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October 18, 2005

Avoiding Demographic Doomsday

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Recently Friedrich von Blowhard listed some potential causes of disruption to American (and world) society. One source was demographic:

- The ‘demographic crisis’ caused by the retirement of the baby boom (and its attendant demolition job on public finances). This will, of course strike the rest of the ‘rich’ world even harder than it will the U.S., but I doubt it will be pretty anywhere

The United States experienced a post-World War 2 surge in numbers of births and rates of birth for females of childbearing age; the popular label for this is the Baby Boom. Other industrialized countries experienced baby booms, but these tended to be of different timing, generally shorter duration, and less intensive.

By definition, the end of a baby boom (the Baby Bust) means fewer births and lower birth rates. In all cases, birth rates eventually dropped to levels that, in the long run, would result in population loss (due to there being fewer daughters than mothers, generation-to-generation) absent replacement from outside sources via migration.

The "short-run" (roughly 2010-40) problem for industrialized countries is dealing with the surge of boomers as they pass into retirement age and eventually die off. A longer-term problem, barring return of birth rates to population-growth levels, is that counties will be stuck with large proportions of elderly people while their overall populations (and economies?) shrink.

The recent and future debates over modifying the Social Security system in the United States result from these looming demographic pressures.

European countries, with social programs more generous than the USA's and very low birth rates (as low as 0.65 daughters per mother in some cases), are facing the prospect of drastic (and politically unpopular) welfare-system changes or perhaps morally undesirable alternatives such as mandatory euthanasia of the elderly. Social and political disruption could be severe, especially if remedies are postponed.

Some people believe depopulation is desirable for reasons ranging from misanthropy to concern for the environment. I prefer to live in a country where population is increasing at a slow, steady rate. Although near-term disruptions linked to the phasing-out of the baby boom generation are not changeable through practical demographic means, long-term national survival requires (in my opinion) higher birth rates.

Actually, the USA is close to sustainable birth rate levels thanks to immigration of high-fertility populations, mostly from Mexico (though rates might fall as Mexicans assimilate). The European situation is dire, and might well have unfortunate spin-off consequences for the United States. Reviews of European demographic trends and pro-natalist policies are here and here. A short-lived, draconian set of pro-natalist policies of the Romanian government in the mid-late 60s is described here.

So far, pro-natalist policies have not succeeded.

Aside from the Romanian experiment, pro-natalist policies have focused on making child-rearing slightly less expensive (via tax breaks, etc.) and slightly more convenient (through maternal leave and childcare centers and the like). In my opinion, these marginal solutions don't work well because a compelling psychological or economic need to have more children is absent.

In pre-industrial times when most of the population led a rural existence, there was a clear connection between the parents' old-age welfare and the availability of grown children to support them. Without family support, old age could mean misery and possible starvation. So, making allowance for probable childhood deaths, parents tried to have enough surviving children to ensure their own futures.

Nowadays this stark connection between new generations and personal security has been lost. Thanks to pension plans and social welfare programs, people expect to be supported in their old age from moneys coming from "out there": "they" will fund retirement.

In fact, writ large, a country is in an analogous position to the pre-industrial rural family mentioned above: enough children must be produced to care for the elderly.

The solution to the low-fertility problem, then, is to instill the notion that there is a strong, personal reason to have two or three children ("your life depends on it"). Given high motivation, results will follow.

The problem with this solution is that there is no quick, magical way to create such a sense of personal responsibility and urgency. If it happens at all, I suspect it will come through a decades-long mix of serious retirement-funding and other crises, plus concurrent advocacy of more births by various organizations in and out of the government, media and academia.

The concept and practice of anti-natalism (birth control, zero population growth, etc.) took many decades to become part of everyday life and a pro-natalist reversion could take equally long. The work probably will have to be done by future generations with new worldviews, not by boomers or gens X, Y, Z or whatever who are too deep into current beliefs regarding fertility.

Yes, this posting has been sketchy and simplified compared to a scholarly research report, but I felt that I had to leave a lot out so that the central ideas would be highlighted. We can thrash out details in Comments and possible future postings.



posted by Donald at October 18, 2005


The Guardian has a rather honest & self-aware article on the topics of declining birth rates in Western societies, immigration, etc. that offers little hope to those of us hoping to avoid demographic doomsday in Europe & the U.S.,6000,1571998,00.html

Posted by: Lee on October 18, 2005 8:38 PM

We can talk as much as we like on how to fix social security, but there isn't enough will to overcome the complacent inertia carrying us to the breaking point, at which point reality will imposes its own harsh corrections.

Part of the problem is that old fogeys make up a big enough voting block to keep the politicans from messing with their benefits less they find themselves out of a job. One way to make the problem politically faceable would be to only allow people to vote who pay more in taxes then they recieve in direct benefits, but I doubt we'll see any such measures become even discusable until things get a lot worse...

Posted by: Zetjintsu on October 18, 2005 11:21 PM


My feelings on this are quite different from yours.

The concept and practice of anti-natalism (birth control, zero population growth, etc.) took many decades to become part of everyday life and a pro-natalist reversion could take equally long. The work probably will have to be done by future generations with new worldviews, not by boomers or gens X, Y, Z or whatever who are too deep into current beliefs regarding fertility.

Oh, come along, Donald. Who are these generational legions of anti-natalists? Your view is not only in the majority, it is nearly unanimous. Practically the entire business establishment is pro-population growth (more customers! Yay!); the political left is for it (as long as the growth is from immigration, especially from Third Worlders, presumed to be future Democrats and radicals); so-called leaders of ethnic groups are dead keen on their groups gaining power by outbreeding everyone else. Even the spineless Sierra Club won't take a stand on population stabilization.

Far from a lone voice crying in the wilderness, unheard amidst the domineering Baby Boomers, yours is the conventional wisdom.

You write about population as though it is a mere technical and economic issue, unconnected with anything other than accounting and budgeting. Does quality of life mean anything to you?

In my lifetime (1945- ), the population of the United States has approximately doubled. There have been many improvements during that time, but none I can think of that are the result of that doubling of numbers. On the contrary, the population growth has had nought but bad effects. Urban sprawl, higher housing density (noticed how single-family houses are being torn down for multi-unit apartments and condos all over?), a constantly growing need for importing resources and raw materials -- all this and more is down to population growth.

You can of course argue that quality of life is subjective, and you will be right. Indeed, there are people who believe that crowding, density, noise, etc. are symbols of vitality and the necessary conditions for an exciting existence. They are entitled to their preference, and I encourage them to find fulfillment by going to live in densely packed urban areas. But they don't have the right to make that decision for the rest of us. I call foul when they require us to live in New York-like environments for the sake of their intellectual abstractions about optimum population size.

Even if your argument is correct on a purely economic basis (and I have my doubts; you can prove anything with figures, depending on what assumptions you make, and I know of no country that has ever bred itself into prosperity), the world you want for us is not one that I would choose to inhabit. How many people in the U.S. would satisfy you -- 500 million? A billion?

Enjoy your old age on the 217th floor of your high-rise condo overlooking all the other high-rises out in what was once rural America, secure in your isolation from the Third World peasants you've imported by the millions believing that they will secure your retirement.

Posted by: Rick Darby on October 19, 2005 11:43 AM

R.D. -
The issue is not whether rapid population growth has many drawbacks, it is safe to assume that most people are agreed on that point, but whether population *decline* will have long-term ill effects for the United States and other countries, and if so what can be done about it. These are much more complicated questions. No nation has ever had long-term population decline except in the most extreme circumstances, so we can't be certain as to what the effects will be, and most definitely have no clear ideas of how to boost population growth in an effective and lasting manner.

Posted by: Peter on October 19, 2005 12:15 PM

First of all, the worry over the imminent collapse of the Social Security system is largely an elaborate dodge; even the Heritage Foundation thinktank admits that the Bush Administration’s highly touted privatization plan would result in lower benefit payments. They back privatization ultimately on philosophical, not fiscal, grounds.

And as I noted in the related post on changing times, the decline of economic productivity and the shrinking of a viable middle class is more critical than retiring baby boomers or demographic trends.

That said, in the United States a pro-natalist policy is a contradiction in terms. Quite simply, there is no such thing as “native Americans,” only increasingly Americanized immigrants (obviously excepting aboriginal Native Americans) who become “native born” to subsequent generations. This most recent century of American dominance can be laid to a number of key factors, such as the economic, cultural, and renewal of waves of assimilated immigrants between 1840 and 1920, along with a culture which did not (for the most part) rigorously restrict social and economic ascendancy to any particular “Old Money” or hereditary class. Along with this can be added the immigration of some of the cream of the world’s intellectual crop in the years before World War II. And even though, for example, Edith Wharton wrote about the Dutch descended New Yorkers (e.g. the fictional van der Luydens) as the pillars of East Coast society, by the 1870s this group was living off the fumes of past glories as parvenus such as Andrew Carnegie, Scottish immigrant, became one of the richest men in America.

You can see similar trends in Great Britain, where only three of the richest 20 Britons are from the old landed aristocracy (such as the Duke of Westminster), while at least six are of foreign birth, and the number one richest person is an East Indian, Lakshmi Narayan Mittal.

Posted by: Alec on October 19, 2005 12:36 PM


You've touched on one of the great historical mysteries of our era, the (anti) fertility revolution. Starting in France after the Revolution, and then moving on to the U.S. in the early 19th century, women stopped having 7-8 children and dropped down to 4 or so. It took roughly a century to reach England and even longer to reach Germany--thus impacting world history via the Franco-Prussian war and WWI.

Why this has happened is the subject of serious arguments. You might think that this happened in response to improved sanitation and reduced infant mortality, but no--in many parts of the world the fertility revolution preceded the infant mortality revolution. As I recall, the leading, but by no means unchallenged, theory was that contraceptive technology and knowledge was brought to some kind of peak in revolutionary France (an overpopulated country at the time relative to its agricultural prowess)which then diffused outward from there.

One would have to assume that feminism, including its earlier form of suffragism, is actually just one of the consequences of this incredibly historically significant shift. Likewise, it seems to have been the cause of the whole fin de siecle anxiety about 'the woman question', which popped up in such cultural landmarks as "Anna Karenina", "Hedda Gabbler", "A Doll's House", "Salome", "Lola", to say nothing of "Les Demoiselles D'Avignon".

So perhaps it would be more accurate to say that this trend may take centuries, not decades, to change. Or even that it may be permanent. After all, if one takes socio-biology seriously, it appears that the 'natural' (i.e., hunter-gatherer) level of human fertility is around 2 offspring per family, not the 6-8 children of the 18th century.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 19, 2005 6:50 PM

Lee -- Thanks for the link. I kinda feel sorry for that writer; things could pretty lonely for him as he grows older.

Zetjintsu -- Actually fogeys my age would draw regular Social Security under Bush's plan. But the AARP is spounting the Democratic National Committee line and scaring plenty of members. Sadly, you're likely right in that it'll take a crises to get changes made, and by that point the changes could be pretty drastic (I think I mentioned exterminating the elderly as a worst-case possibility).

Rick -- Gee, looks like you're reading a lot more into my posting than I wrote.

As it happens, I'm a Ph.D. demographer with a published book under my belt. This doesn't make me God, but it does mean that I keep my eyes open just a tiny bit regarding population stuff.

And maybe that's why I didn't add a sentence or two to the posting that I probably should have -- a trap for professionals is that we can assume our readers automatically draw the same conclusions we do.

And the conclusion that I should have made explicit is that, at 0.65 daughters per mother per generation, a population eventually will become EXTINCT. I don't happen to want that outcome, so I said a slight amount of growth would be okay by me.

Furthermore, I'm aware of anti-natalist outfits such as Planned Parenthood and the Guttmacher Institute (the latter might claim to be neutral, but I'm not so sure) not to mention federal agencies such as AID (that used to deal with overseas population control). I don't see comparable focused pro-natalist outfits, but maybe I'm not paying enough attention.

Peter -- I'm in general agreement.

Alec -- A demographic crisis is mathematically inevitable 25 or so years from now. How serious that crisis will be depends on both private and government steps taken between now and then. I'm glad you raised some matters that need be be taken into consideration.

Friedrich -- I'm one of the few demographers who never got too deep into the "demographic transition" (from high birth and death rates to low rates, deaths dropping first and creating a population-growing gap). I suppose I wanted to create a career niche and avoid the crowd. Back in the 60s at Dear Old Penn, the focus was on industrialization and improvements in medicine and sanitaion as the key causal factors. France was indeed early and paid dearly when competing with the more numerous Germans in later wars. But birth rates were falling by the second half of the 19th C in the advanced parts of western Europe.

One problem when doing historical demography is that data are poor or nil before the 20th C, with a few exceptions. The USA, England, Sweden, and France were doing censuses in the 19th C, but data on births and deaths were sometimes sketchy even there. For instance, U.S. life tables for the first several decades of the 20th C were based on data from the sub-set of states that were actually gathering the numbers.

There's a sub-specialty called Historical Demography that tries to come up with reasonable data on the past. But the best they can do is usually based on church parish records of christenings, deaths, etc. And this goes back only to maybe the 1600s (I forget the details).

You need to cite research behind the sociobiology-based 2-child number for hunter-gatherers. I'm prepared to believe that a couple could produce another adult couple for the following generation (a static population), but doing this might take 4 or 5 or more completed pregnancies given the probable childhood mortality levels such a population would experience.

And I agree that it could be as long as centuries before population bottoms out following a decline and I further agree that there might never be a turnaround.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 19, 2005 10:20 PM


I'm sorry I can't remember where I got the hunter-gatherer figures. If my aging brain suffices, this theory stated that because hunter-gatherer women have to carry and nurse children for roughly two years after birth until the kids became able to keep up with the always-on-the-move tribe, pregnancies must be spaced at least three years apart. Given the limited life spans of hunter-gatherer women (typically lifespans don't exceed the mid-20s), the average child-bearing years were around 12. Hence 4 kids was a sort of practical maximum. In natural conditions infant and child mortality runs around 50%, so the average highly fertile hunter-gatherer woman would have two surviving offspring.

Given that child mortality in modern societies runs close to 0%, it would appear that contemporary women could match the 'natural' fertility of their foremothers by having 2 children, full stop. Thus modern families seem closer to the socio-biological norm than did 18th century mega-families cranking out huge numbers of children.

Of course, this theory clearly doesn't explain the fact that many women today are choosing not to bear children at all--another conundrum. There may be another evolutionary mechanism at work; it's clear that in past ages (certainly well documented in the Middle Ages) when the food supply was limited, the birthrate was controlled by shipping a certain percentage of women off to nunneries or otherwise deliberately discouraging their participation in marriage. Perhaps in some odd way this mechanism has again been triggered.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 19, 2005 11:12 PM

Friedrich -- One of the most misunderstood demographic data items is life expectancy. An article about some population -- the Gauls, say -- mentions an avarage life expectancy of, say 35 years (Lord knows where that number comes from). Most folks immediately draw the conclusion that there were hardly any 45-year-olds to be seen. But this is wrong; Caesar's troops saw a fair number of 60 and 70 year olds along their march routes.

This is grossly simplified, but try to follow: life expectancy is one statistic generated by a life table. Life tables are based on (statistically tidied-up) death rates for a population at a given point, say 1989-1991 (years centered on 1990). The construction starts with an arbitrary number of births, typically 100,000 and reduces that number age-by-age according to the age-specific death rates that are being used. When the analyst (or computer program) works down to a terminal age (say, 115) there are no people left from the initial 100,000. But there is a column in the table showing the average number of survivors in each age group (say, from exact age 23 to the day before attaining exact age 24). These are the number of "persons living" at that age in the hypothetical population where each birth group had 100,000 people and was subject to those death rates. If you add up all the persons living at every age and divide by the 100,000 births starting point, you arrive at the life expectancy at birth. (This is a lot easier to follow if you have an unabridged life table before you.)

Now, a population with high infant mortality -- say 20% deaths between birth and first birthday -- will generate a lot fewer people at higher ages than a population where less than 1% of births fail to survive the first year. So life expectancy is low.

But if someone in a low-life-expectancy population survives to age 10, say, his chance of reaching age 60 is not a huge amount lower than it is for a 10 year old in Europe or America today. Yes, the difference will be obvious, but it wouldn't be anything like from-birth expectanties of 40 years versus 78 years.

So. Those hunter-gatherer women reaching childbearing age (14 or 15, say, in those days) had a pretty good change of surviving to menopause 30 or so years later, not the 12 years you suggest. They easily could have given birth to eight babies, health permitting.

Sorry for chewing up all these pixels. Let me know if things still aren't clear.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 20, 2005 12:13 AM

Donald: When you title your posting "Avoiding Demographic Doomsday"; write "long-term national survival requires (in my opinion) higher birth rates"; that we must "instill the notion that there is a strong, personal reason to have two or three children ("your life depends on it")"; and that the solution to your doomsday scenario is, inter alia, "advocacy of more births by various organizations in and out of the government, media and academia," perhaps I am not reading too much into your posting by thinking that you really believe we need to encourage a larger population?


The American fertility rate fell to replacement level in 1972, making it possible for the nation to eventually reach a widely held dream for a stable population. A national government commission recommended that the nation would be best served in reaching its environmental, economic and social goals by a stabilizing population. Numerous experts and commentators predicted that each decade would see lower and lower population growth until early in the 21st century there would be no growth at all. …

The immigration tidal wave of the last three decades has made it impossible for Baby Boomers to ever enjoy the 1970s dream of a stabilized country — even if all immigration were stopped tomorrow. The Census Bureau states that if immigration were reduced to replacement level, the United States population would still be growing at the end of the [21st] century because of the momentum created by the last three decades of immigration.

Source: Numbers USA

Maybe you disagree with their calculations; maybe you're right; I distrust all predictions based on extrapolation because the underlying assumptions can change so quickly and extremely. In any case, though, you acknowledge that "actually, the USA is close to sustainable birth rate levels thanks to immigration of high-fertility populations, mostly from Mexico (though rates might fall as Mexicans assimilate)."

Apparently you believe that mass immigration by these groups is a net gain. Actually, although they might cut your lawn and serve your burgers cheaply, poor and uneducated immigrants cost us more than they bring to the table. We are subsidizing their health care, their kids' education, even their births through our taxes. For evidence on this, see Randall Parker. And your assumption that Mexicans want to, or will, assimilate is highly questionable.

But my argument, which I repeat here, is that overpopulation is a qualitative issue, not just a quantitative one. You see numbers, I see the human costs of population growth in daily life -- urban sprawl; traffic nightmares; growing housing density; the politically and ethically dangerous need to import growing amounts of raw materials, particularly oil; and a de-personalization of human relations as more and more people must be "processed" by government and organizations because there are too many to deal with as individuals.

Posted by: Rick Darby on October 20, 2005 10:41 AM


Act I:

Scene: A room.

Bugs Bunny: Apples, may I present you with Oranges. Oranges, this is Apples.

Bugs: Oh, and look there, it's Elephant. Dear Elephant, how are you? Why so quiet?

Dramatis Personae:

Apples: low white birth rate (note, indigenous fruit, with all due respect to the pedantic argument that anyone not here before the last ice age isn't a native).

Oranges: immigration.

Elephant: A spirit, a thought, the physical manifestation of a certain ineffable something, capable of good or ill, of love and hate. See Steve Sailer.

Posted by: cc on October 20, 2005 1:00 PM

CC: best thing I've read today. At least today.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 20, 2005 1:27 PM

Umm, I'm getting the feeling that words are being put into my mouth. I neither stated nor implied anything about nativism. I mentioned that U.S. birth rates are slightly below generational replacement level. I indirectly suggested that the rates would be (an unspecified amount) lower, absent in-migration of higher-fertility populations. Then I speculated that immigrant assimilation would lower their birth rates an unspecified amount. The unvoiced conclusion was that U.S. fertility would remain below replacement levels barring some other change. I made no value judgments about immigration. My (implicit) value judgment was against extinction of humanity.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 20, 2005 1:47 PM

Here is a possibility: Massive immigration of the unskilled lowers the white and black birthrate.

When housing prices go up rapidly and inexorably it is kind of hard for a young couple to buy a house and raise a family. When public schools become overcrowded, poor-performing, and pre-dominantly Spanish speaking (The joys of southern California are likely in your not too distant future) make you want to raise a family? Furthermore, taxes go up because of immigrant related health-care, schooling, prison, and policing costs etc... Higher taxes probably don't encourage more children (see Europe). Then there's affirmative action. This makes every new immigrant (except white and asian ones) prefered for hiring in the government, and private sector. When a white person gets turned down for a job because of affirmative action, does that make him/her want to have more children? When america is 50 percent minority as it will be in 2050, how much more damaging will Affirmative Action be to white people?

Posted by: scottynx on October 20, 2005 2:14 PM

Another unspoken reason why our "elites" want population growth is national security - as stated a couple times above. The idea is we need more troops to outfight the other guy. Unfortuantely this is WWI thinking and WW2, Vietnam and Iraq have shown that modern technology has increased battlefield productivity to the point where small groups of well trained soldiers can cause incredible amounts of damage.

But then again, our pro-business "elite" does tend to be 100 years behind the times.

Posted by: Anon Y Mouse on October 21, 2005 12:44 PM

Steve Sailer has written about higher fertility rates in red than blue states - he thinks it is the damned liberals making housing too expensive. I think he's not wrong that young people tend to think 'I need to get the nest set up before I put any eggs into it' and that includes having a secure job and a house. That takes fifteen years after college in Boston, DC, NY - and five years after college in Fort Worth or Chillicothe. Fifteen plus 23 is 38, and if you are lucky you can get two kids before you become infertile. Five plus 23 is 28...

Posted by: dave s on October 26, 2005 4:40 PM

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