Depopulation Bomb

A crisis in Western birthrates?

Long before I took a professional interest in demography I had noticed a puzzle in the history of my family. Why was it that my wife Sidney and I, born in the 1930s, had seven children (one of whom died) while the families of my father and mother, serious Catholics but born at the turn of the twentieth century, had far fewer? My father’s siblings, ten in all, procreated only seven children from nine marriages, and my mother had just two siblings. She herself had just two children, my brother and I, born in the early 1930s.

I soon gained some demographic insight into that puzzle. Those procreating during the depression years of the 1920s and ’30s had a much reduced birthrate, while my wife and I, living in the more affluent 1950s and ’60s, were among the prolific source of the baby boomers. The average number of children for women born in 1933, my wife’s birth year, was 3.8, a record for the twentieth century. That postwar baby-boom era is now seen by demographers as a surprising and temporary event, interrupting a long historical decline in birthrates. And times have indeed changed: only three of our six children (aged forty to fifty) are married, and we have just four grandchildren. Few middle-class couples these days have even three children, and it seems positively heroic to have four. Younger couples tend to gasp when I mention the number six.

With the exception of the United States, the developed countries of the Western world now have birthrates below the population replacement rate, which requires an average of 2.1 children for every woman. Some countries, such as Italy, Spain, and Poland, have the lowest birthrates in the world, while others—such as France, Germany, and Sweden—are higher but far from sustaining population replacement. The United States (2.1), moreover, exceeds the replacement rate in great part because it has more liberal immigration policies than European countries. Without those immigrants, the United States would be losing population along with all the other developed nations.

There is little good to be said for this situation, and even the one-time zero population growth enthusiasts of the 1970s and ’80s seem to have quieted down. Not only are declining populations economically harmful, but they also generate that looming demographic nightmare: a radical shift in the dependency ratio, with a declining number of young people to support a growing number of old people. To say that is not to imply that rapidly growing populations are necessarily better; they can be a problem too, but not in affluent countries.

What is the meaning of the declining populations and what can be done about it? Easily the worst explanation has been put forward by the theologian George Weigel in his recent book The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics without God (Basic Books). He asks, “Why is Europe committing demographic suicide, systematically depopulating itself in what the British historian Niall Ferguson calls the greatest ‘sustained reduction in European population since the Black Death in the fourteenth century’?” “The failure,” Weigel goes on to say, “to create a human future in the most elemental sense—by creating a successor generation—is surely [my italics] an expression of a broader failure, a failure of self-confidence. That broader failure is no less surely tied to a collapse of faith in the God of the Bible.” He gestures toward a more complex explanation, all of a paragraph or so, but quickly passes on.

Weigel’s statements are pious fantasies of the highest order, and there is no place to see their flimsy foundations better than in considering another one of his questions: “Why do many Europeans deny that these demographics...are the defining reality of their twenty-first century?” They do not deny them at all. They take them with the utmost seriousness, near the top of the list of hazards facing the European future, and a major issue for the European Union. One of its agencies, the European Commission, financed a comprehensive study of the problem by the Rand Corporation. It resulted in a major 2004 report, Low Fertility and Population Aging: Causes, Consequences, and Policy Options. The report noted in its introduction that “demographic changes could have potentially damaging consequences for European economies,” and listed as well a number of other hazards. Belying the notion of European indifference to the problem, the report draws on some 240 books and articles pertinent to the subject and supplements a review of that literature with its own demographic analysis and case studies. It is striking how few of the economic, sociological, and demographic studies allude to the role of religion at all; its impact appears hardly detectable. As with my own family history, it turns out to be at best a minor variable in determining birthrates, at least in modern developed countries.

Weigel is almost rhapsodic, for instance, in his description of Polish Catholicism. “The vitality of Polish Catholicism,” he states, “could reenergize the often somnambulant churches of Western Europe.” Perhaps so, but he manages to overlook a telling piece of counterevidence to his European demographic thesis: Polish religious “vitality” does not extend to bearing children. With a birthrate of 1.29, Poland is, along with Italy and Spain, well below the population replacement rate and among the very lowest in Europe.

Nor does Weigel show the least curiosity about why Europe’s historically most important Catholic countries hold that dubious distinction, or why France—his whipping boy as a “Christophobic” culture—does much better with a 1.95 birthrate. Those thousands of young people in Poland who turned out to hear John Paul II preach were surely looking for something, but it does not appear that having babies was it. Are they, as Weigel puts it, lacking in self-confidence? Since he seems to have averted his eyes from Polish birthrate data, he has no answer to that question and provides no clues as to how he might answer it.

If it does nothing else, the European Commission study should force conservative population pundits and Euro-bashers to take great care in making pronouncements about the causes of contemporary underpopulation trends or possible cures. It is a puzzle with deep roots, going back to what is called the “demographic transition.”

During stage 1 of that transition, in premodern times, there was a balance between high birthrates and high death rates, with an average life expectancy of no more than thirty years. Stage 2 appeared first in Europe in the late eighteenth century with a decline in death rates, and particularly child mortality, shifting the population in a youthful direction. Stage 3—which shades into our era—saw a decline in birthrates, beginning in the late nineteenth century, spurred by increased urbanization, industrialization, and female literacy.

As agricultural life also declined, and modern urban and industrial life arrived, a now familiar story unfolded: children required greater education, became more costly to raise and less necessary economically. The improving life expectancy of women stimulated a greater emphasis on roles other than childbearing (of course the women’s religious orders had already pioneered that idea). There has been a strong correlation, moreover, between a decline in child mortality and a decline in birthrates, just as there has been an inverse correlation between increased national wealth and birthrates.

The trend toward underpopulation in Europe, particularly within the European Union, began in the early 1970s. The number of children per woman went below the replacement rate in just about every country, declined for a number of years, stabilized for a short time, and has even risen slightly, but only slightly, in the past few years. Ireland was for a time the exception but its birthrate is decreasing (1.9), and doing so in step with its much improved economy.

Almost everywhere there has been an increase in divorce, a decline in marriage rates, a rise in cohabitation, an increase in children born out of wedlock, and delayed age for marriage and bearing the first child. Contraception and legal abortion have made less difference than might be imagined, in great part because some contraceptive methods, even if less effective, were earlier used and illegal abortion was long a reality. How did my father’s family manage in the 1920s and ’30s to have so few children? I have no idea and never asked (or would have dared to ask), but I was struck when growing up by the prevalence of separate beds and even bedrooms in marriages of my parents’ generation. Just what else they did I do not know, but they obviously did something to have so few children.

While it is easy, and wholly pertinent, to note the many cultural pathologies leading to negative birthrates, it is no less important to observe the various real pressures that make childbearing more difficult now than in the past. Housing shortage and costs are a problem in every country, and one reason for an increase in the number of adult children continuing to live with their families. The need to have an extended education to be viable in the job market, as well as a perceived need to be financially secure before bearing children, is important too.

I can’t but note with some dismay the much heightened expectation—even a sense of self-evident entitlement—among young people for a well-advanced material life. Not for them the old cars, ratty second- or third-hand furniture, and an almost total absence of restaurant meals that marked the early years of our marriage and that of most of our peers, religious and nonreligious, accepted with hardly any complaint. There was far less romance with the market and its inducement to unbounded affluence in those days. It is to me a profound mystery why many social conservatives do not understand that the market is the greatest enemy of their values. It seems to me the main vehicle, in its materialism and moral relativism, for the secularism they despise, though it appears much more diplomatic in their circles to blame it all on Nietzsche, Marx, and secular atheism. I have not observed many religious conservatives with six children (save for some Orthodox Jews and a few Mormons). Those days are probably gone for almost everyone.

The European Commission report is careful and sober, and not notably optimistic, about the prospect of changing the present demographic pattern. Immigration is one possibility, as the United States demonstrates, but even in this country there is a strong backlash emerging, especially against illegal immigrants whose numbers now exceed those admitted legally. And the traditional resistance of European countries to liberal immigration policies is not likely to soon disappear. Beyond that possibility, though, a number of countries have pursued social and welfare policies that can have an indirect positive effect on population trends, and a few, notably France and Sweden, have used a number of strategies that, directly and indirectly, influence birthrates in a positive direction.

France is notable among European countries in having a relatively high birthrate, 1.95 children per woman, a greater willingness to accept immigrants than other European countries, and a long history of pronatalist family policy going back to the nineteenth century. That policy is marked by generous, and paid, maternity and parental leaves, by ample child benefits and family allowances, and by a housing allowance. The child benefits increase with the number of children, particularly beyond three, with close to $700 a month a few years ago for those with six children. Nearly all children are placed in all-day childcare centers, paid for on a sliding scale. Unlike many other European countries, France has long worked to allow women a wide range of choices simultaneously conducive to childrearing and employment; paid maternity leave was first introduced in 1913. The net result, in the judgment of the commission report, is that the family policy has been effective in raising fertility rates when carried out systematically over a period of years.

Sweden, with a 1.5 female fertility rate, is an example of a country that, unlike France, does not have an explicit population policy but does have many programs directed at the welfare of families. Paid and job-protected maternity, paternity, and parental-leave policies have long been popular in Sweden. Swedish childcare practices are also strong, and the aim of its childcare policies has been two fold: to make compatible parental employment and family life, and the encouragement of children’s development and education. Sweden stands as a good example to show, as the commission study puts it, “that the status of women in [a] country and the level of total fertility are negatively correlated” is “too simplistic” an assumption. But the study also adds that Sweden’s family policies appear to affect the timing and spacing of births more than fertility rates.

The case of Poland, given Weigel’s claim of its special religiosity, is important and, in comparison with other European countries, it has some unusual features. In the early twentieth century, Polish women had an average of 6.2 children, dropping to 3.5 by the early 1930s, to 2.2 in the 1970s, before a steady decline took place in the 1990s. Its 1.29 birthrate is a long way from the replacement level, yet the mean marriage age of 23.9 is well below the 27-28 years common elsewhere. Polish women have the lowest age of first-childbirth in Europe, a low divorce rate, but also a declining number of marriages overall, and an increasing number of children born outside marriage.

Taken together this mixed data suggest that Poland should have a somewhat higher birthrate than it does, at least in comparison with other European countries. What explains the discrepancy? The European Commission study could not find any decisive cause. Financial stress induced by the 1989 shift from communism to a market economy is one possible reason, bringing about some economic instability: Polish surveys indicate that financial uncertainty is seen as a significant factor in the low birthrate, as is the influx of ideas and values shifting Poland toward the Western European pattern of fewer children. Maternal and family allowances have also been decreased in recent years, and services once publicly provided have been privatized. If the collapse of communism in Poland was sudden and decisive, the rapid rejection of church teaching on contraception, divorce, and abortion was not far behind, though the latter story has yet to be told in the depth needed to make sense of it all.

In Spain (1.2) and Italy (1.2), weak social and welfare services may have much to do with their low birthrates; both societies are prone to believe that procreation and family structure are best left to families themselves, not to government. A sharp reaction against Fascist dictatorships, as well as an authoritarian church, plays a role as well no doubt.

The European Commission study wisely comes to some tentative conclusions only—and I have left out the many qualifications it attaches to even those generalizations I have cited. First, immigration will not be sufficient to deal with population loss of the present magnitude and, in light of the aging problem, immigration could contribute to that problem as young immigrants themselves age. Second, European countries have been reluctant to devise specific population policies as distinguished from family and childcare policies. They will have to devise the former policies but, even if they do, no single policy would likely make a difference. Much will depend, third, on the political and social context in shaping an effective population-increasing policy, and those policies will take many years to display their effectiveness. The most promising route would be well-crafted initiatives that, like those in France and Sweden, find a good fit between high female employment and solid family support. But nothing will be easy.

I have been asked many times by younger people about my six children: “Would you do it again?” I have a three-part answer to that question. One part is to say, and I hate to say it, that my wife and I would probably be part of the contemporary zeitgeist, doing what most others in our crowd do—just as we did in the 1950s and ’60s; that is, we would not have so many children now as we did then. And we would probably be as unconscious of the social factors leading us in that direction now as we were then. Another part of my answer is to say, though, that if we could recreate the culture of those years, turning the clock back, we might be prepared to do it all over again-though perhaps settling for a more prudent number, say four or five children. Still another part would be to acknowledge the combination of benefits and burdens, pains and delights, in having six children.

The benefits are a plethora of challenges to energy and ingenuity, the delight in watching so many children grow up and in so many different ways, and our present pleasure in seeing their present pleasure with us and obvious delight in having been raised with so many congenial siblings. The main downside was our inability to pay as much attention to each child as he/she may have needed, though how much they were compensated by their interaction with one another is unclear. I have never been one of those people who say that “my family is the most important thing in my life,” but it has certainly been a valuable part, and with a longer shelf life than my books, articles, and other professional work.

That much said, it is sad to see so many couples, or single people, who seem uninterested in, or unduly fearful of, having children. One might as well not care to read or listen to music. Those who will age in the decades ahead should surely worry about a shift to fewer young people; that spells big trouble. But if they avoid children they will be missing out on a troublesome but invigorating part of life, which will make their aging all the thinner. I am not sure anyone should have children just to respond to depopulation, and I doubt that anyone ever did. If the other good reasons for having children are heeded and supportive social policies devised, then people can have children for first-class reasons, not the second-class reasons of population policy, but the latter will follow from the former.

Does religion matter in deciding whether or not to have children, as Weigel argues? The demographic data in developed countries provide no direct answer to that question, but provide little evidence to suggest it does. Economic and social contexts—the material and cultural conditions of living—appear to be the strongest determinants. My guess is that religion is far more important in deciding how to raise and educate the children one has than in determining how many to have.

The biblical injunction to “be fruitful and multiply” has not been forgotten. Our human nature takes care of that. What is now unclear is how best to shape national policies to avoid more children than a country can well support, and yet to encourage people to have enough to insure its long-term viability and a good balance between young and old. That will not be easy.

Published in the 2005-11-18 issue: 

Daniel Callahan, a former Commonweal editor, is president emeritus of the Hastings Center and the author of What Price Better Health: Hazards of the Research Imperative.

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