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The term demographic transition originally described the major social shift that occurred in Western societies from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s. At that time, European societies, and their settler offshoots overseas, moved with considerable speed from a high-mortality, high-fertility population regime to low fertility and low mortality, with major social consequences. This historic shift saw the decline of family size from approximately six children per family to fewer than two. The transition also provided the preconditions for women to move from the private sphere and constant childbearing to the public domain and the expanding industrial work force.
Explanations for this world-shaping change abounded, and a field known as demographic transition theory developed, which, while hotly contested, remains influential. Population trends, such as the post–World War II (1939– 1945) “baby boom,” have shaken the theory of continuing fertility decline, yet it has remained remarkably resilient. It is clear now that demographic transition is a global phenomenon, not just a Western trend, and that since 1960 much of the world is exhibiting declining fertility, with subSaharan Africa probably the last to change. Most now accept that a second demographic transition is occurring (van de Kaa 1987), dating from the 1960s, as even lower birthrates, well below replacement level, prevail in several European and Asian countries. While many demographers expected that birthrates would reach the replacement level, and then plateau, now there is concern that some countries’ birthrates are so low that their societies will eventually shrink, possibly disappear.
The concern with demographic change has considerable implications for political and social decision making in relation to the family, the labor market, and immigration policy. Fertility decline has moved from being a preoccupation of demographers to a central concern for politicians and social commentators. It takes on a new urgency as low fertility leads to inevitable population ageing.
In the 1960s exponents of demographic transition theory in the West, fearful of a “population explosion,” particularly in the developing world, and eager to gain political advantage in a cold war climate, sought to apply the theory, with varying results, in developing countries through agencies such as the World Bank and the United Nations Fund for Population Activities. The birth control pill, adopted so centrally in the West, was originally funded to provide contraception in the developing world on the understanding that knowledge of birth control was all that was needed for fertility decline. Later, more considered approaches are based on the broader finding of demographic transition theory—that socioeconomic change is more likely to lead to reduced fertility.
History of the Theory
Demographic transition theory is curiously paradoxical. While there is no general agreement as to its explanatory frameworks, it is constantly invoked as if there were. This is due in part to demography’s post–World War II desire to be a science and to establish a “grand theory” of population and fertility decline. Yet even in this quantitatively based discipline, wider intellectual currents have intruded: postmodernism and cultural and anthropological explanations have recently entered the field. Short-term theory is now the order of the day.
In 1937 Kingsley Davis (1908–1997), an early exponent of the theory, suggested that ultimately the reproduction of the species is incompatible with advanced industrial society. Thus he established the major framework of the theory, which held that socioeconomic development and modernization are major causal forces. It is this element of the theory that remains robust. In a 2006 volume titled Demographic Transition Theory, one of the most influential twentieth-century exponents, John C. Caldwell, argued that in industrial society the old values essential to agricultural societies—strong family, virginity, loyalty, legitimate births—are no longer necessary except as “social pacifiers.” Industrial society and, even more, postindustrial knowledge economies, need mobile, educated individuals unencumbered with babies and family ties.
Within the overarching model of socioeconomic change, there is no common acceptance of particular determinants of transformation, as different societies take varying paths to declining birthrates. The onset and tempo of mortality and fertility decline vary widely. Must a falling off in mortality precede a fertility decline? Are modern technologies of birth control essential or indeed sufficient? Is decline more likely in conjugal families (those based on husband, wife, and children) rather than the joint (extended) families of much of Asia and Africa? How critical are gender regimes? It is now overwhelmingly clear that women’s education is inversely related to fertility. The more highly educated women are, the fewer children they produce, with few exceptions. How critical is institutional change, such as government policy in relation to education, to welfare provision, and to legal frameworks (McDonald 2006)? What role does ideational change play—the decline of religious belief, the centrality of individuals and their entitlements, the significance of planning modern lives, women’s reproductive rights, and notions of consumption and leisure? All of these elements have played a significant part in variants of demographic transition theory.
Some countries (Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, as well as much of central Europe and southern Europe) now exhibit very low fertility, defined as continuing fertility under 1.5 births per woman on average, sometimes referred to as a birth strike. Most commentators agree that this is largely due to women working and to the inability of states to make women’s work and childbearing compatible. Does this low fertility foretell the future or is the experience of the United States, which since the late 1970s has exhibited a rise to replacement-level fertility, an opposing model? How significant is mode of production versus changing ideas and attitudes? Dirk van de Kaa, an influential demographer from the Netherlands, maintains that cohorts of young people with common, postmodern, individualistic ideas are implicated, whereas Caldwell insists that mode of production is primary and that neoliberalism and the accompanying insecurity it produces in the workplace play a significant role in inhibiting births.
Some theorists have predicted that the creation of a world economic system where children are of no immediate economic value to their parents will inevitably lead to lower world population—a goal much desired by environmentalists. Others point out that in much of Asia and Africa, patriarchy, a regime that puts children and lineage before women’s rights, is still dominant and that fertility decline may not be inevitable. Prediction is always fraught, and an element that has been overlooked in much twentieth-century demography may well come back to haunt us. Secularization, the decline of traditional religious belief, is a key to changing Western fertility patterns. Yet any assumption that secularization will inevitably increase is risky in the light of resurgent fundamentalisms across all religious belief systems. Anthropological demography reminds us that we are not all rational actors, and that myth, superstition, and culture are all pervasive.
Between 1965 and 2000, the fertility (as measured by the total fertility rate) of both the developing world and the whole world nearly halved (Caldwell et al. 2006, p. 13). On the basis of the United Nations World Population Prospects (2004) and other findings, demographers have predicted that global population growth will almost come to a halt by 2050, “with the Earth having around 9 billion or fewer inhabitants” (Caldwell et al. 2006, p. 316). Higher and lower projections have been offered, the latter demonstrating population halving every two hundred years—surely an unacceptable outcome. With the rate of world population growth slowing, some are turning to issues of the composition of the population.
A third demographic transition has been proposed for Europe and the United States, one that sees the ancestry of some national populations being radically and permanently altered through high levels of immigration of people with distinctively different ethnic ancestry into countries with low fertility (Coleman 2006, p. 401). This is a radical departure from previous demographic transition theory in its focus on immigration. It demonstrates, however, the resilience of the theory. The demographic transition may well continue to surprise us.
- Bulatao, R. A., and John Casterline, eds. 2001. Global Fertility Transition. A supplement to Population and Development Review
- Caldwell, John C., Bruce K. Caldwell, Pat Caldwell, et al. 2006. Demographic Transition Theory. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.
- Coleman, David. 2006. Immigration and Ethnic Change in Low-fertility Countries: A Third Demographic Transition. Population and Development Review 32 (3): 401–439.
- Davis, Kingsley. 1937. Reproductive Institutions and the Pressure for Population. Sociological Review 29: 289–306. Reprinted as: Kingsley Davis on Reproductive Institutions and the Pressures for Population. 1997. Population and Development Review 23 (3): 611–624.
- Jones, Gavin W., Robert Douglas, John Caldwell, and Rennie D’Souza, eds. 1997. The Continuing Demographic Transition. Oxford: Clarendon.
- Kertzer, David, and Tom Fricke, eds. 1997. Anthropological Demography: Toward a New Synthesis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- McDonald, Peter. 2006. Low Fertility and the State: The Efficacy of Policy. Population and Development Review 32 (3): 485–510.
- United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs: Population Division. World Population Prospects: The 2004 Revision. http://esa.un.org/unpp/.
- Van de Kaa, Dirk. 1987. Europe’s Second Demographic Transition. Population Bulletin 42 (1).
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