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Demographic Decline: An Inevitable Feature of Industrial Society?


It seems absurd, in a world which is closing in on 8 billion people, to speculate about underpopulation and humanity’s population vitality. But this staggeringly large number conceals its hidden figures, specifically that among the developed, rich nations of the world, only one - Israel - has a fertility rate which is above replacement levels. Fully ⅓ of the countries of the world, some 60 of them, have fertility rates which are below replacement low. Some have shockingly low ones, like South Korea, which has a TFR close to barely 1, meaning that within a generation its population will nearly half. The number of aged and retired will grow dramatically across the world, relative to the working population. These problems, and although there are positives to them they can only be considered as problems in light of the severe dislocation that population decline will bring, have been spoken of for a while, but so far there have been no real long-term solutions in most countries. The question is whether there is an inherent feature to industrial civilization which makes it incompatible with stable populations. The question at heart, is why.

The first step is comparing the current system to that which preceded it. Pre-industrial civilization experienced major population fluctuations, but generally it only declined in the context of agricultural disaster, war, or disease. For the population to decline in peace, outside of these crises, would have been most unusual indeed: periods of population decline are referred to as crises, such as the Crisis of the 17th Century when the European population as a whole declined.

At the same time, the population was dramatically lower, so a direct comparison is perhaps less than applicable. After all, the current population in industrialized countries has massively exceeded its carrying capacity and massively exceeded the population levels of pre-industrial society. Even in societies with major expected population declines, such as Japan, the most pessimistic projections still foresee the population as substantially over 40 million in a century’s time - substantially more than the pre-industrial population of circa 30 million. Thus even population declines will take a long time to see the population dwindle below what represented the peak of pre-industrial populations, and Japan is an extreme case.

While there is a stereotype that pre-modern populations were unable to control their fertility, mechanisms did exist for this, simply not in the liberal, autonomous individual sense that we assume today. For example, in the 17th century, the climate crisis and state breakdown and war, most particularly prevalent in the 1620-1660 period, led to a decline in population fertility. Couples married later, some never married at all, and since, despite a rise in illegitimate births, the great majority of children continued to be born in marriage, this led to a fall in the birth rate. Most tragically from the modern perspective, infanticide rates skyrocketed, and de-facto infanticide via depositing children in convents, where the overwhelming majority died, also soared. Furthermore, large numbers of women were secluded away in nunneries. Pre-modern society might not have been easily able to deal with contraception like today, and lacked access to safe and legal abortion, but it did have its own forms of population control.

This is important since it means that population growth was, contrary to our assumption of an inability to control fertility, controlled by society. This has its own corollary however: it meant that people were willing to have children in large numbers, despite inferior living conditions compared to today. They were not automatons, and not forced: there were options available such as infanticide, convents, and avoiding marriage existed. Conscious decisions were made to have a growing population, despite the hard conditions and poverty. A principal impediment to having children today is the cost, but a far less rich time, with far less material prosperity to support children, had them.

This all comes however, with an asterisk. While the population may have grown, it was divided into two broad groupings: the cities and the countryside. The latter did have a growing population, while the population of the former was only kept stable through constant immigrant from the rural areas, since the higher death rates of the cities meant that they represented a zone of death, where mortality exceeded births. But since cities were proportionally a small proportion of the total population, their negative demographic effect could be contained.

This regime was predicated on high birth and death rates. Contrary to general beliefs, death did not come at 30 like the stereotype! Rather, if one survived childhood, one had a good chance of reaching a respectable old age - 50 for example, was considered a decent standard in Japan. But surviving childhood was hard, since over half of all children died before they were 5. To ensure population stability, 5 or more children - actually substantially more, since there were large percentages of the population which would never marry and have children - were required per married couple for the population to keep stable.

The transition to a modern regime - a low fertility and low death rate, was marked by what is called the “demographic transition.” The death rate dropped first, while the birth rate took longer to adjust culturally, resulting in a population boom in standard examples. There are exceptions of course, such as France, whose demographic transition came earlier for births and which resulted in a stagnant population. But it held true as a whole, and the exceptions since, such as the 50s and 60s baby booms, have proved fleeting and eventually a return to the regular trends have occurred.

Implicitly, this has implied population stability in most of the charts used about it - but the new equilibrium is defined by population decline in most countries. Is this natural? Perhaps, since it could be a return to a previous equilibrium. Japan is predicted to decline to 40 million at the end of the century - which is just slightly above its pre-modern level, and Japan is one of the most extreme examples. Perhaps the population will simply adjust. There's some cases which seem to show this - France and Ireland were the European countries with the greatest population decline or stagnation in the 19th century, and yet today are the European countries with the greatest population growth. Perhaps they show that populations move in waves over the course of time, and that they grow and decline in cycles.

There is nothing to confirm that this will occur: perhaps the population will continue to dwindle forever, or perhaps just like with agricultural civilization, some sort of general population equilibrium will be achieved. As noted above, population growth was controllable even in a pre-modern context, the equilibrium was a feature of population stresses: when these were removed, when plagues, famines, war, etc. abated, the population expanded. The carrying capacity of the land was of course related, but just like today human activity could dramatically change this carrying capacity.

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The question to ask then, is what the constraining factors are on modern incentives for population expansion. These are:

1)Cost of having children, in regards to food, housing, schooling, healthcare, education, etc. These are massive compared to anything which existed in the pre-modern era, and the cost of a child easily reaches into the hundreds of thousands and for the more well off, the millions.

2)Opportunity cost. There are multiple sides to this. one can see this most clearly discussed in the way that people talk of “childfree” lifestyles - without children, one has much more disposable income, greater freedom for adult enjoyments, less responsibilities. A key difference between modern population planning and the older one is that there is far greater ability to plan within a relationship, with contraception and legal, safe, effectively unlimited abortion. While a couple could have gone without children, it would have been far more fraught with risks, inconveniences, emotional burden, and danger in the pre-modern period. Most importantly of course, families do not have anywhere close to the social pressure to have children anymore. Low marriage rages via large populations in domestic service served to control population growth in pre-modern European society, while now planning within the family unit achieves the same.

3)Children utility. There really isn't much of a benefit to having children in modern societies other than in purely emotional terms. In pre-modern agricultural societies, children were useful for their labor, since they could do various domestic tasks and farm labor and mature relatively quickly. Furthermore they would have been the singular source of retirement security in old age, in an era without pensions or social assistance. By contrast, child labor is not acceptable today and so children don't give any direct economic utility, household farm labor is a small percentage of the population, and retirement is no longer provided by children but rather by social security and government assistance.

4)Changing fertility trends. This perhaps isn't inherent to industrial society, since marriage rates and age of childbirth actually became younger for a period, but it seems integral to a highly educated, college oriented society: inherently extensive non-earning periods, spent in education, reduce substantially the period available to young people to have children. If a college degree holder is say, 25 years old, and assuming that it takes them a few years to settle down, become financially stable, and be ready to have kids, then inherently the potential age of child giving has been cut into, at least for women. On the other hand, there have been an increasing number of older women giving birth.

A good example of counterbalancing to industrial society is the growth of non-industrial groups like the Amish or Ultraorthodox Jews.

A good example of counterbalancing to industrial society is the growth of non-industrial groups like the Amish or Ultraorthodox Jews.

The Future

None of these factors are ones which seem likely to change, in that although the costs of children might become less relatively, there will continue to be few benefits to having them. Declining and stagnant populations are an inherent feature of industrial civilization from what we know, and only a paradigm shift can change this.

The only counter-examples stem from making up for periods of reduced growth, such as the baby booms following the losses of the First and Second World Wars and the stagnation in the middle, or periods of prolonged population stagnation such as France and Ireland. On a more dramatic scale, the same might be said to exist for Israel, which although in part driven by the ultra-Orthodox's birthrate, has a high birthrate which is in part explained due to collective psychosis about the disasters which have befallen the Jewish people in the 20th century. Eventually, populations stop growing after their demographic transition and will start to shrink, and this shrinking is inevitable.

There has been much talked about concerning what sort of problems and benefits there are to declining populations, to the extent that it isn't really necessary to say anything about it. What's more interesting is how long they might last. Specifically, is there any reason to think that eventually this population decline might bottom out? While we don't have any obvious historical testaments, I think that the examples of Ireland, France, and Israel all show that industrialized societies can undergo a correction to make up for previous population shortfalls. Furthermore, there is also a selection bias present within populations. We probably won't all be Amish in 2100, but groups like the Amish which better resist the tendency of the modern age to isolation, social atomization, and individualism will grow as a percentage of the population, and without social pressure functioning as the primary reason for having children, individual selection will take place - people with a drive to have children will steadily become more and more prominent. Cat moms and childfree people simply do not pass on their genes. Eventually, the population will decline and stabilize at some lower level.

To answer the question of whether demographic decline is an inevitable part of industrial society, the response is quite clearly yes. Industrial society inherently promotes population stagnation and decline after the initial spurt. At the same time, nature abhors a vacuum: over the long run, factors will produce a corresponding stabilization of the population. And in the very long run, future technological factors like artificial wombs, cloning, and perhaps life prolonging will make the entire question irrelevant. Industrial society's population base will more or less gradually (depending on which country you are in) shrink, reaching some point of relative stability after a century or two, and then will rise on the introduction of new technologies and weeding out of people who aren't predisposed to have children.

The main question concerning population stagnation will not be the death of the human race, but rather the political ramifications of flows of people and population shifts occasioned by population changes. This is a far more serious question, and I have my doubts about the ability of the developed countries of the world to absorb and assimilate large numbers of immigrants from the developing countries. But it is also one which is much more a reflection of the reality that pronatalism is less about a fear of insufficient numbers of humans, and more what type of humans.

Most demographic predictions are worthless a century into the future. The truth is it is impossible to know what will happen, and routinely we are flummoxed by actual societal demographic developments. But it seems that there are some good examples to show that there is a stabilizing factor present in populations and that just as the Population Bomb proved wrong, so too will the idea of the voluntary extinction of the human race.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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