The Decline of Fertility Rates in the Western World

The Demographic Transition

The decline of fertility rates in the Western world (or more accurately, the modern industrialized countries) is referred to as “the demographic transition” in the anthropological literature (Bodley 2001; Robbins 2005). The “fertility rate” itself refers to the average number of children per woman in a given population. Thus, a decline in the fertility rate is correlated with a reduction in the size of the average family.

This decline is typical of the population profile throughout the Western and industrialized world. The demographic transition itself is characterized be three phases historically.

Phase 1 is the “pre-modern” phase, in which both birth rates and death rates are high, and more or less balanced. Phase 2 is the “transition phase.” It is typical of the early industrial revolution, where birth rates remain high, but death rates begin to fall rapidly due to the adoption of modern medicine. This leads to rapid population growth. This phase is also where poor countries in the Third World still find themselves now. Phase 3 is the “modern phase.” It is typical of the rich industrial nations, beginning at various times in the post-World War 2 era. In this phase, birth rates drop back into balance with the lower death rates, and population growth levels off, stabilizes, or even declines in some cases (Bates & Fratkin 2003).

The question this raises for social science, is “why?” Why do population growth rates decline so precipitously as societies industrialize or modernize, and living standards begin to improve? Various material and social changes have been suggested as possible factors, and in combination, may explain the transition. These include:

1. The adoption of fossil fuel technologies in the industrial revolution. This change leads to rapid increases in labor productivity, especially beginning with the switch from coal to oil as the primary fuel beginning in the late 1800s. One of the main reasons that living standards for the majority finally began to rise (since they didn’t in the early industrial revolution), may be that tapping into vast reserves of stored energy dramatically increased labor efficiency. In other words, the amount of productive work which could be done by each worker in a given amount of time increased dramatically, and expanded the productive potential of industry.

2. The invention of safe and affordable means of contraception which could effectively reduce human fertility. While condoms used to prevent the spread of sexual transmitted diseases were invented earlier, it was only the vulcanization process, invented in 1843, which allowed for the mass production of rubber condoms which effectively prevented pregnancy.

The mere availability of contraceptives does not explain why people chose to use them, however, but two further factors may.

3. The changing nature of work in industrial society. Most importantly, the family ceases to be the location of any kind of productive activity in industrial society. Rather than being largely self-sufficient peasants, the population is transformed into laborers and consumers. Work comes to be something that is done at the office, the factory or the store, away from the domestic sphere. The population also becomes increasingly urban and less rural. As a consequence, especially with the introduction of child labour laws, which prevented children from being exploited for factory work, and compulsory education statutes, children increasingly became an economic liability in an industrial economy. In other words, raising a large family becomes increasingly expensive. This was not the case when society was largely agricultural, when children were in fact an economic asset, because they could contribute to household production.

4. The changing status of women also provides a further motivation for smaller families. First, it implies that women tend to spend more time getting an education, and to delay marriage and child birth until a latter age. Second, women working outside the home again makes raising large families more difficult.

Thus, the contraceptive revolution provides the means for reducing population growth, while the changing nature of work in industrial society, and the changing status of women, both provide motivations for smaller families. This is because raising large numbers of children becomes increasingly costly and, with women working outside of the home, increasingly difficult. Hence families tend to become smaller

This also explains the general rise of living standards which is typical of modern industrial societies. Basically, industrialism tapped an enormous fresh supply of energy, which could produce more per capita, at the same time that it was able to apportion the bonanza among a population that was increasing far below its reproductive potential. In other words, more resources were being shared by less people (at least in the rich, industrial nations). Smaller families with two incomes also have a larger disposable income per person.

The reality of the demographic transition in the rich, industrial nations has often lead population researchers to suggest that the modernization of Third World economies will also lead to the demographic transition in that context.

The problem with this line of reasoning, from an ecological perspective, is that the world is already pressing up against the limits of sustainability in terms of both population and consumption levels. Thus, given the fact of limited resources, it is unlikely that the entire world can ever be brought up to an equivalent standard of living to that of the Western world. This is because the rich countries already consume a disproportionate share of global resources.

Yet if that is the case, it is unlikely that the factors which appear to have been associated with the demographic transition in the industrial nations will ever be reproducible globally. In that case, continued population growth is likely to be controlled through starvation and deprivation, as it always has been in the past.

References cited, additional readings:

Daniel G. Bates & Elliot M. Fratkin (2003) Cultural Anthropology, Pearson Education Inc.

John Bodley (2001) Anthropology and Contemporary Human Problems, Mayfield Publishing Company.

Richard H. Robbins (2005) Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, Pearson Education Inc.