Demographics and the Culture War

By Kurtz, Stanley | The Human Life Review, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Demographics and the Culture War


Kurtz, Stanley, The Human Life Review


We moderns have gotten used to the slow, seemingly inexorable dissolution of traditional social forms, the family prominent among them. Yet the ever-decreasing size of the family may soon expose a fundamental contradiction in modernity itself. Fertility rates have been falling throughout the industrialized world for more than 30 years, with implications that are only just now coming into view. Growing population has driven the economy, sustained the welfare state, and shaped modern culture. A declining population could conceivably put the dynamic of modernization into doubt.

The question of the cultural and economic consequences of declining birthrates has been squarely placed on the table by four new books: 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. Longman and Wattenberg concentrate on the across-the-board implications of demographic change. Kotlikoff and Burns, along with Peterson, limn the economic crisis that could come in the absence of swift and sweeping entitlement reform.

Taken together, these four books suggest that we are moving toward a period of substantial social change whose tantalizing ideological implications run the gamut from heightened cultural radicalism to the emergence of a new, more conservative cultural era.

New demographics

Drawing on these books, let us first get a sense of the new demography. The essential facts of demographic decline discussed in all four are not in doubt. 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 nation1 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. …

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