February 11, 2005


Demographics and the Culture War (Stanley Kurtz, February 2005, Policy Review)

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.

Declining birth rates mean that societies everywhere will soon be aging to an unprecedented degree. Increasing life expectancy is also contributing to the aging of the world’s population. In 1900, American life expectancy at birth was 47 years. Today it is 76. By 2050, one out of five Americans will be over age 65, making the U.S. population as a whole markedly older than Florida’s population today. Striking as that demographic graying may be, it pales before projections for countries like Italy and Japan. The United Nations estimates that by 2050, 42 percent of all people in Italy and Japan will be aged 60 or older.

Can societies that old sustain themselves? That is the question inviting speculation. With fertility falling swiftly in the developing nations, immigration will not be able to ameliorate certain implications of a rapidly aging West. Even in the short or medium term, the aging imbalance cannot be rectified except through a level of immigration far above what Western countries would find politically acceptable. Alarmed by the problems of immigration and assimilation, even famously tolerant Holland has begun to turn away immigrants en masse — and this before the recent murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, which has subsequently forced the questions of immigration and demography to the center of the Dutch political stage.

In short, the West is beginning to experience significant demographic changes, with substantial cultural consequences. Historically, the aged have made up only a small portion of society, and the rearing of children has been the chief concern. Now children will become a small minority, and society’s central problem will be caring for the elderly. Yet even this assumes that societies consisting of elderly citizens at levels of 20, 30, even 40 or more percent can sustain themselves at all. That is not obvious.

Population decline is also set to ramify geometrically. As population falls, the pool of potential mothers in each succeeding generation shrinks. So even if, well into the process, there comes a generation of women with a higher fertility rate than their mothers’, the momentum of population decline could still be locked in. Population decline may also be cemented into place by economics. To support the ever-growing numbers of elderly, governments may raise taxes on younger workers. That would make children even less affordable than they are today, decreasing the size of future generations still further.

If worldwide fertility rates reach levels now common in the developing world (and that is where they seem headed), within a few centuries, the world’s population could shrink below the level of America’s today. Of course, it’s unlikely that mankind will simply cease to exist for failure to reproduce. But the critical point is that we cannot reverse that course unless something happens to substantially increase fertility rates. And whatever might raise fertility rates above replacement level will almost certainly require fundamental cultural change.

Why does modern social life translate into the lower birth rates that spark all those wider implications? Urbanization is one major factor. In a traditional agricultural society, children are put to work early. They also inherit family land, using its fruits to care for aging parents. In a modern urban economy, on the other hand, children represent a tremendous expense, and one increasingly unlikely to be returned to parents in the form of wealth or care. With the growth of a consumer economy, potential parents are increasingly presented with a zero-sum choice between children and more consumer goods and services for themselves.

Along with urbanization, the other important factor depressing world fertility is the movement of women into the workforce — and the technological changes that have made that movement possible. By the time many professional women have completed their educations, their prime childbearing years have passed. Thus, a woman’s educational level is the best predictor of how many children she will have. As Wattenberg shows, worldwide, the correlation between falling female illiteracy and falling female fertility is nearly exact. And as work increasingly becomes an option for women, having a child means not only heavy new expenses, but also the loss of income that a mother might otherwise have gained through work.

Technological change also stands behind the movement of women into the workforce. In a modern, knowledge-based economy, women suffer no physical disadvantage. The ability of women to work in turn depends upon the capacity of modern contraception, along with abortion, to control fertility efficiently. The sheer breadth and rapidity of world fertility decline implies that contraceptive technology has been a necessary condition of the change. Before fertility could be reliably controlled through medical technology, marriage and accompanying strictures against out-of-wedlock births were the key check on a society’s birth rate. Economic decline meant delayed marriage, and thus lower fertility. But contraceptive technology now makes it possible to efficiently control fertility within marriage. This turns motherhood into a choice. And what demographic decline truly shows is that when childbearing has become a matter of sheer choice, it has become less frequent.

The movement of population from tightly knit rural communities into cities, along with contraception, abortion, and the related entry of women into the workforce, explain many of the core cultural changes of the postmodern world. Secularism, individualism, and feminism are tied to a social system that discourages fertility. If a low-fertility world is unsustainable, then these cultural trends may be unsustainable as well. Alternatively, if these cultural trends cannot be modified or counterbalanced, human population appears on course to shrink ever more swiftly.

When George Bush was recently re-elected Garry Wills referred to it in the Times as The Day the Enlightenment Went Out; hopefully he's right. The U.S. is indeed the only nation that has even remotely begun the kind of cultural desecularization and return to sacralization that will be required to get fertility rates back up and keep them there.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 11, 2005 4:46 PM

how would what you call a "return to sacralization" overturn "urbanization", "modern contraception", "the movement of women into the workforce", etc that Kurtz lists as reasons for a birthrate decline? None of those are going away any time soon - even in the United States.

Posted by: Brandon at February 11, 2005 4:59 PM

We're already deurbanizing rapidly. Birth rates are quite high for even white Americans. There's a reaction against feminism.

Posted by: oj at February 11, 2005 5:06 PM

Two quick points:

1. The various projections about the future costs of social security, medicare and medicaid assume that life expectancy in the first half of the 21st century will increase by only 6 years.

2. Given increased immigration, and immigrants' increased birth rates, we are soon going to have a situation in which poor brown workers are being heavily taxed to support old, rich, white retirees.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 11, 2005 5:18 PM

seems like the population levels will drop steadily until all the non-breeders have died off and then it will plateau or even rise again. nothing to get excited about really. if places like europe don't care about their culture dying off completely then who am i to worry for them ? the beauty part of america is that newcomers can really become full members of society, and will avidly participate in passing on the american way.

Posted by: cjm at February 11, 2005 5:40 PM


We are not deurbanizing in the sense that Kurtz is talking about. He's referring to an urban/industrial vs rural/farm economy. We are at best going to a suburban/industrial economy where children will remain "a tremendous expense."

I'll grant you that our birth rates remain higher than Europe's; and I do understand how that supports your point.

But "a reaction to feminism", is that the extent of a "return to sacralization"? Seems weak to me.

Posted by: Brandon at February 11, 2005 6:29 PM

When I was in college, we read Second Sex as part of our year long Western Civ class. My main feeling about it is that it was a lot of "the grass is greener on the other side of the fence" thinking - ie, De Bouvier argued that women's traditional roles were drudgery, whereas men's work was somehow creative and fulfilling. I think that fallacy is beginning to fold, as women find that careers outside of the home can be toilsome too. Frankly, someone who cannot find meaning and happiness raising their childred, and I'm including men here, is likely to be unsatisfied elsewhere too.

In terms of these future predictions, I wonder about the past predictions of dire overpopulation. Doesn't it seem reasonable that the importance of having children, and perhaps the esteem it is held in, will increase again? Personally, what I see happening often is, that after a few years of dabling in corporate jobs, many girls and women I grew up with have returned to the home, and are raising several children. Perhaps this trend will continue.

Posted by: Mike Beversluis at February 11, 2005 6:54 PM


We are moving to a village/entrepreneurial economy that has much in common with the pre-industral world. I say this, of course, as a techno-druid.

Posted by: ghostcat at February 11, 2005 8:19 PM

How many babies died at birth???

Posted by: Sandy P at February 11, 2005 10:26 PM

OJ, you are projecting way too much into the election results. Resacralization?? You'd think we've elected a Pope!

The fertility trend is down for native-born American, predominantly Christian people. Christianity is no cure for the trend. Your hothouse flower is wilting under the winds of modernity. Christianity has survived by its ability to absorb the zeitgeist, or to put it more simply, to go with the flow. It is a chameleon. It is no bastion.

I imagine the trend will turn around when society places the proper economic incentive on child rearing. Medical advances will allow more middle aged women, who have finally satisfied themselves that the career track is not their life's purpose, to bear children. Artificial wombs may play a role for women who cannot, or choose not to, sacrifice their body to the task. Corporations and retiree stockholders, eager to preserve their investments, will fund the development of new workers by subsidizing the supply.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at February 12, 2005 3:47 AM

The real change will come a few years after the baby boomers die off.

So there will be 25 years of old folks being packed into cages like so many chickens (except, maybe, for those who had families). I would bet governments will be more than happy to hand off the care of the aged to charities instead of raising taxes. It's already happening where I live. Holland will just kill everyone at age 70 (more soylent green and fewer bad movies for the rest of us).

And then it is the frontier all over again, for those who still believe in family.

Posted by: Randall Voth at February 12, 2005 6:57 AM


It has nothing to do with this election--it started with Reagan's.

While Blue America remains a Europeanesque drag on overall white fertility rates, Red America is quite different:


The difference is religion.

Posted by: oj at February 12, 2005 8:52 AM

with any luck this will be the last generation of lefties, at least in the west.

Posted by: cjm at February 12, 2005 6:08 PM