Years ago, I came across an intriguing essay. It was entitled “All 10 million Europeans”, and was about Europe’s shrinking native population.
What happens if birth rates fall permanently below death rates? …[T]here is no evidence that this [deaths exceeding births in rich countries] will ever be reversed. […]
Perhaps a shrinking population is “normal” – as growth was once considered to be “normal”. Perhaps a shrinking population is characteristic of any planets with an advanced technology. If so, then Latvia and Estonia have also answered a theoretical question of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). The famous question, used by those who do not believe in extra-terrestrials: if there are billions of advanced civilisations, why are they not here to visit us? Look at the table of Latvian population, project it 10,000 years into the future, and you have an answer: there are not enough aliens to build a spacecraft. All those huge galactic federations in science-fiction films, with billions of billions of alien inhabitants, may simply reflect mistaken demographic theory.
A Specter is Haunting Europe — The Specter of Low-Fertility
The author of the above essay’s speculation seems supported by current thinking in academia. Low-fertility is a “trap” from which a modern/postmodern culture cannot escape, according to the current sociological notion.
That is, once a culture nestles into having a total fertility rate (TFR, the projected number of babies borne by a woman over her lifetime based on current birthrates) that is significantly below replacement level, and it does so ‘independently’ (other than in cases of temporary shocks like war and economic depression), that society’s cultural mores and values will have become such that its TFR cannot swing up again.
I.e.: Females raised in a very-low-fertility culture, who aspire to a quasi-aristocratic life of expensive handbags, posh coffee shops, high-heeled shoes for daily wear, postgraduate degrees, and so on, have acquired a set of cultural ‘expectations’ that simply does not include having children around. Or — if there are children — certainly not more than one or two of them. They are expensive, time-consuming, and get in the way of having fun. Women raised with this set of values will simply not, one day, just start having large families with five children, as their grandmothers may have done, regardless of what the economy is doing. Maybe some women can be persuaded to have an extra child if the government promises lavish cash payouts for them (as some countries do already). But (a) Governments can only afford so much in handouts before they start seriously burdening their own economies, and (b) These policies have tended to not increase TFRs by much where they have been implemented. [Denmark may be an exception].
A good discussion of the mechanics behind this is here: The Low Fertility Trap. There is, according to the authors, a hypothetical ‘low fertility threshold’, which may be ~1.5. No culture that has nestled into a TFR below it has ever shown it can recover to replacement fertility.
It the bluntest of possible terms: A society with sustained very-low fertility is in a death spiral. Whatever it may seem to be doing at the time, however prosperous or vibrant, a population with a sustained 1.0 TFR will decline to 10% of its original size in a mere three generations, all else equal. (1.0/2.1=.476, 1*.476*.476*.476=.108), and one percent of its original population in six generations.
You say, “a sustained 1.0 TFR is impossible”. Incorrect. South Korea already has it, or nearly so. In the past decade, South-Korean TFR, according to official data, has averaged 1.18! This will really start to pinch them in a few years. Japan’s anemic TFR is also well-known by now. Examples in Europe are also easy to come by. Even White-Americans have been below replacement fertility for the past 40 years.
Incidentally, the essay linked-to above is entitled “All 10 million Europeans”. Europe has about 730 million residents today. At a sustained 1.5 TFR, Europe’s population would start to severely contract, and would hit 10 million perhaps sometime in the latter half of the 2300s AD. At a sustained 1.0 TFR, Europe would hit 10 million in the latter part of the 2100s. At 1.0 TFR, Europe in 2400 would have just a few tens of thousands of souls, probably less than the population of the continent during the Stone Age.
In reality, of course, a civilization on such a downward spiral would be replaced by something more virile, long before numbers can contract as dramatically as is outlined in the preceding paragraph.
Is it possible for a culture to pull itself out of very-low fertility? If not, then we are living in the twilight of many European and East-Asian cultures (as we have known them). If they still exist, nominally, in two centuries, they may be populated by very-different people. (“The future belongs to those who show up for it”).
Whether a mass repopulation is possible without severely negative consequences is up for debate. As the Dr. Sam Francis, a former Washington Times columnist with racialist sympathies, famously wrote:
“The civilization that we as Whites created in Europe and America could not have developed apart from the genetic endowments of the creating people, nor is there any reason to believe that the civilization can be successfully transmitted to a different people.”
Breaking Out of the Low-Fertility Trap
Is this any precedent for a modern, advanced economy breaking out of low-fertility? There is the Baby Boom, but that is nearly 70 years gone, now.
More recently, TFRs rose quite dramatically for Westerners in the late 1980s, and early 1990s, which I like to attribute to civilizational self-confidence. The Cold War was coming to an end, with the Western system victorious.
Take a look at the graph [from USA’s Fertility Rates by Race, 1980-2010]
Conventional wisdom, though, is that fertility responds to economic conditions. In a shallow sense, this is true. Looking at the graph again, though, we see that White fertility has hardly budged despite the sluggish economy of the late 2000s, and seems to have been hardly affected by the boom years of the 1990s, or by previous recent recessions. It has been within the narrow band of ~1.8 to ~1.9 for nearing a quarter century, now.
What this suggests to me is that cultural optimism promotes a higher TFR among modern people, more than anything else.
Speaking of which, we know of one other, controversial, instance in which a low-TFR was dramatically raised in a short period of time:
A 0.4-TFR-point jump in a single year(!), 1934 over 1933. (A +1.0-TFR in seven years). Did the German economy dramatically improve the day Hitler took power? No — But, by all accounts of the period, ‘civilizational optimism’ did take hold. That is the only reasonable explanation of the Nazi Baby Boom. On the flip side: As a consequence of the fiery defeat of that regime in the 1940s, future generations of German-speakers have been far less willing to have babies.
The future belongs
to those who
show up for it.