Demographics are the generally unheralded story behind much of the world’s news, and they are an important barometer of the health of each society. Our country’s changing demographics – as manifested in the declining ratio of working taxpayers to retirees – are making manifest the problems in our public finances; the already-visible effects of extremely low birthrates in other developed nations are far more dire, for reasons I will describe below. But first I will comment on what demographics tell us about a society.
When a previously vibrant, growing group ceases producing enough children to avoid population decline, it is a sign that something is – or maybe many things are – seriously amiss. Indeed, a society that is set to decline in numbers over an extended period can be seen as committing a kind of cultural suicide. People from that particular group no longer value their society enough to ensure its continuation. Isn’t that a fair definition of decadence? Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
Is such a cultural malaise based in part on a loss of religious faith? The lowest birthrates in the western world correlate almost perfectly with the lowest rates of religious observance. God urged Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply; intentionally or otherwise, government (and the newer religion of environmentalism) often send the opposite signal. As government assumes a more and more central role in people’s lives, children become more of a financial burden than a blessing.
They have always been both, of course; but in a world where the government has taken on many of the responsibilities traditionally borne by families – the assumption for many is that your son or daughter isn’t the one who will care for you when you’re old – he or she will be long gone, and the government’s new job is to provide cradle-to-grave security – the cost/benefit analysis on children has definitely changed.
And while the perceived benefits of raising a child have fallen, the costs of raising a child have risen. I often hear of upper-middle class couples who feel that they simply cannot afford another child. This is nakedly a statement of costs and benefits, but it is also a statement of values; it says that the speaker values his or her lifestyle – present and future – more than he or she values the love and infinite potential of the new life he or she could help create.
So the great changes in our society over the last generation – particularly the falling away from traditional religions and the growth in government – have had the effect of driving down birthrates. In a world bereft of forward-looking values, all that matters is the cost-benefit analysis, which is ever more skewed to the costs. It’s a wonder that anybody’s having babies.
When we look at birthrates in many countries in the developed world, what we see is that they are having children at much less than the replacement rate of about 2.1 children per woman. Italy, Germany and Japan, for example, have birthrates of about 1.4. What do these low birthrates portend?
Simple math dictates that at this rate of reproduction, each generation will be about 1/3 smaller than the one that preceded it. So, absent massive immigration, or wholly unexpected changes in fecundity, countries with birthrates that are far below replacement rates will experience severe and sustained population declines. Many of the wealthy countries that do not adequately reproduce are already experiencing massive immigration – Turks are moving to Germany, Moroccans to France, Libyans to Italy and Pakistanis to England. (And these low birthrate countries’ Social Security/pension systems will go broke, as they are all dependent on having relatively few retirees).
Since Germany, France, Italy and England are at root tribal countries, their immigrants do not readily come to feel a part of the native tribes. Their immigrants will not adopt a pride in or a false sense of heritage from Charlemagne or from Charles Martel – who drove back the Saracens, saving La Belle France from forbears of the same immigrants. Instead, they will band together in opposition to the dominant, but declining tribes. It is quite possible that in doing so, they bring the seeds of collapse. What we have been seeing in the unrest among the “youths” outside Paris is that, not feeling at home in France, second generation immigrants to Europe forget the gratitude that their parents felt at their initial welcome, and find their identities in other ways – often by adopting a more fervent sense of religious identity than their parents ever felt.
Are these countries being changed forever by the slow-motion demographic collapse of their native tribes? Absolutely. And where it all leads could be quite dire: the Roman and Byzantine empires collapsed after their own people had been swamped by newer, more vigorous tribes. The Alemanii came and saw in Rome a decadent empire, ready for plunder.
In the US, we are luckier. Because our sense of nationhood is based on an inclusive creed rather than on tribal ties, most immigrants feel as American as the descendents of the original settlers. And rightly so: they have acted to become Americans, while the rest of us just happened to be born here. So immigration is nowhere near as disruptive here as it is in Europe. Indeed, immigration generally strengthens our nation, whereas it threatens France unless the Moroccan immigrant can be made to feel French.
And our core demographics are much less dire than those of other developed countries: until the recent recession, which caused a sharp drop off in births, American women had been having a lifetime average of about 2.06 children. That average has been drifting slowly downward for decades, so looking at it at one point in time – just before the recession – isn’t reason enough to feel sanguine about our nation’s health; but it is evidence that our state has not yet strangled all the vitality out of our society. So, between our reasonable birthrate and our continued success at attracting and gradually Americanizing immigrants, we remain the last, best hope, if not of mankind, of western civilization.
M.H. Johnston 7/31/13