Demographic winter

Spend the evening in mixed company and you are unlikely to get through it without a discussion of global warming and a diagnosis that tracks the blame to overpopulation of the Earth. The myth of the "population bomb" dies hard and the truth that declining human birthrates are leading most of the world into a demographic winter struggles to be heard.

Now a sobering new documentary film aims to wake us up to the fact that the decline of the stable, intact family over the past four decades threatens whole societies with decline and chaos. Demographic Winter: The Decline of the Human Family, is an independent film written and directed by Rick Stout and produced by Barry McLerran with executive producer Steven Smoot. The following Q&A from the Demographic Winter website is reproduced here with permission. It gives the facts dealt with graphically in the film.


Q: What does the expression "demographic winter" mean?

A: "Demographic winter" denotes the worldwide decline in birthrates, also referred to as a "birth-dearth," and what it portends.

Demographer Philip Longman (author of The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity) observes: "The ongoing global decline in human birthrates is the single most powerful force affecting the fate of nations and the future of society in the 21st century." Worldwide, birthrates have been halved in the past 50 years. There are now 59 nations, with 44% of the world's population, with below-replacement fertility.

Sometime in this century, the world's population will begin to decline. At a certain point, the decline will become rapid. We may even reach population free-fall in our lifetimes. For some countries, population decline is already a reality. Russia is losing three-quarters-of-a-million people a year. Its population (currently 145 million) is expected to fall by one-third by 2050.

The term "nuclear winter," popularized in the 1980s, alluded to the catastrophic environmental impact of a nuclear war. The long-term consequences of demographic winter could be equally devastating.

Q: What is population stability, and why is the number 2.1 so important?

A: Population stability is the point of equilibrium at which a country's population is neither growing nor declining. In order to maintain current population, the average woman must have 2.1 children during her lifetime. Essentially, she needs to replace herself and a man. Because some children will die before reaching maturity, slightly more than two children are needed. Hence, 2.1. A birthrate of more than 2.1 equals population growth. A birthrate of less than 2.1 means long-term population decline.

Q: If birthrates are declining, why does the world's population continue to grow?

A: A car in neutral will keep moving, especially if it's going downhill, even if gas isn't being injected into the engine. Today's population growth is due to two factors: 1. higher fertility rates in the 1950s and 60s, and 2. people living longer than ever before.

The thing to remember is this: Declining birthrates will equal a declining population worldwide at some point in the next few decades. In the West (especially in Europe) population decline will become a reality much sooner.

A nation's demographic future can be seen in its current birthrate. In Europe, the number of children under 5 has declined by 36% since 1960. Worldwide, there are 6 million fewer children, 6 and under, today, than there were in 1990. If present trends continue, the United Nations estimates that by 2050 there will be 248 million fewer children in the world then there are now.

Q: Where are birthrates lowest?

A: Of the 10 countries with the lowest birthrates, 9 are in Europe. Overall, the European fertility rate is 1.3, well below replacement level (2.1). No European nation has a replacement-level birthrate. Italy's fertility rate is 1.2. Spain's is 1.1. That means in the not-too-distant future, absent massive immigration, these countries will lose half of their people in every generation. Russia's birthrate fell from 2.4 in 1990 to 1.17 today - a decline of more than 50% in less than 20 years. Each year, there are more abortions than live births in the Russian Federation.

While birthrates are also plummeting in developing nations, most still have above-replacement fertility - for the time being. The U.S. fertility rate is around 2, just about replacement level, due in part to higher immigrant birthrates. How long this will continue is anyone's guess.

Q: What are the consequences of demographic decline?

A: Economist Robert J. Samuelson wrote in a June 15, 2005 column in The Washington Post: "It's hard to be a great power if your population is shriveling." Samuelson warned: "Europe as we know it is going out of business… Western Europe's population grows dramatically grayer, projects the U.S. Census Bureau. Now about one-sixth of the population is 65 and older. By 2030, that could be one-fourth and by 2050, almost one-third."

By the mid-point of this century, 16% of the world's population will be over 65. By 2040, there will be 400 million elderly Chinese. If present low birthrates persist, the European Union estimates there will be a continent-wide shortfall of 20 million workers by 2030.

Who will operate the factories and farms in the Europe of the future? Who will develop the natural resources? Where will Russia find the soldiers to guard the frontiers of the largest nation on Earth? Who will care for a graying population? A burgeoning elderly population combined with a shrinking work force will lead to a train-wreck for state pension systems.

This only skims the surface of the way demographic decline will change the face of civilization. Even the environment will be adversely impacted. With severely strained public budgets, developed nations will no longer be willing to shoulder the costs of industrial clean-up or a reduction of CO2 emissions.

Q: What factors contribute to demographic decline?

A: A number of social trends of the post-war era have converged to create a perfect storm for Demographic Winter. Men and women are delaying marriage, making it less likely they'll have more than one or two children. Today in the West, almost one in two marriages ends in divorce. The children of divorce are less likely to marry and form families themselves. More married women are putting off having children for careers. After 35, it becomes progressively harder for women to conceive.

The news and entertainment media tell young adults that satisfaction comes from careers, romance, travel and "personal growth" - not from having children. It's rare that Hollywood even portrays large families (today, more than 2 children). The culture's message is live-for-moment and live primarily for yourself, with no sense of obligation to generations past or concern for posterity. The growth of cohabitation also has an impact. (In Scandinavia, almost as many couples are living together as married.) Cohabitation is not conducive to childbearing or childrearing.

Secularization has led to a lack of direction in the young. (In most countries, there's almost a direct correlation between weekly attendance at religious services and the birthrate.) Those who believe life has an ultimate meaning have children. Those who don't, don't.

Thus, every aspect of modernity works against family life and in favor of singleness and small families or voluntary childlessness.

Q: Can't the problem be fixed by increased immigration?

A: In a demographic sense, this is robbing Peter to pay Paul. The host country gains people, but the home country loses. The developing world, which has seen its own birthrate cut in half since 1970 (from almost 6 to barely 4), can ill afford to lose large numbers through emigration.

Mass immigration changes the national character of the host country. Immigrants tend to have a lower education level than natives. Many never learn the language of their new home or identify with its history and heritage. (Instead of being French-Algerian, they remain an Algerian who happens to be living in France.) Citizens of developed countries wonder if it's worth trading their national identity to shore up a sagging workforce.

Q: Can't demographic winter be countered by governments encouraging people to have more children?

A: This is being tried in Western Europe and Russia. It's not working. The Russian Federation pays families a bonus of 250,000 rubles (the equivalent of $9,200) for every child after the first -- in a nation where the average monthly wage is only US$330.

Couples decide to have children for all kinds of reasons - religious, emotional, cultural, etc. Money isn't one of them. Children are a life-long commitment. While governments should make childrearing easier, by lowering the tax-burden on families (out of self-interest if not fairness), cash incentives don't work.

Q: If the United States has near-replacement fertility, why should we care?

A: All of the factors that are leading Europe into the depths of Demographic Winter are present in the United States as well, including high divorce rates, the rise of cohabitation, families putting off procreation to pursue careers, an anti-family culture and voluntary childlessness. We may be a few decades behind Europe, but we're heading in the same direction.

Q: What is Demographic Winter: Decline of the Human Family?

A: It is an hour-long documentary which explores every aspect of demographic decline based on interviews with hundreds of academics, scholars, researchers, elected officials and activists from 33 countries. Produced by Barry McLerran and directed by Rick Stout, Demographic Winter brings together a number of disciplines to examine and analyze what could be the greatest threat confronting humanity in the 21st century.

To order a copy of or view a trailer for the documentary, go to


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