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The aftermath of the demographic transition in the developed world

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The Demographic Transition refers to a period in European history characterized by important changes in both fertility and mortality. This period of change dates from the nineteenth century though there is some disagreement as to its end. Some experts consider that the Baby Boom of the mid-twentieth century terminated the process of fertility decline, while others consider that many of the long-term effects of the demographic transition are still very much at work as we move into the realm of rapidly aging societies. The Demographic Transition led to a series of social and economic changes that are component parts of modernization processes in the societies affected. The extent to which these beneficial effects will spread to the developing world that is currently in the midst of its own demographic transition remains to be seen, but should be considered a distinct possibility.

An important aspect of the Demographic Transition was that childhood mortality declined to very low levels, thus losing its ability to constrain people’s reproductive choices. While in the past the number of surviving children was often quite different from the number of children ever born, achieving a desired number of children often meant having large numbers of childbirths. In this way, high mortality families tended to be high fertility families, and low mortality ones were low fertility ones. Once mortality reached very low levels, it became irrelevant for reproductive choices. From a wider viewpoint, this meant that overall demographic systems were no longer tethered to prevailing mortality as they had been in the past. This key change was followed shortly thereafter by two other changes that completely turned the tables on traditional demographic stability. In the decade of the 1960s, artificial synthetic contraception became widespread and a veritable cultural revolution that marked the end of many traditional values.

The implication of these changes is that we no longer really understand the way demographic systems function because none of the tradition constraints on behavior are any longer in place. The fact that after the 1960s everywhere in the developed world extremely low fertility has been the norm leading to extremely rapid aging and increasing difficulties in sustaining all types of welfare systems based on intergenerational transfers of goods and services underscores the importance of this issue. During the same period, the internal disparities in reproductive in the developed world have never seemed larger, with some countries showing near-replacement fertility while others showing extremely low levels, often as low as 25-35% below replacement. What has happened?

Most answers to this question are based exclusively on very recent data taken from the period of extremely low fertility and may lead to conclusions that are not sensitive to the historical realities involved. The author proposes an alternate way of looking at fertility behavior in the developed world and reaches the conclusion that over the past 50-60 year there are some areas in Europe with relatively low fertility with relatively high fertility. In other words, significant reproductive disparities have been a part of the landscape of the developed world for a long time. These surprising results suggest that there must be other long-term factors at work that help explain reproductive disparities that have held for at least the past half century and perhaps far more. A tentative framework for understanding these differences based on social, political, cultural and economic typologies of countries in the developed world is proposed and discussed.

This talk is part of the Economic and Social History Seminars series.

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