Demography and the Culture War–A Rightward Shift?

Those who think demographic statistics should be of interest only to social scientists and policy wonks should pay close attention to Stanley Kurtz’s recent article, “Demographics and the Culture War,” published in the current edition of Policy Review. A Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, Kurtz is one of the most thoughtful observers of social trends on today’s scene.

Kurtz begins his article with a warning that the process of modernization that has marked Western societies for the last 200 years could be stopped in its tracks, or even forced into retreat. “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 Western culture. A declining population could conceivably put the dynamic of modernization into doubt.”

That powerful paragraph is packed with insight. Each of the social trends he identifies is well established in the data, but few observers have been sufficiently brave to offer the candid analysis Kurtz here provides.

The publication of several seminal volumes on the reality and significance of declining birth rates caught Kurtz’s attention. Books by figures such as Phillip Longman, Ben Wattenberg, Peter G. Peterson, and the team of Laurence J. Kotlikoff and Scott Burns offer a similar assessment, pointing to declining birth rates as a major issue of social concern. For some, the particular focus is on the economic consequences of a shrinking labor force and consumer market. Others are more interested in the consequences of aging and a future marked by an imbalance between the young and the old. In any event, these authors are agreed on one main point–demography is destiny.

Looking at the demographic data, Kurtz argues that the “essential facts of demographic decline” should not be doubted. “Global fertility rates have fallen by half since 1972,” Kurtz notes. “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 nation today has a fertility rate of 2.1, and most are well below replacement level.”

A look backwards sometimes helps to put the data into context. When Ben Franklin was alive, America averaged eight births per woman. Kurtz notes that current American birth rates are the highest in the industrialized world, but still below the replacement level of 2.1. Beyond this, he documents the fact that the American birth rate is as high as it is only because of a substantial population of immigrants, who tend to reproduce at higher levels. “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,” Kurtz asserts.

All this flies in the face of the now-discredited prophets of the population “explosion” that was supposed to bring devastation in both economic and ecological terms. At this point in world history, the global situation is more endangered by too few births than too many.

The conventional wisdom has been that, though birth rates have been falling in the industrialized world, reproduction rates in the Third World more than compensated for this decline. This is clearly no longer the case. Fertility rates in the Third World have been falling precipitously. As Kurtz explains, “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 the developing world, a typical woman in 1970 bore six children. Today, the average woman bears only 2.7 children. Kurtz describes this fall in fertility rates as “historically unprecedented.” Already, fertility rates in many developing countries have fallen below replacement levels. Even the United Nations now admits that the population in the world is headed down, not up.

Moreover, declining birth rates lead to the inevitable aging of the population. Increasing life expectancy adds years to the lives of individuals, fueling the demographic trend. Kurtz notes that the typical life expectancy for an American born in 1900 was 47 years. In 2005, it is 76 years. Kurtz puts these statistics into context: “By 2050, one out of five Americans will be over age 65, making the U.S. population as a whole markedly older than Florida’s population today. Striking as that demographic graying may be, it pales before projections for countries like Italy and Japan. The United Nations estimates that by 2050, 42 percent of all people in Italy and Japan will be age 60 or older.”

No one knows if societies that have aged to this degree can sustain themselves. Older solutions may not work. “With fertility falling swiftly in the developing nations, immigration will not be able to ameliorate certain implications of the rapidly aging West,” Kurtz predicts. “Even in the short or medium term, the aging imbalance cannot be rectified except through a level of immigration far above what Western countries will find politically acceptable.”

What does all this mean? Kurtz suggests that Western nations are even now beginning to experience the impact of these demographic changes. Beyond this, he insists that these changes will bring “substantial cultural consequences.”

A balance between younger and older citizens has been an important factor contributing to social stability. All this is now endangered by the unprecedented aging of populations in the West. “Historically, the aged made up only a small portion of society,” Kurtz suggests, “and the rearing of children has been the chief concern. Now children will become a small minority, and society’s central problem will be caring for the elderly. Yet even this assumes that societies consisting of elderly citizens at levels of 20, 30, even 40 or more percent can sustain themselves at all. That is not obvious.”

Can these trends be reversed? Not quickly. Kurtz explains that demographic trends toward decline are “set to ramify geometrically.” Not only are women bearing fewer children, but the smaller number of young women produced by these birth rates would be hard pressed to reverse the trend, even if they chose to do so. As a result, children will become more and more expensive to raise, competing with older citizens for limited resources, cultural attention, and priority.

The economics of childbearing have changed remarkably in recent decades. In an agrarian society, children meant additional hands to work in the fields. Today’s economy, in contrast, often forces would-be parents to choose between the cost of childbearing and the enticements of a consumer society.

As Kurtz understands, in the current economic context, “children represent a tremendous expense, and one increasingly unlikely to be returned to parents in the form of wealth or care. With the growth of a consumer economy, potential parents are increasingly presented with a zero-sum choice between children and more consumer goods and services for themselves.”

Modern economies have been premised upon the assumption of continued population growth. The free market and the welfare state, Kurtz reminds, “assume continual population growth” and require future generations to pay the social costs of the aging generations before them. Phillip Longman, one of the authors Kurtz cites in his article, argues that there has never been economic growth in a context of population decline.

America’s consumer economy assumes an ever-expanding pool of consumers. Population growth becomes necessary in order for the economy to expand and thrive. A shrinking pool of potential customers can spell disaster for the economic system. Furthermore, “America’s massive unfounded entitlement programs have the potential to spark a serious social and economic crisis in the not too distant future,” Kurtz warns, adding that the welfare state in other developed nations “is on even shakier economic ground.”

A weird form of generational warfare may already be apparent in voting trends. The mobilization of elderly voters–a group soon to expand in huge numbers as the baby boomers age–means that politicians will be required to give increasing attention and priority to this group’s concerns. After all, the aged vote in large numbers, while infants do not.

Many observers paying close attention to these trends seem most concerned about the economic consequences. Some warn of an economic “hard landing” that will come when a shrinking labor force is unable to pay unfounded social entitlements. Others warn of a potential “spiraling financial crisis” that could lead to something like a global economic depression.

Kurtz, however, sees something of even greater significance on the horizon. He understands that the Culture War will be affected by these long term demographic trends, and he understands that the lifestyle assumptions of late modernity are incompatible with any solution to the problem of population decline.

There are others who see the future in similar terms. Phillip Longman believes the pattern of population decline may be reversed only if society accepts a fundamental cultural change. The prevailing worldview assumptions of late modernity, including such cherished notions as personal autonomy, human liberation, self-actualization, and self-absorption will be called into question as the birth rate crisis becomes more visible.

Longman appears to fear that any fundamental cultural change sufficiently significant to address this problem may be couched in theological terms. The lifestyle movements of the 1960s, ranging from feminism and the sexual revolution to pop psychology and moral relativism, set the stage for an acceptance of falling birth rates. Would a return to a pro-natal philosophy require an abandonment of those cherished ideological artifacts of the 1960s?

Kurtz insists that “we needn’t resort to disaster scenarios to see that our current demographic dilemma portends fundamental cultural change.” As he expands: “Let us say that in the wake of the coming economic and demographic stresses, a serious secular, pronatalist program . . . were to take hold and succeed. The result might not be ‘fundamentalism,’ yet it would almost certainly involve greater cultural conservatism. Married parents tend to be more conservative, politically and culturally. Predictions of future dominance for the Democratic Party are based on the increasing demographic prominence of single women. Delayed marriage lowers fertility rates and moves the culture leftward. Reverse that trend by stimulating married parenthood, and the country grows more conservative–whether in a religious mode or not.”

As usual, Stanley Kurtz has written an informative article that demands attention, combining keen social analysis with an understanding of deeper ideological issues. No one can predict with certainty how future demographic trends will transform society. Nevertheless, we can already see where these trends are pointing, and we must think seriously about the long range consequences of these unprecedented demographic patterns. As Kurtz’s analysis should remind us, these demographic trends point to deeper personal, cultural, ideological, and spiritual issues. Inevitably, the Culture War will be played out on the battlefields of these data projections. Beyond this, these demographic trends may point to a fundamental shift in the way the Culture War is both fought and understood. After all, to a great extent, demography is destiny.