Demographic Predictions

Shock of Gray:

The Aging of the World’s Population and How It Pits Young against Old, Child against Parent, Worker against Boss, Company against Rival, and Nation against Nation

  • Ted C. Fishman
  • Scribner, 2010; 416 pages, $27.50

Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?

Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century

  • Eric Kaufmann
  • Profile Books (U.S. edition), 2011; 320 pages, $20.95

Is demography destiny? In the short and middle runs, not always. Yet in the long run, differences in the growth and/or contraction of different national, ethnic, and religious peoples drive great changes. Nearly 2,000 years ago, the Romans practiced abortion and contraception, allowed for easy divorce, and reared a preponderance of sons (due to female infanticide). Meanwhile, the new Christian movement—a mere handful of people in A.D. 40—strongly opposed abortion and infanticide, discouraged birth control and divorce, and attracted a high proportion of members who were women in their fertile years. Due in substantial part to their superior fertility and child-rearing practices, the Christians numbered 6 million by A.D. 325, and the empire—in effect—became theirs. In 1750, the people of Europe accounted for only 19 percent of the world’s population; by 1900, that figure had risen to 35 percent, a dramatic increase that provided the navies, armies, and settlers which by that year had brought most of the globe under European control.

Two new books predict dramatic demographic change in the twenty-first century, on a scale at least as consequential as these earlier transformations. While they agree on several broad changes, though, they paint very different portraits of what the human world will be like in 2100. For this reviewer, moreover, both volumes strike fairly close to home.

Ted C. Fishman’s Shock of Gray portrays a world getting “not just older, but old.” Part of the cause, to be sure, is plummeting birth rates in just about every corner of the globe. However, Fishman puts much more emphasis on greater longevity: more humans simply make it to the status of ripe old age. He reports that the 6.7 billion people alive today will have more than 250 billion additional years of life on earth than if they had been born with the average life expectancy of 1910. Better health, it turns out, has its own unexpected consequences.

Fishman is skillful at weaving a stream of anecdotes into a highly readable narrative. As a former trader on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, he is particularly adept at identifying not only the old-line businesses that will perish as part of this graying of the earth, but also the new jobs and business opportunities to be found in this transformation. In one richly symbolic change, for example, the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia runs a program that transforms local prostitutes into nursing home caregivers. As one official explains, these former call girls have “good people skills, aren’t easily disgusted, and have zero fear of physical contact.” (One wonders what Jay Leno would make of this story!)

Fishman’s book strikes home, literally, when he turns to a sixty-page analysis of relevant changes in Rockford, Illinois, my residence for the past thirty years (and the publishing address for this journal). Four decades ago a thriving industrial center with abundant, well-paying factory jobs and a bevy of self-made millionaires, Rockford is better known today for abandoned machine tool plants, a struggling public-school system, high unemployment, and an influx of new immigrants: Hispanic, Ukrainian, and—more exotically—Burmese. Yet, Fishman turns what first looks like “a clear picture of a largely white Midwestern American city on the wane” into a portrait of a “new retooling at the hands of the city’s new Americans,” who are finding fresh “opportunities in the stresses affecting Rockford.” Private-pay home health care, massive warehouses as an extension of international commerce, “call centers” employing older workers, and burgeoning hospitals (with well-paid nurses), Fishman argues, will mark the new economy of Rockford’s (and America’s) future in a graying world. On these matters, he may prove correct . . . at least for a time.

Eric Kaufmann’s Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? offers a far more provocative view of the human future. A “Reader in Politics” at Birkbeck College, University of London, and a self-identified secular liberal (or “a secular” in the book’s terminology), Kaufmann nonetheless boldly concludes, “Religious fundamentalists are on the course to take over the world through demography.” (He uses the old American Protestant term “fundamentalists” broadly to describe Jews, Christians, and Muslims worldwide who take their beliefs seriously enough to allow scriptural teachings on marriage and procreation to influence their behavior.) The future of the human race, he argues, lies with American Mormons, Old-Order Anabaptists, Haredi Jews, Laestadian Lutherans (of Finland), Salafi Islamists, and Quiverfull Protestants: the groups still faithful to God’s command, “Be fruitful and multiply.” With fertility rates otherwise tumbling around the globe, these groups—with total fertility rates of between 4.0 and 8.0 births per woman—are already expanding their relative share of the population. Compounded over four generations, the transition will prove staggering.

Kaufmann skillfully deconstructs the modern liberal myth that secularism is on the march and will dominate the future. Instead, he argues: “We have embarked on a particularly turbulent phase of history in which the frailty of secular liberalism will become ever more apparent.” This is an age of “ideological exhaustion,” he suggests, when liberalism has joined communism, socialism, and fascism on the scrapheap of history. None of those idea systems, he asserts, is still able to motivate self-sacrificing behavior, such as the rearing of a relatively large family. At the same time, Kaufmann explains how the liberal values of tolerance and pluralism suck the life out of “moderate” religion, while allowing fundamentalist subcultures to emerge and grow. As he summarizes, “Secularism, like DDT, wiped out much of its opposition but also gave rise to new, resistant strains of religion.”

Kaufmann gives extensive attention to several of these “Enlightenment-resistant” groups: the ultra-orthodox Haredi, who will shortly constitute the majority of all people in Israel, so displacing the low-fertility secular Jews who had founded the land; the American Mormons, who are increasing at a rate of 40 percent per decade; the “Quiverfull” evangelicals, who reject the use of birth control; and the Old-Order Amish, who have expanded from 5,000 adherents in 1900 to more than 250,000 today. While “seculars” increasingly avoid marriage and children, these faith communities have rediscovered the biblical injunction to reproduce and have “thrived in the most individualistic, profane Western societies.”

The political effects of these changes, Kaufmann predicts, will be huge. Due to differential fertility between “seculars” and “fundamentalists,” by 2100 “three quarters of America may be pro-life. Their activism will leap over the borders of the ‘Redeemer Nation’ to evangelize the world.” In the arena of Islam, secular forces (as found in modern Turkey) sow the seeds of their own demise: “Heads sharia wins, tails you lose.” And in Europe, “at a key tipping point, secular liberals will replace non-whites [e.g., immigrants] as the conservative bogeyman, with Christians and Muslims joining forces to oppose secular Europeans.” This will shift the main fault lines in European politics from ethnicity to faith. Kaufmann’s closing words should instill fear in every secular liberal heart:

It will be a century or more before the world completes its demographic transition. There is still too much smoke in the air for us to pick out the peaks and valleys of the emerging social order. This much seems certain: without [a new secular] ideology to inspire social cohesion, fundamentalism cannot be stopped. The religious shall inherit the earth.

Kaufmann’s argument also hits close to home, in two ways. First, he cites The Natural Family: A Manifesto—which I co-authored with Paul Mero—as an encouragement to “Quiverfull movement aims.” This is as intended. Second, Kaufmann points with some frequency to the World Congress of Families—which I helped launch in 1997—as the model for the surprising signs of unity now to be found among “fundamentalists” of very different faith traditions. For example, he writes: “Already, the rise of the World Congress of Families has launched a global religious right, its arms stretching across the bloody lines of the War on Terror to embrace the entire Abrahamic family.” This is, again, as intended.

Yet, I know better than anyone how fragile this process has been, how easily certain events—most notably “9/11”—derail progress and resurrect ancient animosities, and how few foundations and donors are ready to support this process. If this model is to carry the future, it clearly needs more resources and more “believers.” All the same, it is gratifying to learn that a political scientist as perceptive as Eric Kaufmann sees in this approach the harbinger of a world that is both vastly more religious . . . and familial. May it be so.

Dr. Carlson, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, is visiting distinguished professor of politics and history at Hillsdale College in Michigan.