Friday, September 13, 2013

Fertility, Faith, and Culture

Paul Adams

I started to respond in the combox to Joseph Pearce's response on the Ink Desk blog of St. Austin Review to Austin Ruse's response to Sanyeev Sanjal's report (which I guess you have to be a Deutsche Bank customer to get) on the effects of the current global fertility decline.  Neither a report of a report of a report nor a post here can adequately cover all the findings, projections, and possible effects, but I think caution and a still wider perspective are needed.

Demographic projections have proved notoriously unreliable because people's behavior changes in ways demographers cannot predict.  It is true that demographic decline can lead to economic, cultural, and civilizational decline, as happened with the Roman Empire.  But that example also shows how the situation can be reversed as the rise of Christianity brought with it a new social and sexual ethic as well as, in consequence, a differential ability to survive plagues (see Rodney Stark's The Rise of Christianity, ch.4 on all this).  More recently, Mary Eberstadt's book, How the West Really Lost God, shows a profound effect of fertility decline on Christianity - decline of the family and fertility leads to the decline of Christianity as well as vice versa, in a double helix type of relationship.

But we should be cautious about the economic data.  There are factors than can offset some of the economic effects of fertility decline.  For example, Joseph's statement that "The proportion of the population who are of working age will shrink and the proportion who are retired will expand" needs to be qualified with the recognition that the overall dependency ratio reflects the proportion of children below working age as well as of adults above it.  Fewer children means fewer schools, fewer women at home caring for them (and so more in the workforce), less delinquency and associated costs, and so forth. At the other end, the number of seniors out of the workforce is a function of the retirement age for public and private pensions and this can be expected to continue to rise.  Immigration can offset the decline in native workers, although the effect is temporary (in many cases, though not so much in the UK, immigrants adopt host country patterns of fertility as of diet, etc.) and is complicated at a global level when poorer countries lose their most educated workers and professionals to richer ones so can end up with fewer children, more elders, AND fewer and less productive workers.  And then there is the effect of productivity increases, which enable fewer workers to produce as much as or more than the workers before them.  These are hard to predict over a long period, especially at global levels.

Still, with all these qualifications, the demographic winter is upon us.  Iran, to take one case, is undergoing the most rapid fertility decline in recorded history.  I have no doubt that such rapid declines will prove economically, socially, politically, and culturally disruptive and debilitating.  The same is true for other countries Sanyal/Ruse cites - Brazil, Mexico, and the rest.  Anyone who has visited Italy or Greece in recent years after an absence of a few decades is struck by the change in the attitudes toward children, family, and faith.  The cultural implications of a narcissistic turn away from children, from the future, from the demands that children make for self-giving and sacrifice and adult responsibility are profound.

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