Untitled Document

Demographic Winter
Peter Syski
| Spring 2008

"E-S-A-U-P-H-J-M-B-C, spells “family” in the Syski household. This odd 10-letter sequence does not sound like any word in the English language (or in any other, for that matter) that I’ve ever encountered, but it has important meaning for us: it stands for the names of my nine siblings and me—Emily, Stefan, Andrew, Ursula, Peter, Helen, Joseph, Mary, Barbara, and Charlie.

In my time at Harvard, I have only ever met one other student who comes from a double-digit household. That fact has often made me wonder how many Harvard students are only children. Even among the mostly Christian audience of The Ichthus, I wonder how often the one-child household is still the case.

Last May during reading period I attended the Fourth World Congress of Families (WCF IV) in Warsaw, Poland: a conference on family values, specifically intended last spring to address the current social phenomenon that experts are calling the “demographic winter.” Regardless of one’s opinion, nobody can deny that people are not having enough babies to sustain the world’s population at its current level. From a philosophical and Christian point of view, this is a problem; the WCF has diagnosed it as the result of the deterioration of real family values in today’s culture. The proposed solution pays homage to that time-honored maxim which my parents live by: “charity starts at home.” We need to clean up our personal and family lives in order to prevent the looming social and demographic disaster.

Interestingly enough, many of us grew up hearing about overpopulation sapping our green planet of its life. In fact, my mother has received some nasty comments about causing Earth’s early doom. But let’s look at the facts: logically, for every generation to replace itself fully with another generation, every woman must give birth to two kids. If we factor in the circumstances of reality, where child mortality takes a percentage of the population before it reaches maturity, then an average of 2.1 children per couple is commonly agreed upon as the necessary “replacement rate” for industrialized countries. But according to the CIA’s World Fact Book, every single country in the European Union has a birth rate below 2, with half sitting in the range between 1.2 and 1.4. At this rate, Western Europe’s population is on the verge of plunging; only a constant stream of immigrants (often with much larger families) can provide any hope of stabilization. Based on analysis of this and a similar trend in Asian countries, many experts, including Allan Carlson, International Secretary of the WCF IV, have made the case that this phenomenon will soon extend to other countries of the world, including our very own United States of America.

You might ask whether population decline is a problem. After all, nobody says that we need to reach a numerical population quota to secure happiness for humanity. The effects of the demographic winter, however, are far-reaching, and present important social, economic, political, and moral problems. Perhaps most simply, if most people limit themselves to one child—for example, as mandated by China’s infamous policy—there will be an inversion of the age structure, with most of the population being elderly. In practice, this has led to an increased need for social security, as members of the younger generation shy away from the increased responsibility of caring for their parents and grandparents, who, in developed countries, tend to live longer than ever before after ceasing to be economically productive. When increasing proportions of the population are seniors dependent on social security programs, the financial state of the system stagnates, followed most likely by political difficulties as foreign immigrants come to fill the labor void. Many of these issues are unprecedented in history. For example, imagine that, in a one-child society, most children have finally lost all first-hand experience of what a brother or an uncle might be.

Besides these practical difficulties, most worrisome is the moral crisis that would be exacerbated by such societies. The WCF IV duly recognized that the problem is not simply population decline; the demographic winter is just one especially noticeable effect of a distressing plunge in morality, particularly with regard to family values.

A natural family is the “fundamental social unit, inscribed in human nature, and centered on the voluntary union of a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage,” according to the mission statement of the World Congress. It is “defined by marriage, procreation and, in some cultures, adoption. Free, secure and stable families that welcome children are necessary for healthy society.” A society with a declining birthrate and population is not healthy; but to understand this crisis more fully, we must observe some of the problems affecting the traditional family today, and analyze their connection with the impending demographic predicament.

Carlson distinguishes two major drops in fertility rates in history. The first occurred during the 50-year period centered on the turn of the 20th century, when the fertility rates in developed countries worldwide dropped from 7.0 to slightly over 2.0. Often this is attributed to a shift from an agrarian family-based economy to a capitalist society where children became more of a burden. In such a new society, where infant-mortality rates declined due to modern medicine and children no longer represented economic resources—that is, extra hands on the farm—parents realized it would be advantageous for the child to have fewer siblings. As Carlson puts it, “this raised the amount of per-capita ‘altruism’ given each child.” This argument, however, does not fully explain real history. Apparently, no historical evidence shows declines in fertility correlated to rising standards of living and changing economies throughout history, until this particular phenomenon starting in the 19th century. John C. Caldwell, an Australian demographer, theorizes that the “family morality” system, where the father is the bread-winner and the mother and children engage in several productive activities to keep the household running, kept the birthrates intact until finally cheap mass-production, changing gender-roles, and state education undermined the traditional family ethos.

A second drop in fertility rates happened in about the year 1965, after several baby booms in various countries folllowing the Second World War. A Dutch expert named Dirk van de Kaa identified several identified several differences between this drop and the previous one. Whereas the children had still been the priority before, now the focus was on the two adults in the relationship. Couples lost sight of the commitment and procreative aspects that the relationship should involve: there was a shift from marriage to mere cohabitation or informal sexual arrangements, and couples began to use contraception not simply as a preventative measure to benefit the already-born children, but increasingly as a means for having irresponsible sex with no consequences. The new license for inconsequential pleasure made it much easier for men to “use her and lose her”—there was both no marriage bond and no child to seal the deal. In the ensuing cultural environment, many women found themselves single and pregnant, often leading to abortion rather than the difficult prospect of raising a child on a single income with nobody else’s help.

Contraception and abortion, the results of cohabitation, are obviously two major causes of declines in the fertility rate, simply by nature of what they are designed to do. Divorce is another factor: it initiates a cycle of infidelity by giving examples of irresponsibility to children, who then in turn lack a sense of proper commitment when they mature, and thus become the source of more aborted or illegitimate children. Finally, homosexual unions clearly constitute a rather poor team for the production of children.

The family is a microcosm of the state, as Aristotle wrote—it is the smallest unit of community, which is so necessary for human existence. In order for society to function properly, the family must remain intact. That means cleaning up our act: the evils of abortion, contraception, divorce, gay unions, and cohabitation must be eradicated so we can preserve the integrity of the natural family. Only then will the population stop its radical projected downturn, and only then can disaster be averted.

The World Congress of Families worked to establish political remedies to make it easier to raise a family in a healthy way. Ultimately, however, it is a personal commitment to integrity and fidelity that will provide the answer. Think about this the next time you fall in love: are you part of the problem or part of the solution?  I know my parents were the latter, and I hope to be the same.


Peter Syski ‘08 is a Computer Science concentrator in Lowell House.