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Populations In The Lurch

The common bonds that held us together are dissolving and this is having a huge effect on population growth and mental health.

Robert Rackley
Robert Rackley
5 min read
Populations In The Lurch
Image source: Amir Arabshahi on Unsplash

Derek Thompson wrote a newsletter edition for the Altantic about population growth collapsing in the US. The statistics he cites are alarming.

U.S. growth didn’t slowly fade away: It slipped, and slipped, and then fell off a cliff. The 2010s were already demographically stagnant; every year from 2011 to 2017, the U.S. grew by only 2 million people. In 2020, the U.S. grew by just 1.1 million. Last year, we added only 393,000 people.

I know that there are some people who won't see this as a bad thing. After all, population growth leads to competition for resources and overpopulation. The humans who exist now can't all get access to appropriate resources. People still freeze to death outside of homes that could keep them warm. Unfortunates starve while others eat until they are stuffed. Equality seems further and further away in many places.

So why do we need more people in the world and specifically in the countries in Europe and Japan and the US, where birth rates are declining and population growth through immigration is sometimes viewed with suspicion? Thompson is careful to state that he thinks that ultimately, family planning is a matter for individuals to decide, even as the macro-level consequences may be economically devastating. He doesn't shy away from elaborating on those consequences, though.

The implications of permanently slumped population growth are wide-ranging. Shrinking populations produce stagnant economies. Stagnant economies create wonky cultural knock-on effects, like a zero-sum mentality that ironically makes it harder to pursue pro-growth policies. (For example, people in slow-growth regions might be fearful of immigrants because they seem to represent a threat to scarce business opportunities, even though immigration represents these places’ best chance to grow their population and economy.) The sector-by-sector implications of declining population would also get very wonky very fast.

He calls this course we are on as leading us into a "demographic danger zone." In another piece that summarizes the problem, potential causes and predicted outcomes, Scott Lanman lays out the challenges that Japan is experiencing due to their extremely low population growth.

In Japan, employers often struggle to fill job vacancies. Spending on health care and pensions has swollen Japan’s public debt to more than twice the size of its economy. The International Monetary Fund has estimated that the country’s annual economic growth could be 1 percentage point lower for the next three decades because of Japan’s aging population. That means the country’s economy, forecast to expand 1 percent this year and next, may stagnate further.

To mix metaphors, Japan is the canary in the coal mine for other nations who are heading down this road. It's a scary prospect when the younger population cannot produce enough to support programs that take care of the elderly. Thompson mentions the situation pitting the younger generation against the older generation in his post and let us hope it doesn't come to that.

The religion connection

One surprising thing that both pieces have in common is that they both ignore the correlation between religiosity and fertility. Though not completely universal, in the majority of cases, fertility declines along with religiosity. Expectations of gender roles plays a part here, with more conservative religious expressions tending to have the greatest fertility. A study of the relationship between the two factors in 2002 takes the data that shows the correlation and examines causation.

Using data from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), we show that women who report that religion is "very important" in their everyday life have both higher fertility and higher intended fertility than those saying religion is "somewhat important" or "not important." Factors such as unwanted fertility, age at childbearing, or degree of fertility postponement seem not to contribute to religiosity differentials in fertility. This answer prompts more fundamental questions: what is the nature of this greater "religiosity"? And why do the more religious want more children? We show that those saying religion is more important have more traditional gender and family attitudes and that these attitudinal differences account for a substantial part of the fertility differential. We speculate regarding other contributing causes.

With traditional attitudes about gender declining along with religiosity, we should probably be worried about the trend. Those who would either celebrate the rise of secularism or at the very least shrug their shoulders should be informed about the overall results of the shift. Demographic changes brought about by attitudinal and lifestyle changes are poised to have destructive consequences. While Thompson may very well be correct that the choices about reproduction should be up to individuals, the aggregate of those decisions will effect everyone.

In his book, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt examines the group cohesion brought by religion, and the loosening of those ties and ends up in the same place as Thompson and Lanman. Haidt is another secular writer who sees the trend of lower birth rates, but brings different attributional causes to the table. He looks at increasingly irreligious Europe as a cautionary tale.

Societies that forgo the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on what will happen to them over several generations. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades. They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).

Haidt doesn’t lay out the outcome of fewer offspring, but it would be surprising if he anticipated anything other than what is predicted by others and reported by Thompson and Lanman. Haidt does get into more specifics about what happens in general when group cohesion dissolves in the absence of religion.

But if you are an atheist living in a looser community with a less binding moral matrix, you might have to rely somewhat more on an internal moral compass, read by the rider. That might sound appealing to rationalists, but it is also a recipe for anomie—Durkheim’s word for what happens to a society that no longer has a shared moral order.(It means, literally, “normlessness.”) We evolved to live, trade and trust within shared moral matrices. When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide, as Durkheim showed more than a hundred years ago.

Haidt uses the metaphor of the elephant and the rider to describe our intuitive and rational selves, respectively. Does the situation he outlines sound familiar? You don’t have to look far to find statistics and analysis about a growing mental health crisis and rise in suicide in the United States. What you don’t typically see is what Emile Durkheim (considered the founder of sociology) observed around the turn of the 20th century, namely that dissolving group cohesion along with the ties of religious affiliations correlate directly to the negative mental health outcomes to which we are now bearing witness.

The mainstream media, being mostly secular, tends to avoid the potential causality of these problems being the weakening institutions of religion. However, there is plenty of evidence which which to make the case that there is a relatively linear relationship between this phenomenon and a number of troubling societal trends.


Robert Rackley

Orthodox Christian, aspiring minimalist, inveterate notetaker, software dev manager and paper airplane mechanic.

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