How Population Change Will Transform Our World   
by Sarah Harper, Oxford University Press, 160pp

Throughout the last 40-plus years of the no-fault divorce revolution, observers have noticed a phenomenon aptly labeled “divorce happy talk.” This is an attempt by adults to overcome the initial distress we might feel about the spike in divorces, based on our intuitive sense that divorce is hard on spouses and, particularly, on children affected by the decision. The happy talk is a way of changing the subject by proposing a counterintuitive “bright side”: children are resilient; divorced parents will be happier, and happy parents lead to happy children; the problem is fighting, not divorce, so as long as the parents are mature and friendly, there will be no significant ramifications. 

It rings hollow, of course, but the ideological investment in choice guarantees it will continue.

Though it is certainly not didactic, How Population Change Will Transform the World engages in some demographic happy talk, perhaps for the same reason. Many of the causes that have led to the changes it chronicles are supported, enthusiastically, in large swaths of the academy and government, so there is an incentive to downplay possible problems.

The basic idea—more and more countries do not have enough children to replace the adults who are dying, and nearly all are moving in that direction—is familiar. The strength of the book is its broad look at international trends and its exhaustively chronicled description of them.

The book sets out to explain “an unprecedented change in [the world’s] age composition.” It explains that “advanced economies” are facing an increasing percentage of older adults; “emerging economies” are characterized by a large percentage of young and middle-aged adults, with smaller percentages of children and the elderly (for now); and only the “least developed economies” have large percentages of children. 

Dr. Harper describes the “classical demographic transition” leading to these results as a four-stage process of high death rates, followed by improvements in public health with associated increases in population, followed by falling fertility and then “low mortality and fertility.” This means “increasing percentages of older dependents” among aging populations, perhaps compensated by migration of workers from other nations.

The book does note there are some challenges associated with this pattern. For instance, the possibility of “demographic inertia,” wherein “a very low fertility rate could become irreversible.” This, in turn, raises the likelihood of fewer younger people around to provide for the dependent elderly. In the next few decades, for example, the European Union will “change from having four to only two persons of working age for each citizen aged 65 and above.”

But, we are reassured, there is not much reason to worry. Most fears of demographic decline are “speculative myths,” because societies and individuals are likely to adjust to these changing realities. For instance, it is “highly likely” that the elderly will develop “higher levels of human capital” and that people can begin retiring at “far older ages than currently.” In addition, “these are all issues which can be addressed by policy, given the political and economic will.” (That last phrase has a slightly chilling feel.)

In fact, the prospects of people working longer is clearly one thing the author is relying heavily on to compensate for any possible negatives associated with aging populations. Just as women and children needed to leave the home to support the changes of the Industrial Revolution, older people will need to leave, or stay out longer, to fuel the Individualist Revolution.

One area of particular concern is health care. Here, “demographic change will reduce informal care through a reduction in the availability of younger family members to provide such care,” but these vanishing family members may not be easily replaced by migrant workers, since the countries which once provided emigrants will also be aging.

This conundrum recalls G.K. Chesterton’s observation about the earlier push for mothers to enter the workforce: 

If people cannot mind their own business, it cannot possibly be more economical to pay them to mind each other’s business, and still less to mind each other’s babies. It is simply throwing away a natural force and then paying for an artificial force; as if a man were to water a plant with a hose while holding up an umbrella to protect it from the rain.

The scheme is similar to the one in Chesterton’s time wherein a woman was encouraged to “not be a mother to her own baby, but a nursemaid to somebody else’s baby,” only here we would say that a child should not be a caregiver for his or her own parents but a certified nurse’s assistant for someone else’s—or more likely, to someone without children of their own. He observed that this “will not work, even on paper.”

Perhaps the choice of some countries to “transfer much of [their] income to young children rather than spend this on general consumption of goods which would help drive the economy” and the choice of some women to use “much of their time and energy in caring for young child dependents” (even if it means decreased “investment in economic labour”) is a rational one. Certainly it is a more humane one.

In fact, the family is a factor that gets surprisingly little attention in this volume. At one point, the author raises the possibility that the world is experiencing a “second demographic transition” driven by “individual preferences and culturally determined norms” that make recovery from a “fertility trap” difficult. A “typical sequence of events” has led to “below replacement fertility.” Harper describes it thus: 

a move from marriage to cohabitation, with the nuclear family being replaced by a complex array of family structures. And an emphasis on children as enhancing parental well-being, with childlessness also viewed as a positive means of adult personal fulfillment. Contraception comes to be viewed not just as a means to reduce family size and thus enhance family well-being, but also to enhance personal well-being. This leads to societies of individually orientated people striving for the successful combination of family size, lifestyle consumption, and employment which now defines adulthood. Childlessness or one-child families become the norm, and the rationale for fertility control moves from the well-being of the family unit to the self-fulfillment of the individual.

Perhaps the powerful ideological underpinning of this transition, “adult personal fulfillment,” explains why a family-centered approach is treated with more skepticism.

It would seem to be far more promising to support the revitalized family culture Chesterton favored, in which parents commit to one another and invest heavily in children who will care for them, and many others, in the future. What they might lose in “lifestyle consumption” or “self-fulfillment of the individual” (which seems illusory, at any rate, since there is no reason to believe consumption and paid employment are likely to be more fulfilling than family life), would surely be compensated for by rich, warm family relationships.

By comparison, the promised dividends of delayed retirement and whatever other policies we are supposed to work up the will to impose seem far more speculative. 

William C. Duncan is Director of the Marriage Law Foundation. This article first appeared in The Family in America, a Journal of Public Policy, published by The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society. It is reproduced here with permission.