Wednesday, January 22, 2014


In 2002, Osama bin Laden wrote in his “Letter to America”: “You are a nation that exploits women like consumer products or advertising tools, calling upon customers to purchase them. You use women to serve passengers, visitors, and strangers to increase your profit margins. You then rant that you support the liberation of women.”

As this quote indicates, what al Qaeda is fighting for is a traditional understanding of the family. This is not a minor part of their program: it is at its heart. The traditional family is built around some clearly defined principles. First, the home is the domain of the woman and life outside the house is the purview of the man. Second, sexuality is something confined to the family and the home, and extramarital, extra-familial sexuality is unacceptable. Women who move outside the home invite extramarital sexuality just by being there. Third, women have as their primary tasks reproduction and nurturing of the next generation. Therefore, intense controls on women are necessary to maintain the integrity of the family and of society.In an interesting way it is all about women, and bin Laden’s letter drives this home. What he hates about America is that it promotes a completely different view of women and the family.

Al Qaeda’s view is not unique to Osama bin Laden or Islam. The lengths to which that group is prepared to go may be unique, but the issue of women and the family defines most major religions.Traditional Catholicism, fundamentalist Protestantism, Orthodox Judaism, and various branches of Buddhism all take very similar positions. All of these religions are being split internally, as are all societies. In the United States, where we speak of the “culture wars,” the battlefield is the family and its definition. All societies are being torn between traditionalists and those who are attempting to redefine the family, women, and sexuality.

This conflict is going to intensify in the twenty-first century, but the traditionalists are fighting a defensive and ultimately losing battle. The reason is that over the past hundred years the very fabric of human life—and particularly the life of women—has been transformed, and with it the structure of the family. What has already happened in Europe, the United States, and Japan is spreading to the rest of the world.These issues will rip many societies apart, but in the end, the transformation of the family can’t be stopped.

This is not to say that transformation is inherently a good idea or a bad one. Instead, this trend is unstoppable because the demographic realities of the world are being transformed. The single most important demographic change in the world right now is the dramatic decline everywhere in birthrates. Let me repeat that: the most meaningful statistic in the world is an overall decline in birthrates. Women are having fewer and fewer children every year. That means not only that the population explosion of the last two centuries is coming to an end but also that women are spending much less time bearing and nurturing children, even as their life expectancy has soared.

It has been generally accepted in recent decades that the globe was facing a severe population explosion. Uncontrolled population growth would outstrip scarce resources and devastate the environment. More people would require more resources in the form of food, energy, and goods, which in turn would lead to a rise in global warming and other ecological catastrophes. There was no disagreement on the basic premise that population was growing.

This model no longer holds true, however. We already see a change taking place in advanced industrial countries. People are living longer, and because of declining birthrates there are fewer younger workers to support the vast increase in retirees. Europe and Japan are experiencing this problem already. But an aging population is only the tip of the iceberg, the first problem presented by the coming population bust.

People assume that while population growth might be slowing down in Europe, the world’s total population will continue to spiral out of control because of high birthrates in less developed countries.In fact, the opposite is true. Birthrates are plunging everywhere. The advanced industrial countries are on the cutting edge of the decline, but the rest of the world is following right behind them. And this demographic shift will help shape the twenty-first century.

Some of the most important, advanced countries in the world, like Germany and Russia, are going to lose large percentages of their population. Europe’s population today, taken as a whole, is 728 million people.The United Nations forecasts that by 2050 it will drop to between 557 and 653 million, a remarkable decline. The lower number assumes that women will average1.6 children each. The second number assumes 2.1 children. In Europe today, the fertility rate per woman is 1.4 children. This is why we will be focusing on the lower projections going forward.

Traditionally, declining population has meant declining power. For Europe, this will indeed be the case. But for other countries, like the United States, maintaining population levels or finding technological ways to augment a declining population will be essential if political power is to be retained in the next hundred years.

An assertion this extreme has to be supported,so we must pause and drill into the numbers a bit before we consider the consequences. This is a pivotal event in human history and we need to understand why it’s happening.

Let’s start simply. Between about 1750 and1950, the world’s population grew from about one billion people to about three billion. Between 1950 and 2000, it doubled, from three billion to six billion.Not only was the population of the world growing, but the growth was accelerating at an amazing rate. If that trajectory had continued, the result would have been global catastrophe. 

But the growth rate has not accelerated. It has actually slowed down dramatically. According to the United Nations, between 2000 and 2050 the population will continue to grow, but only by about 50percent, halving the growth rate of the previous fifty years. In the second half of the century, it becomes more interesting. Again, the population will continue to grow, but only by 10 percent statistically, according to other forecasters. This is like slamming on the brakes. In fact, some forecasts (not by the UN) have indicated that the total human population will decline by 2100.

The most dramatic effect will be seen in the advanced industrial countries, many of which will experience remarkable declines in population. The middle tier of countries, like Brazil and SouthKorea, will see their populations stabilize by mid-century and slowly decline by 2100. Only in the least developed part of the world, in countries like Congo and Bangladesh, will populations continue to increase until 2100, but not by nearly as much as over the past hundred years. Any way you look at it, the population explosion is ending.

Let’s examine a critical number: 2.1. This is the number of children that each woman must have, on average, in order to maintain a generally stable world population. Anything above that number and the population grows; anything below, the population declines, all other things being equal. According to the United Nations, women had an average of 4.5children in 1970. In 2000, that number had dropped to 2.7 children. Remember,this is a worldwide average. That is a dramatic drop and explains why the population continued to grow, but more slowly than before.

The United Nations forecasts that in 2050, the global fertility rate will decline to an average of 2.05 births per woman. That is just below the 2.1 needed for a stable world population. The UN has another forecast, based on different assumptions, where the rate is 1.6 babies per woman. So the United Nations, which has the best data available, is predicting that by the year 2050, population growth will be either stable or declining dramatically. I believe the latter is closer to the truth.

The situation is even more interesting if we look at the developed regions of the world, the forty-four most advanced countries. In these countries women are currently having an average of 1.6 babies each, which means that populations are already contracting. Birthrates in the middle tier of countries are down to 2.9 and falling. Even the least developed countries are down from 6.6 children per mother to 5.0 today, and expected to drop to 3.0 by 2050. There is no doubt that birthrates are plunging. The question is why. The answer can be traced to the reasons that the population explosion occurred in the first place; in a certain sense, the population explosion halted itself.

There were two clear causes for the population explosion that were equally significant. First, there was a decline in infant mortality; second there was an increase in life expectancies. Both were the result of modern medicine, the availability of more food, and the introduction of basic public health that began in the late eighteenth century.

There are no really good statistics on fertility rates in 1800, but the best estimates fall between 6.5 and 8.0children per woman on average. Women in Europe in 1800 were having the same number of babies as women in Bangladesh are having today, yet the population wasn’t growing. Most children born in 1800 didn’t live long enough to reproduce. Since the 2.1 rule still held, out of eight children born, six died before puberty. Medicine, food, and hygiene dramatically reduced the number of infant and childhood deaths, until by late in the nineteenth century, most children survived to have their own children. Even though infant mortality declined, family patterns did not shift. People were having the same number of babies as before.

It’s not hard to understand why. First, let’s face the fact that people like to have sex, and sex without birth control makes babies—and there was no birth control at the time. But people didn’t mind having a lot of children because children had become the basis of wealth. In an agricultural society, every pair of hands produces wealth; you don’t have to be able to read or program computers to weed, seed, or harvest. Children were also the basis for retirement, if someone lived long enough to have an old age.There was no Social Security, but you counted on your children to take care of you. Part of this was custom, but part of it was rational economic thinking. A father owned land or had the right to farm it. His child needed to have access to the land to live, so the father could dictate policy. As children brought families prosperity and retirement income, the major responsibility of women was to produce as many children as possible. If women had children, and if they both survived childbirth, the family as a whole was better off. This was a matter of luck, but it was a chance worth taking from the standpoint of both families and the men who dominated them. Between lust and greed, there was little reason not to bring more children into the world. Habits are hard to change.

When families began moving into cities en masse, children were still valuable assets. Parents could send them to work in primitive factories at the age of six and collect their pay. In early industrial society factory workers didn’t need many more skills than farm laborers did.But as factories became more complex, they had less use for six-year-olds. Soon they needed somewhat educated workers. Later they needed managers with MBAs. As the sophistication of industry advanced, the economic value of children declined. In order to continue being economically useful, children had to go to school to learn. Rather than adding to family income, they consumed family income. Children had to be clothed, fed, and sheltered, and over time the amount of education they needed increased dramatically, until today many “children”go to school until their mid-twenties and still have not earned a dime.According to the United Nations, the average number of years of schooling in the leading twenty-five countries in the world ranges from fifteen to seventeen.

Many of our grandparents or great-grandparents come from families that had ten children. A couple of generations before, you’d be lucky if three out of ten children survived. Now they were almost all surviving. However, in the economy of 1900, they could all head out and find work by the time they reached puberty. And that’s what most of them did. Ten children in eighteenth-century France might have been a godsend. Ten children in late-nineteenth-century France might have been a burden. Ten children in late-twentieth-century France would be a catastrophe. It took a while for reality to sink in, but eventually it became clear that most children wouldn’t die and that children were extremely expensive to raise. Therefore, people started having a lot fewer children, and had those children   more for the pleasure of having them than for economic benefits. Medical advances such as birth control helped achieve this, but the sheer cost of having and raising children drove the decline in birthrates. Children went from being producers of wealth to the most conspicuous form of consumption. Parents began satisfying their need for nurturing with one child, rather than ten. Now let’s consider life expectancy.After all, the longer people live, the more people there will be at any given time.

Life expectancy surged at the same time that infant mortality declined. In 1800, estimated life expectancy in Europe and theUnited States was about forty years. In 2000 it was close to eighty years. Life expectancy has, in effect, doubled over the last two hundred years. Continued growth in life expectancy is probable, but very few people anticipate another doubling. In the advanced industrial world, the UN projects a growth from seventy-six years in 2000 to eighty-two years in 2050. In the poorest countries it will increase from fifty-one to sixty-six. While this is growth, it is not geometric growth and it, too, is tapering off. This will also help reduce population growth. The reduction process that took place decades ago in the advanced industrial world is now under way in the least developed countries.Having ten children in São Paolo is the surest path to economic suicide. It may take several generations to break the habit, but it will be broken. And it won’t return while the process of educating a child for the modern workforce continues to become longer and costlier. Between declining birthrates and slowing increases in life expectancy, population growth has to end.

What does all this have to do with international power in the twenty-first century? The population bust affects all nations. But it also affects the life cycles of people within these nations. Lower populations affect everything from the number of troops that can fight in a war to how many people there are in the workforce to internal political conflicts. The process we are talking about will affect more than just the number of people in a country. It will change how those people live, and therefore how those countries behave.

Let’s start with three core facts. Life expectancy is moving toward a high of eighty years in the advanced industrial world;the number of children women have is declining; and it takes longer and longer to become educated.

A college education is now considered the minimum for social and economic success in advanced countries. Most people graduate from college at twenty-two. Add in law or graduate school, and people are not entering the workforce until their mid-twenties. Not everyone follows this pattern, of course, but a sizable portion of the population does and that portion includes most of those who will be part of the political and economic leadership of these countries. As a result, marriage patterns have shifted dramatically. People are putting off marriage longer and are having children even later.

Let’s consider the effect on women. Two hundred years ago, women started having children in their early teens. Women continued having children, nurturing them, and frequently burying them until they themselves died. This was necessary for the family’s well being and that of society. Having and raising children was what women did for most of their lives. In the twenty-first century this whole pattern changes. Assuming that a woman reaches puberty at age thirteen and enters menopause at age fifty, she will live twice as long as her ancestors and will for over half her life be incapable of reproduction. Let’s assume a woman has two children. She will spend eighteen months being pregnant, which is roughly 2 percent of her life. Now assume a fairly common pattern, which is that the woman will have these two children three years apart, that each child enters school at the age of five,and that the woman returns to work outside the home when the oldest starts school. The total time the woman is engaged in reproduction and full-time nurturing is eight years of her life. Given a life expectancy of eighty years,the amount of time exclusively devoted to having and raising children will be reduced to an astounding 10 percent of her life. Childbearing is reduced from a woman’s primary activity to one activity among many. Add to this analysis the fact that many women have only one child, and that many use day care and other mass nurturing facilities for their children well before the age of five, and the entire structure of a woman’s life is transformed. We can see the demographic roots of feminism right here.

Since women spend less of their time having and nurturing children, they are much less dependent on men than even fifty years ago. For a woman to reproduce without a husband would have created economic disaster for her in the past. This is no longer the case, particularly for better-educated women. Marriage is no longer imposed by economic necessity.This brings us to a place where marriages are not held together by need as much as by love. The problem with love is that it can be fickle. It comes and goes.If people stay married only for emotional reasons, there will inevitably be more divorce. The decline of economic necessity removes a powerful stabilizing force in marriage.

Love may endure, and frequently does, but by itself it is less powerful than when linked to economic necessity. Marriages used to be guaranteed, “till death do us part.” In the past, that parting was early and frequent. There were a great many fifty-year marriages during the transition period when people were having ten surviving children. But prior to that, marriages ended early through death, and the survivor remarried or faced economic ruin. Europe practiced what we might call serial polygamy, in which widowers (usually, since women tended to die in childbirth) remarried numerous times throughout their lives. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, habit kept marriages together for extraordinarily long periods of time.

A new pattern emerged in the later twentieth century, however, in which serial polygamy reasserted itself, but this time the trend was being driven by divorce rather than death. Let’s add another pattern to this. Whereas many marriages used to take place when one or both partners were in their early teens, people are now marrying in their late twenties and early thirties. It was typical for men and women to remain sexually inactive until marriage at age fourteen, but today it is, shall we say, unrealistic to expect someone marrying at age thirty to remain a virgin. People would be living seventeen years after puberty without sexual activity. That’s not going to happen. There is now a period built into life patterns where people are going to be sexually active but not yet able to support themselves financially.There is also a period in which they can support themselves and are sexually active, but choose not to reproduce. The entire pattern of traditional life is collapsing, and no clear alternative patterns are emerging yet. Cohabitation used to be linked to formal, legal marriage, but the two are now completely decoupled. Even reproduction is being uncoupled from marriage, and perhaps even from cohabitation.

Longer life, the decline in fertility rates, and the additional years of education have all contributed to the dissolution of previous life and social patterns. This trend cannot be reversed. Women are having fewer children because supporting a lot of children in industrial, urban society is economic suicide. That won’t change. The cost of raising children will not decline, nor will there be ways found to put six-year-olds to work.The rate of infant mortality is also not going to rise. So in the twenty-first century the trend toward having fewer, rather than more, children will continue.

The more educated segments of the population are the ones where life patterns have diverged the most. The very poorest, on the other hand, have lived in a world of dysfunctional families since the industrial revolution began. For them, chaotic patterns of reproduction have always been the norm. However, between the college-educated professional and business classes on the one side and the underclass on the other, there is a large layer of society that has only partially experienced the demographic shifts. Among blue-and pink-collar workers there have been other trends, the most important of which is that they have shorter educations. The result is less of a gap between puberty and reproduction. These groups tend to marry earlier and have children earlier. They are far more dependent on each other economically, and it follows that the financial consequences of divorce can be far more damaging. There are non-emotional elements holding their marriages together, and divorce is seen as more consequential, as are extramarital and premarital sex. This group comprises many social conservatives, a small but powerful social cohort. They are powerful because they speak for traditional values. The chaos of the more highly educated classes can’t be called values yet; it will be a century before their lifestyles congeal into a coherent moral system. Therefore social conservatives have an inherent advantage, speaking coherently from the authoritative position of tradition. However, as we have seen, traditional distinctions between men and women are collapsing. As women live longer and have fewer children, they no longer are forced by circumstance into the traditional roles they had to maintain prior to urbanization and industrialization. Nor is family the critical economic instrument it once was.Divorce is no longer economically catastrophic, and premarital sex is inevitable.Homosexuality—and civil unions without reproduction—also becomes un-extraordinary.

Friedmen, G. (2009). The Next 100 Years. Doubleday