The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

The Birth Dearth—Global, Enduring

Scholars have long understood that the historical demographic transition that brought birth rates down after the industrial revolution drove down mortality rates. But in recent decades, analysts have confronted the puzzling plunge of birth rates to well below replacement level in the industrialized world. Some scholars have interpreted this troubling plunge within a theory of a “Second Demographic Transition,” which links the fertility decline to broader changes in cultural values undermining wedlock and family life. Recapitulating this theory and responding to its critics, demographer Ron Lesthaeghe of the Royal Flemish Academy of Arts and Sciences (one of the theory’s original exponents) recently examined the Second Demographic Transition not only in Europe but also in the United States, the Far East, and Latin America. Highlighting the ways pre-existing differences in family traditions alter the dynamics of this transition in different areas of the world, Lesthaeghe’s analysis also underscores the unexpected staying power of the birth dearth this transition brings.

As recently as the early 1970s, Lesthaeghe notes, demographers generally anticipated that societies that experienced the first demographic transition would ultimately reach a stable equilibrium, with “an older stationary population corresponding with replacement fertility (i.e., just over two children on average), zero population growth, and life expectancies higher than 70 years.” The Belgian scholar remarks that in such an equilibrium “there would be an ultimate balance between deaths and births, [and hence] there would be no ‘demographic’ need for sustained immigration.” Mid-twentieth-century scholars who expected such a future also believed that “households in all parts of the world would converge toward the nuclear and conjugal type, composed of married couples and their offspring.”

Then the social turbulence of the 1970s and ’80s exploded hopes for such a social equilibrium and sent scholars scrambling for new ways of understanding the unexpected new social patterns. The groundbreaking theorists of the Second Demographic Transition (SDT) consequently limned a new paradigm, one forecasting “sustained subreplacement fertility, a multitude of living arrangements other than marriage, a disconnection between marriage and procreation, and no stationary population.” This new paradigm, Lesthaeghe explains, incorporates “an essentially cultural component” and assumes a broad “ideational and cultural shift.”

Some observers might mistake the character of the cultural shift inherent in the Second Demographic Transition because the low fertility it occasions means that “populations will face declining sizes if not complemented by new migrants,” new migrants who bring their own cultures. The result is “further growth of ‘multicultural societies,’” with the challenges incident to “the integration of immigrants, [and] adaptation to other cultures.” But the driving cultural force in the Second Demographic Transition does not come from the cultures of immigrants. Indeed, their attachment to the familial traditions of their native lands actually often helps prop up fertility in their new homelands, so retarding some of the effects of this birth-dearth-inducing transition. But, as Lesthaeghe points out, immigrants gradually lose their pronatalist cultures and consequently “lower their own fertility with time spent in receiving nations.” Lesthaeghe thus traces the fertility-depressing cultural imperatives driving the Second Demographic Transition not to the immigrants but rather back to the radically new “individualistic and nonconformist value orientations” emerging in the countries receiving these immigrants. These new value orientations manifest themselves in “an overall rejection of authority, the assertion of individual freedom of choice (autonomy), and an overhaul of the normative structure.”

The overhaul of normative social structures naturally translates into “less stability in partnerships, more complex households, and high levels of poverty or exclusion among certain household types (e.g., single persons of all ages and lone mothers).” This overhaul also means “age at first marriage increases, more single persons start living alone or cohabiting before marriage, long-term cohabitation replaces marriage, and ultimately fertility outside marriage becomes much more frequent.”

As he surveys the twenty-first-century world, Lesthaeghe sees the Second Demographic Transition playing out not only in Western Europe, where he lives and where it first appeared, but now in Southern, Central, and Eastern Europe as well. Lesthaege acknowledges that some analysts have interpreted the rise in non-marital cohabitation in many parts of Europe not as a validation of the cultural analysis incorporated in the Second Demographic Transition but rather as an indication of economic stress. Advancing a “pattern-of-disadvantage” explanation of the surge in non-marital cohabitation, these analysts have asserted that the recent surge in such cohabitation is “not . . . connected to ideational or cultural shifts, but to the rise of poverty.” In this view, “cohabitation . . . remains a lower-class characteristic . . . typically associated with lower education and weaker social positions or ethnic minorities.” And Lesthaeghe admits the economic crisis of the 1990s could “account for the rise in cohabitation in Russia and much of Eastern Europe and not reflect cultural shifts.” He further concedes that, historically, “the pattern of disadvantage [explanation of cohabitation] would equally fit the US experience.”

However, at least for twenty-first-century Europe and America, Lesthaeghe challenges the economically focused “pattern of disadvantage” explanation of the surge in non-marital cohabitation. He points out that since the 1960s demographers have witnessed sharp “increases in premarital cohabitation . . . initiated by the wealthier segments of society, such as European and American college students.” “Once the upward trend [in cohabitation] has taken off,” Lesthaege notes, “it seems to become universal.” As non-marital cohabitation becomes universal, Lesthaeghe detects little social resistance to the practice. “Resistance,” he remarks, “is often solely confined to specific religious groups and to members of conservative political organizations.” The paucity of resistance to cohabitation seems to harmonize more with the revolution in cultural values posited by the theorists of the Second Demographic Transition than it does with the economic reasoning of those who would explain cohabitation in terms of a “pattern of disadvantage.”

Indeed, as he looks at America, Lesthaeghe sees “the incidence of cohabitation . . . closely related to voting for the Democratic presidential candidate, and, together with indicators of fertility postponement and household structure, [statistical measurement of the Second Demographic Transition] has been the best predictor of the presidential voting outcomes at the county level for the last four campaigns [in US presidential elections].”  

But the Second Demographic Transition has left its mark far beyond Europe and the United States. Lesthaeghe reports, for example, that in Asia “young Japanese and Taiwanese couples are increasingly cohabiting before marriage and childbearing,” with evidence indicating that “in Japan, such behavior is . . . correlated with cultural shifts toward more sex equality, refusal of authoritarian traits, and individualization of moral norms [just] as in the West.”

Similarly, in Latin America, Lesthaeghe reports that “just about all regions experienced a considerable increase [in recent decades] in proportions of couples cohabiting rather than being married.” More particularly, he finds that in Southern Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina, “countries with large white populations of European origin, where cohabitation had been [relatively rare], a genuine ‘cohabitation boom’ has taken place.” 

To be sure, the Second Demographic Transition does not look the same in Tokyo as it does in Buenos Aires. Lesthaege discerns indications that recent changes in marital and family life in various countries have not been “independent of deeply rooted cultural features and agelong patterns of social organization.” “The Asian pattern [for the Second Demographic Transition],” he concludes, “is characterized by early postponement of fertility but a slow transition from marriage to cohabitation whereas the Latin American experience points to the reverse sequence.” Lesthaeghe reasons that “the presence of the strong patriarchal family structure in [Asian lands] is undoubtedly related to this disparity.”

And though depressed fertility defines part of the leading edge of the Second Demographic Transition in Asia but appears as one of the last symptoms of that transition in Latin America, such depressed fertility appears integral to that transition throughout the world. Once again, Lesthaege acknowledges that some scholars have resisted the linkage that theorists of the Second Demographic Transition have posited between new cultural values and the sharp drop in fertility. Some of these scholars have theorized that such low fertility is “merely . . . a passing phenomenon.” These theorists have claimed that as “sex relationships . . . become more egalitarian, . . . fertility will be restored to higher levels, and presumably to replacement level or above.” Other theorists resisting the paradigm of the Second Demographic Transition have similarly claimed that “improvement in ‘human development’” (e.g., education and longevity) will “lead to rising fertility in the industrialized countries.”

Lacking the gift of prescience, Lesthaege declines to rule out the possibility of a significant rise in fertility in the decades ahead. But few will miss his skepticism of such a rise when he declares, “All that can be said at the moment is that subreplacement fertility is by no means a thing of the past, despite improvements in sex equality and overall human development in most . . . [economically developed] and post-communist countries during the last two or three decades.”

Lesthaege has delivered a deeply sobering analysis of the global unfolding of the Second Demographic Transition, rendered all the more sobering by his recognition that one of America’s two major political parties has apparently embraced the new values driving that transition, values pushing country after country into a birth death that spells slow social suicide. If the United States is to avoid such suicide, then much depends on the “religious groups and . . . conservative political organizations” that Lesthaege identifies as islands of resistance. 

(Ron Lesthaeghe, “The Second Demographic Transition: A Concise Overview of Its Development,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111.51 [December 2014]: 18112-15.)