Could demographic change drive values change?

Summary: values change is often argued to push fertility rates down. But what about the reverse? That is, low fertility rates could drive values change. Fertility rates could recover in a generation if (for instance) more religious or conservative people have larger families, and their children go on to have larger families as well. But this would have implications for what we might think of as liberal, progressive values.

Some demographers have argued that people in North America, Europe, and East Asia are having fewer children because value systems have changed (for instance, people prize career and independence over family; some articles that argue this are Atoh 2001, Goldstein et al. 2003, McDonald 2000, 2006). This can be explained either purely through cultural change, or with reference to changing incentives. For instance, it’s plausible that having large families in some societies today invites stigma—that’s an example of cultural change. On the other hand, the fact that divorce has become more widespread and acceptable means that women want to ensure financial stability in case of a breakdown in the marriage, which in turn encourages them to stay in the workforce and discourages them from taking breaks to have children—that’s changing incentives. These two sorts of explanations are not mutually exclusive. But what they have in common is that a demographic outcome is a result of changing views on the good life.

And the result? According to Goldstein et al. (2009), in 2002 about 700–900 million people lived in areas with total fertility rates below 1.3 (that is, based on birth rates that year, women would have 1.3 children on average), including many countries in Europe, most of developed East Asia, as well as anywhere between 6–12 provinces in China.

But how about looking at things in reverse? What I mean is, could changing family structures have an impact on value systems? Last Saturday the New York Times carried an article about the disappearance of the liberal Jewish voter bloc—60% of Jewish children in the NYC area live in Orthodox Jewish homes, which means that in a generation they will form a large voting bloc. In that piece, Samuel Heilman argues that as Orthodox Jews gain political influence, they will clash with “American values” (by which he seems to mean liberal-secular values).

Just a clarification before we go further, though: the two directions of causality are not quite symmetrical. Demographers who think that values change causes a decline in fertility rates are usually looking at the level of the individual, because fertility is most convincingly explained in terms of individual women’s decisions to have children or not. Communities only have children in the sense that individuals have children. But the reverse hypothesis, that changing fertility rates causes a shift in values, is an aggregate-level phenomenon. I’m not suggesting that as society-wide fertility levels decline, individuals somehow become more conservative. Rather, I’m observing that if value change does reduce fertility, then those individuals least affected by value change would reduce their fertility the least. This means that traditionalists (loosely defined as “individuals least affected by value change”) will have the most children. In turn, this makes it likely that one generation on, traditionalists will form a larger proportion of the population than today, and vice versa for liberals.

This depends on two things, then. First, traditionalists have more children than liberals. Second, values heritability: children believe the same things and follow the same lifestyle their parents did.

The first point seems obvious. On a societal level, fertility rates declined as traditional values receded. Ingelhart and Welzel (2005, 109) find that fertility rates are strongly correlated with an index of “traditional/secular-rational” values taken from the World Values Survey (r = 0.75). Traditional societies have more children than secular societies. But is this true within societies as well—that is, do traditional families have more children than liberal families in the same society? If it isn’t, then other factors (like economic incentives or government policy) rather than culture might explain the cross-national differences in fertility rates.

As it happens, there are some relevant studies. For instance in Spain, practicing Catholics had higher birth rates than non-practicing Catholics, while conservative Protestants and Muslims had the highest (Adsera 2006). Heineck (n.d.) finds a similar result for Austria. In the US, women who considered religion important to their lives were 1.29 times more likely to have two or more children than those who felt religion was unimportant—after taking out the effects of particular religious affiliation, age, marital status, education, income, and whether they lived in an urban area (Frejka and Westoff 2006). So it seems to be true even within societies that more traditional families are larger than more secular ones.

Of course, there’s a problem here: “traditional” means very different things in different parts of the world. It has been argued that “the teachings of all major faiths are pronatalist” (Kaufmann 2009) but this might not necessarily be true of non-Abrahamic belief systems. And once we leave Europe and its offshoots, “traditional” has less connection with faith than it does with things like ethnic or tribal value systems or clan loyalty. There are cultural models of fertility floating out there which say that a decline in birth rates is completely compatible with traditional Chinese Confucian (Greenhalgh 1988) or Korean family-honour (Kwon 1993) culture, given changes in the economic incentives around children. So the first point has to be qualified slightly: the demographics of fertility decline means that whichever groups have the most pro-children beliefs will increase their number. (That last sentence was a tautology, but I will note that belief systems that are pronatalist may have a lot of other features as well—the afterlife, a commandment to proselytise, commitment to marry and raise children within the faith, and so on.)

To what extent is the second idea true—that is, do parents’ beliefs influence those of their children? Typically, studies of heritability pin down traits to a combination of genetics, environment, and some unexplained variation (Loewen et al. 2013)—aka nature plus nurture. We know that intelligence is heritable (though some doubt has recently been introduced, on the basis that there are feedback loops between intelligence and other factors like socioeconomic status). Religiosity also appears to be heritable (Bouchard and McGue 2003). There is even some evidence that politics (as measured by survey questions about political issues) is passed down, either through socialisation by parents during childhood, or more indirectly through background conditions like socioeconomic status. Twin studies (which compare identical and fraternal twins) have found some ‘genetic’ influence on politics (Alford, Funk and Hibbing 2005, Settle, Dawes and Fowler 2009, Oskarsson et al. n.d.). The Swedish study by Oskarsson et al. attributes this ‘genetic’ influence to personality types, which seems plausible. How big is the effect? The political studies usually centre around a figure of 50%, give or take, while religiosity studies find that at least a quarter of population variability is genetic.

Some strong caveats must be noted. First of all, the religion and politics studies cited above referred to religiosity and strength of political affiliation respectively. The specific denomination or political party was not found to be heritable. Nevertheless, this suggests that more strongly religious families will have more strongly religious children (while saying nothing about the religion they adhere to). Second, the twin study methodology has been criticised for relying on a lot of assumptions (Loewen et al. 2013 give a very good discussion about how the results would be biased—upwards or downwards—depending on which assumptions fail). Third, as far as I can tell, these studies have been conducted in Western contexts, with no attention paid to religiosity among Hindus, Buddhists, or Taoists. This is almost certainly due to lack of data, but it raises questions—for instance, what do conservative Buddhists believe, and how would that play out in politics?

All that said, I should emphasise that heritability comprises genetic and environmental factors—which means that the genetics puts a floor on the extent to which parents make children like themselves. If parental socialisation is effective at all—that means, if parents are successful at making their children into kid versions of themselves—environment adds an extra component. Put simply, all of the preceding ideas come up to this: if

  • Religious parents have religious children, and
  • Secular parents have secular children, but
  • Religious parents have more children than secular parents, this implies
  • As a generation, the children will be more religious than the parents.

Likewise for any pro-natal/non-pro-natal split.

The extent to which this is a good or bad thing is difficult to say. As I pointed out earlier, not all religions or traditional belief systems are pronatalist. Nevertheless, it’s not much of a stretch to forecast the decline of non-pro-natal belief systems and increased religious conflict—basically, an inversion of the Inglehart-Welzel (2005) thesis that with the onward march of time comes increasing secularisation and a secure liberal-democratic future. Kaufmann (2010) goes further, arguing that religious fundamentalists will form political coalitions on social issues like abortion, women’s and gay rights, and immigration reform—fighting and ultimately winning the culture wars. This is not limited to religion; nationalism could work similarly (I’m betting that pronatalist tendencies may show up among Sinhalese and Bamar majorities in Sri Lanka and Myanmar respectively). This is all worrying news for secular liberal values.

But there is one noteworthy feature of the demographic endgame being played out in Europe. Though the old continent has been derided by religious figures and theologians as committing “demographic suicide” (Frejka and Westoff 2006), it’s actually the relatively more secular countries that are experiencing a demographic resurgence (Goldstein et al. 2009). Denmark’s TFR bounced back from 1.3 to 1.8, while France’s and Britain’s are back around replacement. And although religious women are having more children than non-religious women in Scandinavia, the gap is smaller than elsewhere (Frejka and Westoff 2006). Surkyn and Lesthaeghe (2004) use the 1999-2000 European Values Surveys to give us an insight into the kind of values they might stress: cohabitating people with children tend to be more egalitarian in their partnerships, are anti-authoritarian, prize individual autonomy, and are tolerant of minorities and non-conformists. And, apparently, though egalitarian Finnish women want children the least, their correspondingly egalitarian husbands and (male) partners want them the most (Miettinen, Basten and Rotkirch, 2011)—this brings a gendered component to the discussion on which there is little evidence elsewhere. This suggests that what have been characterised as secular-rational values could be compatible with a relatively high birth rate, and are not necessarily a sign of a society that has lost its will to live.

The idea that demographic change could also change societal and political values at the aggregate level is not new: Democrats in the US are hoping for Texas to turn blue, while Kaufmann (2009, 2010) has explored what he calls “demographic radicalisation” extensively. What’s interesting would be its impact on religiously-plural Asian societies like South Korea, Singapore, and maybe even Indonesia, where a largely secular or non-observant majority is being eclipsed by an Abrahamic evangelical minority or minorities. We need further research on what is happening to values in these societies, as well as the factors that determine whether liberals have Scandinavian or liberal American Jewish birth rates.


If you’re Singaporean, I believe most of the articles should be available either directly or through National Library Board’s JSTOR access. Otherwise, leave a comment and I’ll put any missing articles in my public Dropbox folder. Of course, I can’t help with the books and book chapters =( sorry!

  • For further reading, the Frejka/Westoff article is very good
  • Kaufmann is opinionated and provocative
  • Goldstein et al. (2009) is the main source for the idea that low-fertility countries are experiencing an upswing in fertility. I think this isn’t true of East Asian countries.
  • The statistically-minded would like Surkyn and Lesthaeghe
  • Specifically on Chinese fertility patterns, Greenhalgh’s paper is detailed and very interesting, though it can be a bit dense

Adsera, Alicia. 2006. “Marital fertility and religion in Spain, 1985 and 1999.” Population Studies 60(2):205–221. https://www.princeton.edu/~adsera/rpst168451.pdf.

Alford, John, Carolyn Funk and John R. Hibbing. 2005. “Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?” American Political Science Review 99(2):153–167. https://www.apsanet.org/imgtest/geneticsapsr0505.pdf

Atoh, Makoto. 2001. “Very Low Fertility in Japan and Value Change Hypotheses.” Review of Population and Social Policy 10:1–21.

Bouchard, Thomas J. Jr. and Matt McGue. 2003. “Genetic and environmental influences on human psychological differences.” Journal of Neurobiology 54(1):4–45. http://moemesto.ru/rorschach_club/file/6314265/182%20bouchard%202003.pdf

Frejka, Tomas and Charles F. Westoff. 2006. “Religion, Religiousness and Fertility in the US and in Europe.” Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Working Paper 2006-013. Rostock. http://www.demogr.mpg.de/papers/working/wp-2006-013.pdf.

Greenhalgh, Susan. 1988. “Fertility As Mobility: Sinic Transitions.” Population and Development Review 14 (4) (December): 629. doi:10.2307/1973627.

Goldstein, Joshua, Wolfgang Lutz, and Maria Rita Testa. 2003. “The emergence of sub-replacement family size ideals in Europe.” Population Research and Policy Review 22:479–496.

Goldstein, Joshua, Tomáš Sobotka, and Aiva Jasilioniene. 2009. “The end of ‘lowest-low’ fertility?” Population and Development Review 35(4):663–699.

Heineck, Guido. n.d. “The relationship between religion and fertility: Evidence from Austria.” Unpublished manuscript. University of Bamberg. https://www.uni-bamberg.de/fileadmin/uni/fakultaeten/sowi_professuren/vwl_sozialpolitik/Dateien/Forschung/HO-accepted.pdf

Ingelhart, Ronald and Christian Welzel. 2005. Modernization, Cultural Change and Democracy: The Human Development Sequence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kaufmann, Eric. 2009. “Demographic Radicalization? The Religiosity-Fertility Nexus and Politics.” ISA Conference Paper. New York. http://www.sneps.net/RD/uploads/1-1-Demographic%20radicalization.pdf.

———. 2010. Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century. London: Profile Books.

Kwon, Tai-Hwan. 1993. “Exploring Socio-Cultural Explanations of Fertility Transition in South Korea.” In The Revolution in Asian Fertility: Dimensions, Causes, and Implications, ed. Richard Leete and Iqbal Alam, 41–53. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Loewen, Peter J., Christopher T. Dawes, Nina Mazar, Magnus Johannesson, Philipp Koellinger, and Patrik K.E. Magnusson. 2013. “The heritability of moral standards for everyday dishonesty.” Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 93:363–366.

McDonald, Peter. 2000. “Gender Equity, Social Institutions and the Future of Fertility.” Journal of Population Research 17(1):1–16.

———. 2006. “Low Fertility and the State: The Efficacy of Policy.” Population and Development Review 32(3):485–510.

Miettinen, Anneli, Stuart Basten and Anna Rotkirch. 2011. “Gender equality and fertility intentions revisited: evidence from Finland.” Demographic Research 24:469–496. http://www.demographic-research.org/volumes/vol24/20/24-20.pdf.

Oskarsson, Sven, Jan Teorell, Chris Dawes, David Cesarini, Magnus Johannesson, James Fowler, and Patrik Magnusson. n.d. “Like parent, like child? Heritability and theories of political preference formation.” Unpublished manuscript. Uppsala University. http://www.pol.gu.se/digitalAssets/1317/1317434_political-orientations-100927.pdf

Settle, Jaime E., Christopher T. Dawes and James H. Fowler. 2009. “The Heritability of Partisan Attachment.” Political Research Quarterly 62(3):601–613. http://fowler.ucsd.edu/heritability_of_partisan_attachment.pdf.

Surkyn, Johan and Ron Lesthaeghe. 2004. “Value orientations and the second demographic transition (SDT) in Northern, Western and Southern Europe: An Update.” Demographic Research Special Collection 3:45–86. http://www.vub.ac.be/SOCO/demo/papersonline/s3-3.pdf.

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