, so far, has had a child (my cousin Catherine whose daughter Jade is, I must report, shockingly adorable).
The slackening of social expectations in terms of children, of pressures on women to settle down and have families, has also coincided with a sea change in Western societies, and the resounding triumph of materialism and aspirational living. The cost of raising children in the modern West is far higher, proportionally, than it used to be, which leads many to question whether it is really a personal priority. After all, if having children is no longer a familial, cultural, and social necessity, and is instead a lifestyle choice, then is it a surprise that many people decide to put their money towards a different lifestyle choice?
Coming up in the following parts of this series: economic effects, social conservatism, religious revival, and eugenics.