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 modern culture. A declining population could conceivably put the dynamic of modernization into doubt.
The question of the cultural and economic consequences of declining birthrates has been squarely placed on the table by four new books: The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It, by Phillip Longman; Fewer: How the New Demography of Depopulation Will Shape Our Future, by Ben Wattenberg; The Coming Generational Storm: What You Need to Know About America’s Economic Future, by Laurence J. Kotlikoff and Scott Burns; and Running On Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It, by Peter G. Peterson. Longman and Wattenberg concentrate on the across-the-board implications of demographic change. Kotlikoff and Burns, along with Peterson, limn the economic crisis that could come in the absence of swift and sweeping entitlement reform.
Taken together, these four books suggest that we are moving toward a period of substantial social change whose tantalizing ideological implications run the gamut from heightened cultural radicalism to the emergence of a new, more conservative cultural era.
Drawing on these books, let us first get a sense of the new demography. The essential facts of demographic decline discussed in all four are not in doubt. Global fertility rates have fallen by half since 1972. 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.
In Ben Franklin’s day, by contrast, America averaged eight births per woman. American birth rates today are the highest in the industrialized world — yet even those are nonetheless just below the replacement level of 2.1. Moreover, that figure is relatively high only because of America’s substantial immigrant population. 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.
Population decline is by no means restricted to the industrial world. Remarkably, the sharp rise in American fertility rates at the height of the baby boom — 3.8 children per woman — was substantially above Third World fertility rates today. 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 1970, a typical woman in the developing world bore six children. Today, that figure is about 2.7. In scale and rapidity, that sort of fertility decline is historically unprecedented. By 2002, fertility rates in 20 developing countries had fallen below replacement levels. 2002 also witnessed a dramatic reversal by demographic experts at the United Nations, who for the first time said that world population was ultimately headed down, not up. These decreases in human fertility cover nearly every region of the world, crossing all cultures, religions, and forms of government.
Declining birth rates mean that societies everywhere will soon be aging to an unprecedented degree. Increasing life expectancy is also contributing to the aging of the world’s population. In 1900, American life expectancy at birth was 47 years. Today it is 76. 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 aged 60 or older.
Can societies that old sustain themselves? That is the question inviting speculation. With fertility falling swiftly in the developing nations, immigration will not be able to ameliorate certain implications of a rapidly aging West. Even in the short or medium term, the aging imbalance cannot be rectified except through a level of immigration far above what Western countries would find politically acceptable. Alarmed by the problems of immigration and assimilation, even famously tolerant Holland has begun to turn away immigrants en masse — and this before the recent murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, which has subsequently forced the questions of immigration and demography to the center of the Dutch political stage.
In short, the West is beginning to experience significant demographic changes, with substantial cultural consequences. Historically, the aged have made up only a small portion of society, 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.
Population decline is also set to ramify geometrically. As population falls, the pool of potential mothers in each succeeding generation shrinks. So even if, well into the process, there comes a generation of women with a higher fertility rate than their mothers’, the momentum of population decline could still be locked in. Population decline may also be cemented into place by economics. To support the ever-growing numbers of elderly, governments may raise taxes on younger workers. That would make children even less affordable than they are today, decreasing the size of future generations still further.
If worldwide fertility rates reach levels now common in the developing world (and that is where they seem headed), within a few centuries, the world’s population could shrink below the level of America’s today. Of course, it’s unlikely that mankind will simply cease to exist for failure to reproduce. But the critical point is that we cannot reverse that course unless something happens to substantially increase fertility rates. And whatever might raise fertility rates above replacement level will almost certainly require fundamental cultural change.
Why does modern social life translate into the lower birth rates that spark all those wider implications? Urbanization is one major factor. In a traditional agricultural society, children are put to work early. They also inherit family land, using its fruits to care for aging parents. In a modern urban economy, on the other hand, 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.
Along with urbanization, the other important factor depressing world fertility is the movement of women into the workforce — and the technological changes that have made that movement possible. By the time many professional women have completed their educations, their prime childbearing years have passed. Thus, a woman’s educational level is the best predictor of how many children she will have. As Wattenberg shows, worldwide, the correlation between falling female illiteracy and falling female fertility is nearly exact. And as work increasingly becomes an option for women, having a child means not only heavy new expenses, but also the loss of income that a mother might otherwise have gained through work.
Technological change also stands behind the movement of women into the workforce. In a modern, knowledge-based economy, women suffer no physical disadvantage. The ability of women to work in turn depends upon the capacity of modern contraception, along with abortion, to control fertility efficiently. The sheer breadth and rapidity of world fertility decline implies that contraceptive technology has been a necessary condition of the change. Before fertility could be reliably controlled through medical technology, marriage and accompanying strictures against out-of-wedlock births were the key check on a society’s birth rate. Economic decline meant delayed marriage, and thus lower fertility. But contraceptive technology now makes it possible to efficiently control fertility within marriage. This turns motherhood into a choice. And what demographic decline truly shows is that when childbearing has become a matter of sheer choice, it has become less frequent.
The movement of population from tightly knit rural communities into cities, along with contraception, abortion, and the related entry of women into the workforce, explain many of the core cultural changes of the postmodern world. Secularism, individualism, and feminism are tied to a social system that discourages fertility. If a low-fertility world is unsustainable, then these cultural trends may be unsustainable as well. Alternatively, if these cultural trends cannot be modified or counterbalanced, human population appears on course to shrink ever more swiftly.
Yet there are signs that the current balance of social forces is not sustainable and may well give way sooner rather than later. That, at any rate, is the view of Longman, Peterson, Kotlikoff and Burns. (Wattenberg is somewhat more sanguine about our ability to weather the coming challenge, although he does not directly address the more dystopic scenarios Peterson, Kotlikoff, and Burns float.) Broadly speaking, both the free market and the welfare state assume continual population growth. “Pay as you go” entitlements require ever-larger new generations to finance the retirement of previous generations. Longman argues that economic growth itself depends upon ever-increasing numbers of consumers and workers.
Population growth, he argues, drove the Industrial Revolution, and there has never been economic growth under conditions of population decline. Thus, for example, he ascribes Japan’s current economic troubles to its declining fertility. And though Longman doesn’t point to Germany, it us interesting to note that this particular low-fertility country is also struggling economically to the point of revisiting the famously shorter European work week — a phenomenon obviously related to the struggle to reduce the pensions promised to an aging population and premissed on more younger workers than actually came to exist.
Both Longman and Wattenberg raise the question of whether markets need population growth in order to thrive. As Wattenberg puts the point, it hardly makes sense to invest in a business whose pool of potential customers is shrinking. That much might be true, even if entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare were fully funded. But Social Security and Medicare are not fully funded. On the contrary, America’s massive unfunded entitlement programs have the potential to spark a serious social and economic crisis in the not too distant future. And the welfare state in the rest of the developed world is on even shakier economic ground.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the combined cost of Medicare and Medicaid alone will consume a larger share of the nation’s income in 2050 than the entire federal budget does today. By 2050, the combined cost of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the national debt will rise to 47 percent of gross domestic product — more than double the level of expected federal revenues at the time. Without reform, all federal spending would eventually go to seniors. Obviously, the system will correct before we reach that point. But how?
Already, senior citizens vote at very high rates — reacting sharply to any potential cuts in benefits. As the baby boomers retire, the political weight of senior citizens will be vastly greater than it already is. Proposed pension reforms brought down French and Italian governments in the 1990s. Even China has been forced by large-scale protests and riots to back off from attempts to reduce retirement benefits.
In the absence of serious reform, we may be in for an economic “hard landing.” Peterson, Kotlikoff, and Burns warn of a spiraling financial crisis that could even lead to worldwide depression. Former Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker sees a 75 percent chance of an economic crisis of some sort within the next five years.
What might such a “meltdown” look like? Peterson, Kotlikoff, and Burns spin out essentially the same scenario. The danger is that investors might at some point decide that the United States will never rein in its deficit. Once investors see America’s deficits as out of control, they will assume their dollar-based securities will be eroded by inflation, higher interest rates, and a serious decline in the stock market. Should a loss of confidence cause leading investors to pull their money out of U.S. securities, it could set off a run on the dollar. That would create the very inflation, interest rate increases, and market decline that investors feared in the first place. Such has already happened in Argentina, which Kotlikoff and Burns use as a paradigm in which loss of investor confidence brought down the economy in a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy. The danger is that the United States and the rest of the industrialized world may already have entered the sort of debt trap common among Third World nations. A rapidly aging Japan is even more vulnerable than America, say Kotlikoff and Burns. They add that, should investors looking at teetering modern welfare states and the long-term demographic crisis bring down any of the advanced economies, the contagion could spread to others.
Are we really headed for a worldwide economic meltdown that will leave tens of millions of aging seniors languishing in substandard nursing homes while the rest of us suffer from long years of overtaxation, rising crime, and political instability? Kotlikoff and Burns say the prospect is all too real, and Peterson implies as much.
Yet there are also critics of such disaster scenarios. They argue that growth rates in the new information-based economy will likely be somewhat higher than in the past. Higher rates of economic growth will bring in enough revenue to offset the rising costs of entitlements. Medical advances are keeping older workers healthy and productive. Raise the retirement age by a couple of years, say many, and the expanded workforce would boost government revenues enough to offset shrinkage in the number of younger workers.
Peterson, Kotlikoff, and Burns say these fixes won’t work. Despite increased life expectancy, older workers have generally been retiring earlier. It would be politically difficult to force them in the other direction. And according to Kotlikoff and Burns, delayed retirement produces negligible gains for the economy. When people work longer, they save less because they have fewer years of retirement to finance. The effects cancel out. Overall investment in the economy is reduced, as is the real wage base available for government taxation.
Kotlikoff and Burns also argue that the apparent productivity gains of the late nineties were illusory. Peterson argues that, even if productivity gains prove real, the benefit for the deficit will be canceled out by increases in discretionary spending.
The truth is, no one knows what future productivity will be. There’s a chance rates will turn higher on into the future, yet it seems imprudent to rely on luck with the stakes so high. And as Peterson, Kotlikoff, and Burns point out, so long as Social Security is indexed to wages, revenue gains from higher productivity will be canceled out by increased benefits. Even an ideal growth scenario cannot solve the entitlement crisis unless Social Security is indexed to prices rather than wages. It would seem that politically difficult reform and significant de facto benefit cuts are inevitable even on the most optimistic of reckonings. And the optimistic scenarios themselves seem strained.
What about the pessimistic scenarios? It would be foolish to predict with certainty an economic “hard landing,” much less world-wide depression. Still, the case that these are at least real possibilities seems strong. Even without a “meltdown,” long-term prospects for the economy and the welfare state in rapidly aging societies seem uncertain at best. How exactly will nations like Japan or Italy be able to function when more than 40 percent of their citizens are over 60? Hard landing or not, and the political power of the elderly notwithstanding, there seems a very real chance that America’s entitlement programs will someday be substantially scaled back. But what sort of struggle between the old and the young will emerge in the meantime, and how will a massive and relatively impoverished older generation cope with the change?
The Coming Generational Storm and Running On Empty are important books. Whether or not the reader is ultimately persuaded by these premonitions of economic peril, it’s time the United States had a serious debate over entitlement reform. Nonetheless, there is also something problematic in the way that Peterson, Kotlikoff, and Burns place the lion’s share of blame for our problems on our political leadership. True, both parties deserve to be chastised for running from the entitlement crisis. Yet even if Peterson, Burns, and Kotlikoff are right about that, they put too much blame on politicians for what broader cultural and demographic forces have wrought. Peterson nods to demography as the background condition for the deficit dilemma yet barely explores the link. Kotlikoff and Burns have much more to say about the demographic details yet treat our changed fertility patterns as irreversible and therefore irrelevant to policy.
That is a questionable assumption. The growing expense of child-rearing, for example, plays a key role in holding birth rates down. Peterson, Kotlikoff, and Burns are quick to criticize the push for lower taxes, yet rising taxes arguably helped to deepen the population decline at the root of our economic dilemma. In 1955, at the height of the baby boom, a typical one-earner family paid 17.3 percent of its income in taxes. Today, a median family with one paycheck pays 37.6 percent of its income in taxes — 39 percent if it’s a two-earner couple. So the new demography has put us into an economic trap. High taxes depress birth rates, but low taxes expand demographically driven deficits still further.
Precisely because we are at an unprecedented demographic watershed, politicians have no model for taking these factors into account. Political leaders in an earlier era could take it for granted that ever-growing populations would keep the welfare state solvent and the economy humming. It’s not surprising that neither the public nor politicians have been able to adjust to the immense, unintended, and only gradually emerging social consequences of postmodern family life. With their eyes firmly fixed on the underlying demographic changes, Wattenberg and Longman are less disposed to browbeat politicians than are Peterson, Kotlikoff, and Burns.
A new conservatism?
On the matter of the new demography and its social consequences, the work of Ben Wattenberg holds a place of special honor. In 1987, 17 years before the publication of Fewer, Wattenberg wrote The Birth Dearth. That book was the first prominent public warning of a crisis of population decline. Yet many rejected its message. In an era when a “population explosion” was taken for granted, the message of The Birth Dearth flew squarely in the face of received wisdom. Subsequent events, however, have proved Wattenberg right.
Despite that vindication, Wattenberg’s own views have changed somewhat. Whereas The Birth Dearth advocated aggressive pro-natalist policies, today Wattenberg seems to have all but given up hope that fertility rates can be substantially increased. On the one hand, he thinks it unlikely that worldwide population can maintain a course of shrinkage without end. On the other hand, he sees no viable scenario by which this presumably unsustainable trend might be reversed.
In The Empty Cradle, Philip Longman takes a different view. Longman believes that runaway population decline may be halted, yet he understands that this can be accomplished only by way of fundamental cultural change. The emerging demographic crisis will call a wide range of postmodern ideologies into question. Longman writes as a secular liberal looking for ways to stabilize the population short of the traditionalist, religious renewal he fears the new demography will bring in its wake.
Given the roots of population decline in the core characteristics of postmodern life, Longman understands that the endless downward spiral cannot be reversed without a major social transformation. As he puts it, “If human population does not wither away in the future, it will be because of a mutation in human culture.” Longman draws parallels to the Victorian era and other periods when fears of population decline, cultural decadence, and fraying social safety nets intensified family solidarity and stigmatized abortion and birth control. Longman also notes that movements of the 1960s, such as feminism, environmentalism, and the sexual revolution, were buttressed by fears of a population explosion. Once it becomes evident that our real problem is the failure to reproduce, these movements and attitudes could weaken.
Longman’s greatest fear is a revival of fundamentalism, which he defines broadly as any movement that relies on ancient myth and legend, whether religious or not, “to oppose modern, liberal, and commercial values.” Religious traditionalists tend to have large families (relatively speaking). Secular modernists do not. Longman’s fear is that, over time, Western secular liberals will shrink as a portion of world population while, at home and abroad, traditionalists will flourish. To counter this, and to solve the larger demographic-economic crisis, Longman offers some very thoughtful proposals for encouraging Americans to have more children. Substantial tax relief for parents is the foundation of his plan.
Longman has thought this problem through very deeply. Yet, in some respects, his concerns seem odd and exaggerated. He lumps American evangelicals together with Nazis, racists, and Islamicists in the same supposed opposition to all things modern. This is more interesting as a specimen of liberal prejudice than as a balanced assessment of the relationship between Christianity and modernity. Moreover, the mere fact that religious conservatives have more children than secular liberals is no guarantee that those children will remain untouched by secular culture.
Still, Longman rightly sees that population decline cannot be reversed in the absence of major cultural change, and the prospects of a significant religious revival must not be dismissed. In a future shadowed by vastly disproportionate numbers of poor elderly citizens, and younger workers struggling with impossible tax burdens, the fundamental tenets of postmodern life might be called into question. Some will surely argue from a religious perspective that mankind, having discarded God’s injunctions to be fruitful and multiply, is suffering the consequences.
Yet we needn’t resort to disaster scenarios to see that our current demographic dilemma portends fundamental cultural change. Let us say that in the wake of the coming economic and demographic stresses, a serious secular, pronatalist program of the type proposed by Longman 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.
But can the cultural engines of postmodernity really be thrown into reverse? After all, people don’t decide to have children because they think it will help society. They act on their personal desires and interests. Will women stop wanting to be professionals? Is it conceivable that birth control might become significantly less available than it is today? It certainly seems unlikely that any free Western society would substantially restrict contraception, no matter how badly its population was dwindling.
Yet it is important to keep in mind that decisions about whether and when to have children may someday take place in a markedly different social environment. As mentioned, children are valued in traditional societies because of the care they provide in old age. In the developed world, by contrast, old age is substantially provisioned by personal savings and the welfare state. But what will happen if the economy and the welfare state shrink significantly? Quite possibly, people will once again begin to look to family for security in old age — and childbearing might commensurately appear more personally necessary.
If a massive cohort of elderly citizens find themselves in a chronic state of crisis, the lesson for the young will be clear. Wattenberg notes that pro-natalist policies have failed wherever they’ve been tried. Yet in conditions of serious economic stress and demographic imbalance, sweeping pro-natalist plans like those offered by Longman may in fact become workable. That would usher in a series of deeper cultural changes, most of them pointing society in a more conservative direction.
Then again, we may finesse the challenge of a rapidly aging society by some combination of increased productivity, entitlement reform, and delayed retirement. In that case, fertility will continue to fall, and world population will shrink at compounding speed. The end result could be crisis or change further down the road, or simply substantial and ongoing reductions in world population, with geostrategic consequences difficult to predict. One way or the other, it would seem that our social order is in motion.
The emerging population implosion, then, may be taken in part as a challenge to Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis. As Fukuyama himself came to recognize in his 2002 book, Our Posthuman Future, the greatest challenge to the “end of history” idea is the prospect that biotechnology might work a fundamental change in human nature and society. In the form of modern contraception, it may already have done so. And contraception could be only the beginning.
Like others who warn of the dangers of biotechnology, Fukuyama is most concerned about the prospect that genetic engineering could undermine the principles of liberty and equality. If children are genetically engineered for greater health, strength, or intellectual capacity, erstwhile liberal society could be plunged into a brave new world of genetically-based class hierarchy.
That is a grave concern, yet there may still be others. The disruptive effects of biotechnology will play out in a depopulating world — perhaps a world shadowed by economic and cultural crisis. So the immediate challenge of biotechnology to human history is the prospect that the family might be replaced by a bioengineered breeding system. Artificial wombs, not the production of supermen, may soon be the foremost social challenge posed by advancing science. Certainly, there is a danger that genetic engineering may someday lead to class distinctions. But the pressure on the bioengineers of the future will be to generate population. If and when the prospect of building “better” human beings becomes real, it will play out in the context of a world under radical population pressure. That population crunch will likely shape the new genetics at every turn.
With talk of artificial wombs and the end of the family, we are a long way from the idea of a conservative religious revival. The truth is, the possibility of a population crisis simultaneously raises the prospect of conservative revival and eugenic nightmare. In his landmark book on Western family decline, Disturbing the Nest, sociologist David Popenoe traces out contrasting ideal-typical scenarios by which the Western family might be either strengthened or further eroded. Looking at these scenarios, it’s evident that a population crisis could trigger either one.
What could reverse the decline of the Western nuclear family? Anything that might counter the affluence, secularism, and individualism that led to family decline in the first place, says Popenoe. Economic decline could force people to depend on families instead of the state. A religious revival could restore traditional mores. And a revised calculation of rational interest in light of social chaos could call the benefits of extreme individualism into question. We’ve already seen that a demographic-economic crisis could invoke all three of these mechanisms.
But what about the reverse scenario, in which the nuclear family would entirely disappear? According to Popenoe, the end of the nuclear family would come through a further development of our growing tendency to separate pair-bonding from sex and procreation. Especially in Europe, marriage is morphing into parental cohabitation. And in societies where parents commonly cohabit, the practice of “living alone together” is emerging. There unmarried parents remain “together” yet live in separate households, only one of them with a child. And of course, intentional single motherhood by older unmarried women — Murphy Brown-style — is another dramatic repudiation of the nuclear family. The next logical step in all this would be for single mothers to turn their children over to some other individual or group for rearing. That would spell the definitive end of the nuclear family.
A prolonged economic crisis accompanied by widespread concern over depopulation would undoubtedly place feminism under pressure. Yet it’s unlikely that postmodern attitudes toward women, work and family could be swept aside — or even significantly modified — without a major cultural struggle. A eugenic regime would be the logical way to safeguard feminist goals in a depopulating world, and there is ample precedent for an alliance between eugenics and feminism.
After all, birth control pioneers like Margaret Sanger in the United States and Marie Stopes in England blended feminism and eugenics at the outset of the twentieth century. As birth control came into wide use, fertility sharply declined — particularly among the upper classes, which had access to the technology. Alarmed by the relative decline of the elites, Teddy Roosevelt urged upper-class women to have more children. Even progressives began to question their commitment to women’s rights. Margaret Sanger’s response was to promote a eugenic regime of forced sterilization and birth control among the unfit. Instead of urging “the intelligent” to have more children, Sanger advocated the suppression of births among “the insane and the blemished.”
The women’s movement of the 1960s forged still more links between feminism and eugenics. Shulamith Firestone’s 1970 classic, The Dialectic of Sex, argued that women would truly be free only when released from the burden of reproduction. Today, as scientists work to engineer embryos in the laboratory, while others devise technology to save premature babies at ever earlier stages of development, the possibility that a viable artificial womb will someday be created has emerged. While feminists are divided on the issue, many look forward to the prospect.
Thus, if faced with an ultimate choice between feminist hopes of workplace equality with men and society’s simultaneous need for more children, it is not hard to imagine that some on the cultural left would opt for technological outsourcing — surrogacy in various forms — as a way out. To some extent, this phenomenon has already begun: Consider the small but growing numbers of older, usually career women who choose and pay younger women to carry babies for them. As with Sanger and Firestone, eugenics may be seen by some as the “logical” alternative to pressure to restore the traditional family.
Christine Rosen, who has usefully thought through the prospects and implications of “ectogenesis,” suggests that objections to the human exploitation inherent in surrogacy could actually propel a shift toward artificial wombs. Of course, that would only complete the commodification of childbirth itself — weakening if not eliminating the parent-child bond. And if artificial wombs one day become “safer” than human gestation, insurers might begin to insist on our not giving birth the old-fashioned way.
Such dark possibilities demand serious intellectual attention. Neither principled objections to tampering with human nature nor instinctive horror at the thought of it suffice to meet the challenge of the new eugenics. Philosophy and instinct must be welded to a compelling social vision. The course and consequences of world population decline offer just such a vision. In the end, philosophical principles and reflexive horror are guardians of the social order, yet without a lively vision of the social order they are protecting, these guardians cannot properly do their work.
Even in the celebrated image of the conservative who stands athwart history yelling “Stop!” there is a subtle admission of modernization’s inevitability. Tocqueville saw history’s trend toward ever greater individualism as an irresistible force. The most we could do, he thought, was to balance individualism with modern forms of religious, family, and civic association. Today, even Tocqueville’s cherished counterweights to radical individualism are disappearing — particularly in the sphere of the family.
It is indeed tempting to believe that the fundamental social changes initiated in the 1960s have by now become irreversible. Widespread contraception, abortion, women in the workforce, marital decline, growing secularism and individualism — all seem here to stay. Looked at from a longer view, however, the results are not really in. We haven’t yet seen the passing of even the great demographic wave of the “baby boom.” The latter half of the twentieth century may someday be seen not as ushering in the end of history, but as a transition out of modernity and into a new, prolonged, and culturally novel era of population shrinkage.
The most interesting and unanticipated prospect of all would be a conservatism. Of our authors, only Longman has explored the potential ideological consequences of the new demography. In effect, Longman wrote his book to forestall a religiously-based conservatism precipitated by demographic and economic decline. Yet even Longman may underestimate the potential for conservative resurgence.
It wouldn’t take a full-scale economic meltdown, or even a relative disparity in births between fundamentalists and secularists, to change modernity’s course. Chronic low-level economic stress in a rapidly aging world may be enough. There is good reason to worry about the fate of elderly boomers with fragile families, limited savings, and relatively few children to care for them. A younger generation of workers will soon feel the burden of paying for the care of this massive older generation. The nursing shortage, already acute, will undoubtedly worsen, possibly foreshadowing shortages in many other categories of workers. Real estate values could be threatened by population decline. And all these demographically tinged issues, and more, will likely become the media’s daily fare.
In such an atmosphere, a new set of social values could emerge along with a fundamentally new calculation of personal interest. Modernity itself may come in for criticism even as a new appreciation for the benefits of marriage and parenting might emerge. A successful pronatalist policy (if achieved by means of the conventional family rather than through surrogacy or artificial wombs) would only reinforce the conservative trend. In that case we will surely find that it is cultural radicals standing athwart history’s new trend yelling “Stop!”
Humankind faces three fundamental choices in the years ahead: at least a partial restoration of traditional social values, a radical new eugenics, or endless and compounding population decline. For a long time, this choice may not be an either/or. Divisions will likely emerge both within and between societies on how to proceed. Some regions may grow more traditional, others may experiment with radical new social forms, while still others may continue to shrink. And a great deal will depend upon an economic future that no one can predict with certainty. In any case, the social innovations of the modern world are still being tested, and the outcome is unresolved.