Death in the West

Demographic Transition: a future death course where children are only optional extras

by Robert Whiston FRSA 27th May 2013

Birth rate collapse has almost  invariably  been the hallmark, the precursor, of the death of a civilistion. Where specific value orientations collide with the spirit of the age, we have  Weltsanschauung vs. Zeitgeist.

Forget the economic recession.

Ignore the messy money markets.

Reject rumours of a second impending financial catastrophe as mere detail – there is a far bigger fish.

In fact there’s a whale of problem yet to sink our teeth into and it’s called ‘demographic transition.’[1]

It has implications that are deeper and will last longer than any transient economic set-back. Even greenhouse gases and global warming are being elbowed out-of-the-way demographic transition.

Our society, in fact the entire advanced western world, is in transition – and it’s not a good transition if the experts are to be believed. The money markets will sort themselves out one day and either huge losses or profits will be made equally the economic recession will slowly lift. But even if all this happened next week the West would still be facing a destiny of decay and decline.


The problem we have caused ourselves is not greenhouse gases or global warming but our birth rate. Put at is simplest the world as we know it has moved from “high birth rates and high death rates” to low birth and low death rates.

As countries develop from a pre-industrial to an industrialised economic system and then into a post-industrial era social norms and expectations alter with them. These changes can be demonstrated using a demographic transition model.[2]

Some years ago, circa 1990s,  it was decided that “globalisation” would be a good thing for everyone. It is a process whereby products are manufactured in off-shore countries and imported into the home market and sold by well known domestic brands, e.g. Apple computers, i-phones etc. This increases world-wide exchanges of national know-how, trade secrets and these days intellectual property especially in electronics. The result is that the once held competitive edges are lost to other manufacturers.

In 2000, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) identified four basic aspects of globalization as being: trade and transactions, movements of capital and investment, movement of people (migration) and the dissemination of knowledge.

Moving manufacturing and service support industries overseas to a secondary market boost employment and wages there, e.g. India, China,  but leaves thousands in the original or primary markets jobless and unemployable (the US and the West). These jobless and unemployable individuals are then expected to use their savings and good credits rating to buy goods (they once made) from made overseas. What happens when families and individual credits ratings collapse is misery and poverty of the sort we have not seen since the 19th century.

The only benefit is a short to medium term one, where owners and shareholders see an increased return on their investment but then as the Samsung Android legal battle has shown, aggressively enforcing technical compliance has cost Apple millions in legal fees which robs shareholders of their full yield (Apple is facing more than 10 law suits in over 10 countries).

Globalisation is only a culturally positive resources when it cuts down on the need for worldwide transportation which it does not. It best achieves this ambition by utilising the global telecommunications infrastructure of which the Internet is a significant part. It also achieves this ambition by spreading intangibles such as knowledge and generating further inter-dependence economic and cultural activities that do not adversely affect standards of living.

The current scenarios is far worse then the ‘recession’ and ‘the slump’ of the 1920s and 1930s simply because techniques used then worked after several years and, so far, no progress has yet been made since 2008. The race to the bottom in terms of a currency war as seen in the 1930s isn’t happening / working because all Central Banks are issuing billions of dollars in QE (quantitative easing).

No free lunch

The problem monopolies, large industries and governments have given themselves (and us), is how to maintain the expected standards of living in the West while fertility rates are falling but the total population is increasing and with unemployment soaring.

Fundamentally, do we want to live longer lives and have fewer babies die because if we do, then there is an economic penalty to pay. Do we want to maintain our standard of living because if we do we cannot afford to be doing some of the things we are doing now and which we take for granted.

In the 21st century we are ladened down not only 1/. a world economic recession, 2/. dubious paper currencies, but the many ill effects of 3/. globalization, topped of by the nightmares of 4/. Demographic Transition.

Demographic Transition

Demographic transition (DT) refers to the transition from “high birth and death rates” to “low birth and death rates” as a country moves from pre-industrial to industrialised.

Stages_1_5At the end of the 19th century several French scholars noted that a remarkable change was taking place in the population of their country. The number of children per family was declining and clearly, they thought, this was as the result of deliberate efforts to reduce fertility within marriage by seen or unseen forces.

 It soon came to be understood that the voluntary limitation of marital fertility was a revolutionary novelty and to reflect this the term ‘demographic revolution’ was the original term used to describe it.

It was appreciated by those in the field  that the decline in fertility was an adjustment (conscious or unconscious) triggered by the decline in neo-natal, peri-natal and infant mortality.

The world’s most advanced economic powers are currently at Stage 4 as shown on the graph (right), with ‘total population’ increasing but with both the birth and death rate slumping.

Square one

To better understand how the process works we have to start at Stage 1 and work through the various Stages.

In Stage 1, we are looking at a pre-industrial society, where death rates and birth rates are high and roughly in balance. But you will notice that the ‘total population’ is surprisingly small.

All human populations (civilisations) are believed to have had this balance until the late 18th century, when this balance began to end in Western Europe. This was the epoch of epic world navigation, chronometers, and the creation of trading empires, e.g. Britain and Holland.

By the time Stage 2 is reached developing countries display a rapidly falling death rates due to the improvements in farming methods, (e.g. crop rotation, selective breeding etc ), food supply, and sanitation (sewerage), which increase life spans and reduces disease.

A characteristic of Stage 2 is the change in the age structure of the population. In Stage 1, the majority of deaths are concentrated in the first 5 – Age_pyramid10 years of life. The decline in child death rates in Stage 2, therefore, entailsa growing population with a profile shown here (left). With a population increasingly youthful these ‘children’ then soon enter their reproductive cycle and thus maintain the high fertility rates of their parents.

In these societies marriage is usually at an earlier age, say, between 16 and 21. in the developed world of Stage 4 and 5 marriage is now deferred to approx. 30 years of age.

A side-effect of the bottom of the “age pyramid” becoming so wide is that it accelerates population growth. The age structure of such a population is illustrated by using an example from the Third World today (see Tiger economies below).

In Stage 3 birth rates fall due to emerging access to contraception, increases in wages, urbanisation, a reduction in subsistence agriculture, a reduction in the value of children’s work, an increase in parental investment in the education of children and other social changes. Population growth is seem top continue upwards but is rate of increase begins to level off. The birth rate decline in developed countries first started in the late 19th century in northern Europe.

In the bitter Politically Correct culture in which we now have to live, another item is included which is of doubtful merit, namely, “an increase in the status and education of women.” This has to be suspect given that in the 19th century education for the working masses, though it included females, ended at the age of 14 and was premised on providing the basics. Any increase in the status of women is either in the eye of the beholder (wishful thinking), or limited to the upper 5% of women in society.

Convention did not allow Upper Class women to work and Middle Class women took their cue from their betters with only a few jobs seen as “respectable.” It was the un-respectable female working class that had to go out to work performing all manner of jobs

During Stage 4 there are both low birth rates and low death rates. Birth rates may drop to well below replacement level as has happened in countries like Germany, Italy, and Japan – and now the USA,  France, Italy, Spain and the UK to name but a few. This leads to a shrinking population which threatens many industries which have relied on population growth for their workforce.

As the large group born during Stage 2 becomes older and enters retirement, they represent, by Stage 4, a disproportionate number of the Total Population.

This  creates an economic burden on a shrinking working population and has been the source of much pension reform discussion in the UK several years ago (see “Immigration Deceit – Part 2  and “Anders Breivik: Europe’s dreams crash in flames and “Turning a blind eye to the birth rate” (Dec 2010) ).

Political fix

Long before the financial banking collapse of 2008 the anxiety was for pensions. Throughout the 2000s it was pensions and how they could be afforded that was on top of the political agenda. In the UK a government committee headed by Adair Turner published its last and doom-laden report in 2006. Forecast  for benefit entitlement were not being properly funded by pension plans – private firms with private pension plans began to find them unaffordable, and in the public/state sector pensions were even more wildly out of kilter.

The matter of how many pensioners there were (and thus the cost of the state’s universal basic pension) compared to the numbers of young people working and paying taxes and thereby funding state pension scheme came under the microscope as never before.

For the first time in living memory the Media fanned the flames of inter-generational prejudice, forgetting thatthe burden of the old, as they saw it, had produced and paid for the lifestyle choices and standard of living the young generation saw as a right and took for granted.

Tiger economies

Malthus once famously predicted over-population would lead to an inability to feed society. [3] However while the West struggles with low birth rates and poor economic performance those countries adjacent to the Indian Ocean and South Pacific have expanding populations driving up consumer demand.

Unlike the West, as the population group born during Stage 2 ages, it is countered by the economic activity and enterprise of the recently born generation maturing in adulthood. [4]

10,000In our own age we have seen these countries leap from Stage 2 to Stage 3 as their industrial base becomes established. China is perhaps the sole exception to the rule with it one-baby-policy yet booming economy.

As remarked above, French scholars of the 19th century who first noted demographic changes in Europe. They believed it was deliberate efforts to reduce fertility within marriage that reduced the number of children per family. Later in the 20th century this work was taken up by American demographer Warren Thompson (1887–1973). Thompson observed the same changes (or transitions), in birth and death rates in industrialised societies spanning the previous 200 years. Most developed countries he found were at Stage 4 of the model with the majority of ‘developing countries’ at Stage 3.

Both Thompson and his French predecessors concluded that this ‘adjustment’ in fertility was a necessary one, prompted by better child survival rate (mortality). This would imply a “human-swarm” phenomenon at work. Families in S.E. Asia are still comparatively large though, as of 2010, in the Philippines for example they are slowly reducing in size.

It also directly tells observers that, without reference to any higher being or authority, the old or long-term demographic balance had become redundant and a new balance had to be established as a working replacement. This applies equally to France in the 19th century as it does to present day Taiwan or Philippines. A decline in old age mortality, an increase in child survival plus a decline in fertility results in unsustainable levels of high natural population growth.

Is it simply a coincidence that industrialised countries also have the highest rate of divorce ? Is it simply a coincidence that in industrialised countries wealth inheritance has been directly interfered with – even perverted – by divorces courts having the power to re-allocate property and wealth away from its owner ?

This is not to say that Tiger economies nations will remain at their present equilibrium due to the “Doppler effect” which will probably, at some time in the future, see them follow in the footsteps of the West.

Doppler effect

We are all familiar with the peculiar sound of a fast approaching train and how sounds differently as it reaches us and then moves away from us – a similar thing is seen in child birth numbers.

When women delay childbearing to later in life, the number of births observed in a particular year is distorted downward. Conversely, when women bear children at a younger age, the births numbers pile up and in he process distort fertility statistics upward.

An apparent inflation of birth numbers was observed during the “baby boom” of the 1950s in the United States and arguable a little earlier (circa 1947), in Britain after World War II.


Although we speak in concrete terms of Stage 1 and Stage 2 etc they are, in actuality, moveable feast and there is constant fluidity. Fertility rates and death numbers can alter because they are only semi-permanent features which are forever evolving and altering.

John Bongaarts is a leading population researcher and of its impact on social structures [5]  He has written extensively on this subject and promotes an appealing  assumption  that society moves from one long-term quasi-equilibrium to another (ref. paper 2001:260):

  • ‘If fertility in contemporary post-transitional societies had indeed leveled off at or near the replacement level, there would have been limited interest in the subject because this would have been expected.’
  • ‘However, fertility has dropped below the replacement level sometimes by a substantial margin in virtually every population that has moved through the demographic transition. If future fertility remains at these low levels, population will decline in size and age rapidly.’

This last sentence addresses the pensions time bomb outlined above. Bongaarts’ belief is that while there may be an element of ‘postponement’ of births there is the real prospect that it becomes a permanent lifestyle choice.

If and when couples appear to lack the motivation to have more than one or two children two of the several things that will flow are: 1/. migration and 2/. immigration.

An unsettled society

Newtonian Law teaches us that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” and in this case it appears to be migration and immigration.

Multiple ‘disequilibrium events’ will then occur in relatively rapid succession. Firstly, there will be the disequilibrium of postponed births leading to a new demographic imbalance.

Secondly, there will be another disequilibrium as the migration of elements of the younger generation depart for other shores. And thirdly, there will be yet another disequilibrium as the immigration numbers increase.

Whereas indigenous migrant leaving Britain will be single, childless couples or couples with few children the immigrant cohort will be single, or childless couples, or couples with many children. Even those singles and couples which are initially childless will have larger than average numbers of children.

Political dynamics

The above scenario might explain why under New Labour immigration was not only undertaken quietly but on a vast scale. When it was eventually advertised it was as something economically good for the country – the downside was that it would literally and metaphorically change the complexion of Britain. It could be argued that as governments in the West realised they had no control over fertility rates this was an obvious solution.

The graph below (Demographic change, Sweden 1735 – 2000), describes the fall in both crude death rate (CDR), the crude birth rate (CBR) [6] At Stage 4 they overlap indicating its moribund state. Since 1975 its population numbers have lacked life, vitality, dynamism and vigour.                 sweden_1701Swedish migration to the New World was, relative to its size, on an epic scale during the 19th century and driven not by the affluence we see today but by it’s poverty. The New World needed immigrants to populate its vast empty territories and expand its economy when Europe, at the time, could not support them. [7] It was therefore mutually beneficial to both the old and new world. The tacit understanding was that the migration would be permanent.

Swedish migration peaked  in the years between 1870 and 1900. By 1890 the U.S. census reported a Swedish-American population of nearly 800,000. The graph above begins to show a serious decline in CBR and CDR beginning in years around 1875 – having held almost stable prior to that. About 1.3 million Swedes left for the United States though some put it as 1.8 million.

The effect of this mass immigration between 1846 and 1932 – mainly from Eastern Europe – into the US and Canada (but also Latin America, and Oceania), was to reset the quasi-equilibrium, i.e. that of fertility and death rates.

The westward immigration, totalling around 50 million, served as a ‘safety valve’ to release some of the pressure on resources caused by far too rapid population growth in the continental Europe.[8]

Sweden awakes

Six days of riots in Sweden (beginning May 24th 2013), have sharpened even the stoic Swedes attitude towards their liberal immigration policy. Sweden has about 1.8 million immigrants of its total population of 9.5 million (just over 14% – but some would put it at 19%). And the problem is not just numbers, it is the imported culture and inheritance.

Sweden has taken in more than 11,000 refugees from Syria since 2012;  it has absorbed Kosovan. and over the over the past two decades absorbed more than 100,000 Iraqis and 40,000 Somalis. None of these ethnic groupings can be said to have a democratic heritage or work other than on tribal lines. Yet they are thrust by government into one of the most laid-back but rigorous democracies in Europe where expectations of compliance with civic order and pride are high.

burn_outIt has come as a shock for many Swedes to discover the scale of resentment found in the ghettos that have sprung up.

Right: Stockholm, Sweden,  aftermath of May 2013

Denmark, Norway and indeed Sweden itself are not new to riots or ethnic unrest (see Some of these latest immigrants to Sweden can be said to be not only ‘economic migrant’ in the bad old usage of the phrase but also now ‘choosy economics tourist migrants’. For example, Mohammed Hassan, a Bangladeshi, now studying in Husby, previously lived in Brick Lane in East London. His comment to the Guardian is revealing: [9]

  • “It’s much, much better than any other European country in which I’ve travelled.”

‘Deferred gratification’ and the ‘Protestant work ethic’ are unknowns to these ethnic groups. While it can be said that both are not be fully adopted by all of Europe’s modern generation they are still potent totems and forces to be reckoned with.

Poignantly, the media has disclosed that one-third of the 2,500 white, ethnic Swedes who lived in Husky 10 years ago have left. Milos. A resident complains that:

  • “My children say: ‘Why don’t you leave there? All the Swedish have gone.’ There’s only three Swedish families left in this whole block.
  • These people, they should integrate in this society and just try a little bit more to be like Swedish citizens.”

Evolution of DT

Originally it was thought that changes ascribed to DT were linked to ‘the moral order’, e.g. Leroy-Beaulieu (1896), but towards the end of the Second World War, and thereafter, it was American scholars who took the lead in the subjects discussion. As a result explanations became more based on economics. However Notestein (1945), who played a crucial part in the formulation also stressed the overriding importance of mortality decline. He foresaw the impact of the modernisation process on people’s lives and in society as a whole and concluded that DT was likely to be a universal phenomenon which all countries were bound to pass through it once they had achieved a degree of industrialisation. The implication was that all would lose their long-held moral values.

In the 19th century the consensus was that climbing the social ladder would be handicapped by having a large family – and in many instances this is true. Dumont postulated that the result would be a low birth rate, and a low the birth rate would lead to increased social mobility.

This was certainly the aftershock of the Black Death which arguable was the spur for capitalism as it killed-off feudalism.[10]  The Bubonic Plague suddenly put a ‘premium’ on healthy able-bodied servants (the serfs). Entire families who owned the land and farms died and with no one to till the land serfs took over and set-up in business. Serfs (working people) suddenly found they had a cash value and wages and prices were negotiated in the way they are today

20th Century DT

In Western Europe labour shortages in a number of industrial sectors occurred during the 1960s. These were resolved through the recruitment, in the case of Germany, of “guest workers”, mainly from Southern Europe, Turkey, and Morocco. In the case of Britain and slightly earlier, in the late 1950s, worker shortages were made up from Commonwealth immigrants, principally the West Indies.

Policy makers of the time had envisaged ‘guest workers’ had not come to stay permanently but a contrary view was held by the immigrants. They were moving to countries where great wealth could be generated. Without fully realising it, the legacy of Word War II and countries who were signatories of UN Conventions became duty-bound to more liberal policies regarding the opening of their borders.

Through nepotism, tribalism and the host country’s liberalist practice of ‘family reunification’ a steady stream of immigrants joined those migrants already in the host country. Thus concentrations of one clan / religion began building in certain specific geographical areas.

Immigration became even more of a determinant of population growth when, from the early 1990s onward, the number of applicants for political asylum rose to unprecedented high levels.

Many countries have had to take steps to curb their number but it has to be admitted all have had limited success. Illegal migration has gained ground in importance as a consequence (and unhelpfully) polarised political debate.

The common consensus during the boom of the late 20th century was that, like it or not, advanced industrialised countries would continue to attract of immigration because of the “better life” prospects. Sometimes this immigration would be unwanted and or unwelcomed.

To make this trend more politically palatable ‘net migration’ data (off-setting immigration with emigration) would be used wherever possible. Net migration in industrialised countries of the world would consequently show only a fairly modest positive inflow. Pubic concern over the total numbers could be distracted by targeting 1/ recognized refugees, 2/. tourists over-staying their visa, 3/. asylum seekers, 4/. undocumented migrants brought in through trafficking, 5/. seasonal labourers and 6/. economic migrants.

Stage 5

Some commentators believe the industrialised world has now passed into a new stage, namely, stage 5 –  and some believe we might even be in Stage 6.

The Second Demographic Transition, as it is called, was launched as a concept in 1986. It recognised that all industrialised countries had reached a new stage in their demographic development – one characterised by couples having full control over their own fertility.

Stages 1 to 4 all had scenarios where the fertility rate though low was recoverable. Stages 5 + and or the Second Demographic Transition may see the fertility rate becoming non-recoverable by the indigenous population. Both more-fertile and less-fertile futures have been claimed as a feature of Stage 5.

The 2nd Demographic Transition

The essential difference between the First and the Second demographic transitions would be that the former was predominantly a long-term consequence of the decline in mortality. The Second Transition should be viewed as the consequence of fertility declining way below the levels long thought viable for nationhood. The role of marriage, cohabitation and divorce are all critical to his new wave or Second Demographic Transition.


Humans are not always rationale beings though they may always strive to be just that. Battered by materialism and consumerism deep flaws are emerging without us realising it .This quote by Philippe Ariès [11] sums up the predicament we are sleepwalking into:

  • ‘The ways people look at life usually are determined by more mysterious, more indirect causes, I feel that a profound, hidden, but intense relationship exists between the long-term pattern of the birth rate and attitudes towards the child. The decline in the birth rate that began at the end of the eighteenth century and continued until the 1930s was unleashed by an enormous sentimental and financial investment in the child. I see the current decrease in the birth rate as being, on the contrary, provoked by exactly the opposite attitude. The days of the child-king are over. The under-forty generation is leading us into a new epoch, one in which the child, to say the least, occupies a smaller place.

If noting else the above expresses an absolute minimum suggesting an important and clearly distinct phase in the classical transition  compared with life today. In presenting his views, Ariès refers to observations made by Alfred Sauvy whom he knew quite well.

Sauvy reportedly stated thatthe important new phenomenon involved in the renewed decline of fertility was that people refused to have an undesired child.

  • “If carelessness or an accident results in a pregnancy … this triggers a violent rejection reaction; an abortion is sought” (op. cit.: 130).

Emerging slowly in the mid-1960s  the subject in the life plans of married couples and individuals is that  the child is not so much absent but more of an item or commodity to be fitted into their lives as just ‘one of the various components that make it possible for adults to blossom as individuals ’(loc. cit.). Being aspirational must mean accepting that there is only one life and that is the ‘here and now.’ Maximising one’s career chances and artistic talents therefore take a priority never before seen. Who would willing want to shared the glow of affording luxury goods and the lifestyle following in the wake of these choices ?

Self-liberation, contraceptives and medically safe abortion are the bedrock that make this series of choices possible. Sexual congress between heterosexuals in this environment then becomes recreational as never before and mimics that more casual sexual behaviour of homosexuals.

This also underscores a possible loss of religious values (the procreation of children) and why marriage is no optional for many couples. if true the Second Demographic Transition is epitomized by the loss of  ‘altruistic’ motives and the rise of ‘individualistic’ ones. (Van de Kaa, 1987:5). [12]

Mediterranean countries where the institution of marriage once was on negotiable now appears to be changing rapidly as it earlier did in France. The impact of the Second Demographic Transition is universal and ubiquitous to Roman Catholic countries, for examples Spain, Portugal and Slovenia where once extra-marital births were 8.5 % in 1970 they were 35.4 % in 1999.


When Van de Kaa & Lesthaeghe devised the concept of a Second Demographic Transition in 2001, they believed it could be compared to a “cyclone irresistibly sweeping south from Scandinavia and gradually engulfing the South of Europe before turning East and, most probably, to other parts of the developed world.” It was a metaphor that has proven to be more true than they could have imagined at the time. Empirical evidence shows that at any point in time each country or region has its own demographic heritage and cultural endowment and yet it is constantly in flux. How well these countries react to the dispersion of events that change the status quo depends in part on how well new ideas can be incorporated into existing patterns and traditions.

But it is clear that the random dispersal of events and the adjustments they induce are compounded by the economic turmoil presently being encountered.


[1] The Autor is aware that a whale is not technically a fish.

[3] “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”. Robert Malthus FRS (1766 – 1834).

[4] Shrinking working population; “The Idea of a Second Demographic Transition in Industrialized Countries”

[5] Vice president of “Policy Research Division at the Population Council” New York, and known for his statistical analyses.

[7] One of the main enticements was the availability of low-cost, high quality farm land, e.g. in the upper Midwest (the area from Illinois to Montana).

[9] “Swedish riots spark surprise and anger”

[10] It devastated Europe in the years between 1348 and 1350, killing between 75 million and 200 million people (est’d).

[11] IUSSP-seminar “Two successive motivations for the declining of the birth rate in the West.” 1980

[12] The Idea of a Second Demographic Transition in Industrialized Countries. Paper presented at the Sixth Welfare Policy Seminar of the National Institute of Population and Social Security, Tokyo, Japan, 29 January 2002 Dirk J. van de Kaa


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