The Forgotten Baby Bust

The Forgotten Baby Bust June 7, 2021

I have been posting about the links between demographic change and religion, of fertility and faith, and what I argue is the very strong correlation between the two. I’d just like to outline  an idea here that at first sight represents something of an exception to my argument, and it really is something that I would very much like to explore as a future project.

Here is the issue. What everyone knows is that fertility rates and large families were extremely common in the post-Word War II years, the baby boom that ended quite suddenly c.1963. That was then followed by a very sizable decline in fertility rates, a baby bust, that radically changed assumptions about family, children, fertility, sexuality, and lots of other things, and that decline is very much in progress today. See for instance that recent New York Times piece headlining Long Slide Looms for World Population, With Sweeping Ramifications. If low fertility augurs secularization, that Long Slide is a very dramatic fact for the future of all religions.

Here, then, is the fly in the demographic ointment, namely that there was an earlier baby bust between the two world wars, and it is massively and woefully understudied. Call it a Short Slide.

By way of context, at the end of the nineteenth century, most European countries still recorded total fertility rates of around 5.0, a rate equivalent to that of many African countries today. Drawing on such figures, in 1907, commentator Emil Reich extrapolated that the population of the German Empire would grow rapidly from its current level of around 60 million to reach 150 million by 1980 and possibly 200 million by the start of the 21st century. (The actual modern figure is 83 million, and the 2050 figure might be only 75 million or less). Such projections gave potent ammunition to advocates of European imperial expansion overseas as the only means to escape the Malthusian population trap. Not just in Germany, old-world demographics coupled with new-world technology to foster serious aggression. At the time this was the demographic nightmare that troubled European leaders and thinkers, but change was not far off.

The Netherlands illustrates the demographic transformation in progress. Through the nineteenth century, the country recorded a Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of around 5.0, much the same level as Italy or Germany. The Dutch figure fell steadily during the twentieth century, and for some years in the 1930s it dipped below 3.0. During the post–World War II baby boom, the figure touched 3.2, which is actually higher than we would find today in countries like India or Indonesia. But an obvious decline then set in, as the TFR halved between 1962 and 1983.

So much is familiar enough, but let’s return to that brief but significant dip in Dutch fertility rates during the late 1920s and 1930s, which was part of a larger European phenomenon. In many ways it foreshadowed the post-1960s fertility decline. Although this older phenomenon is barely known to non-specialists, it was a significant portent of later developments, and it profoundly affects how we tell the story of our modern day fertility plunge.

One key factor here was the First World War, which not only killed some ten million in combat but resulted in millions more deaths through associated hunger and diseases. At least officially, military campaigns ended in 1918, but mass violence continued for several years in parts of Europe, accompanied by revolutionary upsurges and economic chaos. Wartime slaughter had a disproportionate impact on young men, massively reducing the available supply of marriage partners for women over the following decades. The strict moral codes of the time made it difficult to contemplate women bearing children outside wedlock.

But other factors were also at work. The Netherlands, for instance, was a noncombatant in the Great War, but it still noted a fertility dip. Across Europe attitudes to gender and sexuality were in flux, following the social turbulence of the war years. At the same time, women’s demands for equality had their effects, as did greatly expanded access to education.

Contraception played a role. Quite a few modern historians write as if the post-1963 baby bust was a result of the arrival of the contraceptive Pill, as if effective contraceptives were somehow unknown before that point. But of course, they were. In 1932, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World offered a bitter satirical vision of an imaginary future world where sexuality has become totally separated from reproduction, and the very word “mother” is a monstrous obscenity, the unspeakable M-word.

Vastly greater public knowledge about contraception galvanized many different churches to crusade against what they saw as a grave social evil. In 1930 the Vatican issued a stern encyclical prohibiting artificial contraception, Casti Connubii, an act that brings to mind the better-known restatement of that doctrine in 1968, in Humanae Vitae. Hard though it might be to recall today, opposition to contraception was a major moral theme for many Protestants through the inter-war years. Many Anglicans and other Protestants were as perturbed by the rise of contraception as were Catholics, and to the degree that they felt that contraception could launch a social revolution, they were correct. Modern readers might be puzzled reading the very hostile comments of a faithful Anglican like C S Lewis on contraception, which make him sound like a reactionary modern Catholic on these matters.

For multiple reasons young people postponed setting up households and having children. The rate of population growth plummeted in the 1920s—in Europe, by about a third. For the steep fertility decline in the US between the world wars, see the important graph at this site. Then as now, the US and Europe were not as different as we often suppose.

Such a shift could not fail to have wider consequences, and it has been plausibly argued that the sudden shrinkage of new households in both Europe and North America contributed powerfully to the overall lack of demand that provoked the 1929 Crash and the ensuing Great Depression. Those events in turn further reinforced the dip in fertility, as the 1930s were a brutally unpromising environment in which to start families. In some countries—notably France—that shift for some years brought the country to sub-replacement rates, a noteworthy historical first. Very unusually the country was recording more deaths than births. Early perceptions of the demographic transition paid special attention to French conditions, as the country gave researchers a standard model for study and comparison.

In 1937, economist John Maynard Keynes attacked Malthusian ideas of overpopulation, and offered the prophetic comment that “I only wish to warn you that the chaining up of the one devil may, if we are careless, only serve to loose another still fiercer and more intractable”—that is, steep and sudden population decline. Demographic decline was alarming at a time of international tensions, when each major power needed young men for its armed forces and also wished to justify maintaining colonial empires. Apart from threatening the supply of potential cannon fodder, the demographic decline roused eugenic fears. If better-off and educated people were the ones refusing to have children, then the gene pool would increasingly be dominated by the offspring of the ignorant, of social and racial inferiors, and according to the pseudoscience of the time, that would degrade both race and nation. In the words of one eugenic-based fictional piece from mid-century, society would be overrun with the “marching morons.”

Through the 1920s and 1930s, fertility became a lively political issue in many nations. Especially in the totalitarian dictatorships of the time, governments worked to raise birth rates through various pro-family or natalist policies, offering rewards or even medals for prolific families. Hitler’s Germany offered a Mother’s Medal of different grades, depending on how many children the woman had successfully raised—all, of course, with acceptable racial credentials.

Given what we know about the 1960s, it is significant that in this earlier era too, Scandinavia led the way towards a new demographic order. In 1934, the low birth rate in democratic Sweden was the subject of an influential book on the Crisis in the Population Question, by sociologists Alva and Gunnar Myrdal. The solutions they proposed gave a new impetus to the Swedish model of social welfare and the safety net, which was widely imitated across Europe and beyond.

Although it is difficult to speculate about the “roads not taken” in history, it is notable that already in the 1930s, some European societies had briefly begun to make that critical move to the kind of low-fertility world that would reappear at the end of the century. We do not know how that trend might have developed without the catastrophic intervention of the Second World War. Although we rightly pay attention to the baby boom of the postwar years, that phenomenon should rather be seen as the product of a particular era, rather than as representing standard historical normality.

So if fertility is so closely tied to faith, why was that earlier baby bust not likewise marked by a sharp decline of Europe’s religious institutions? Religion certainly remained very strong across the Western world through the 1950s: why did it not go into full collapse around 1930? I will suggest one possible explanation, which involves the central role of death as a focus of religious activity, and the role of clergy at the deathbed, as much as the graveside. That role increased significantly with the strong presence of death and death rituals as a consequence of the First World War, in an era when so much time was spent building and dedicating monuments to the war dead and holding services of remembrance. Clergy of most denominations acquired a whole new function that added to their social significance and esteem. In terms of ideology and belief, an overwhelming interest in the supernatural and the afterlife is indicated by the buoyant popularity of Spiritualism and other mystical movements, which reached their apex in these years.

Is that a complete or adequate explanation of the lack of secularization at this time? No, it isn’t. But I acknowledge fully that the problem exists, and demands our attention. This is a project worth pursuing.





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