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What is the “Future of the West?” I myself have given this question no small amount of consideration, and so it was with some interest that I picked up the latest issue of the Harvard Political Review (HPR). The inside cover started off interestingly enough, with the surprisingly blunt admission that “the West can no longer define itself based on who its citizens are,” given the demographic decline of native populations and the large increases in immigration from the Third World.
This was vastly more honest than any government announcement or analysis I’ve ever encountered, and it encouraged me to read on. Predictably, though, the analysis soon turned into the sort of foolish optimism that Western governments have so perfected when talking about their own collapse, with the editors suggesting the possibility that we might in fact be witnessing not the West’s death but its “evolution” or, even better, its “rejuvenation.”
Any analysis grounded in that little mental state known as “reality,” however, needs to come to the inevitable conclusion that the West is not witnessing a rebirth but a profoundly shocking collapse. At first blush this sounds overly dramatic. It is certainly much more pessimistic than anything featured in the HPR’s “Future of the West,” but it is the only reasonable conclusion one can reach from looking at the relevant demographics.
The Review’s coverage of demography is limited to the introduction and to an article about America’s struggles to adapt its Social Security system to meet the reality of an ageing society. America, as the article rightly notes, does not face an unmanageably difficult situation because of its high birthrate, growing economy, and massive immigration inflow.
What the article doesn’t answer, and what no other article even attempts to, is what is going to happen to Europe? Regardless of what tinkering one does to tax, education, or welfare systems, countries whose feterility rates stay well below the the replacement fertility rate cannot prosper. I think the United Nations’ World Fertility Report 2003 says it best: “In 14 developed countries, fertility was lower than 1.3 children per woman, an unprecedented low level of fertility in the recorded history of large populations.”
When confronted with such numbers—a level below 1.3 has been accurately described by some commentators as “demographic death”—many retort: “Well sure in the short term that’s unfortunate, but there are simply too many people right now. Somewhere a little way down the line it will all even out.”
This would be comforting, if only it were true.
Populations are like large boats in that they take a long time to get moving and have an incredible amount of momentum. In a country at peace and free of major famines or natural disaster, a growing population requires a very long period of sustained reductions in fertility in order to actually start shrinking.
However, once a population reaches a tipping point and actually does start to shrink, this process rapidly accelerates as the responsibility for childbearing falls on a smaller and smaller number of women who are themselves having fewer and fewer children.
While it is certainly possible to escape from the trap of accelerating population decline through a sudden increase in fertility, all evidence suggests that this simply will not happen. Outside of a very few examples, fertility has been declining in industrialized countries over the past three decades. And if history has any relevant lessons to teach us, one of the few is that populations are extremely resistant to government efforts at encouraging more births. Leaders from Augustus Caesar to Stalin have tried to implement pro-natal programs, and all have been complete failures.
The point of all this is nicely summed up in one of the few academic slogans worth remembering: Demography is destiny. If a country’s demographics are pointing towards decline, then decline it will. This decline might take time to set in and might even, for a while, be combated, but it is inexorable nonetheless. This is especially true in an age where wealth creation and economic dynamism are both so dependant on human, as opposed to physical, capital.
There are no easy theories of demographic decline, no scapegoats on which the blame can easily be placed, and no quick fixes to cheaply and easily make everything “work out.” This is why it has been ignored. Europe’s demographic implosion cuts across countries that are both post-communisst and Western European, religious and secular, small and large, economically stagnant and dynamic, and virtually any other category one sees fit to create. Like the editors of the HPR, I do not have a fully formed explanation for this, maybe because there simply isn’t one. I don’t, however, think that anything or anyone is helped by trying to reduce the enormity of the challenges facing the countries of Europe.
Within the lifetimes of current Harvard students, Europe will undergo a demographic sea change, the myriad effects of which will be as wide-ranging as they are unpredictable. History is, of course, rarely as simple as straight lines of “decline” or “rise,” but I certainly think that Europe’s situation is quite a bit more precarious than the HPR, or many Harvard students, would have it. Whether you agree with me or not, Europe’s future is worth serious thought. The Europe we know today will soon be gone.
Mark A. Adomanis ’07 is a government concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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