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Fertility and the Fate of Nations

When seeking to understand national security issues, demographics is commonly the missing dimension. The fertility of a particular population not only determines its overall numbers, but also contributes mightily to determining the balance of ethnic and linguistic groups, and a country’s chances of achieving any kind of lasting stability. Wise governments count their children. And without knowing something about demographic factors, we are going to be baffled by the behavior of some key players in the current Middle Eastern imbroglio.

A society’s population is shaped by both birth and death rates, but at present, I will focus on births, and especially on fertility. One key measure used by demographers is the total fertility rate, TFR, the total number of children that an average woman will bear during her lifetime. If that rate is around 2.1, then the population is stable, and that figure is known as the replacement rate. If it is significantly higher than replacement, say at 4.0 or 5.0, then we have a fast expanding population, a lot of young people, and probably a lot of instability. A rate below replacement points to an aging and shrinking population, and also a crying need for immigrants and new blood. From the 1960s, European countries moved to sub-replacement rates, and that situation is now spreading rapidly—though far from uniformly—around the world.

Those rates also tell us a lot about religious behavior, and there is a close if poorly understood linkage between fertility and faith [1]. Populations with very high fertility rates tend to be highly religious in very traditional ways, while “modern” and educated populations have far fewer children, and those societies are usually very secular. Over time, high fertility gives way to low, and religion declines accordingly. The poster child for that story is resolutely secular Denmark, with a TFR around 1.7, but a similar process has swept over most of modern Catholic Europe.

We can argue at length about whether the religious change follows fertility, or vice versa. Perhaps a decline in religious ideologies weakens commitment to family as a primary means of defining identity; or else declining numbers of children reduce the community ties that bind families to religious institutions. Either way, growing numbers of people define their interests against those of traditional religious values, spawning numerous conflicts over issues of morality, sexuality, and sexual identity. Ireland’s TFR, for instance, has halved since 1971, and the decline is much steeper if we just consider old stock Irish families, rather than immigrants. The same years have witnessed repeated brushfire wars over such issues as contraception, divorce, and same sex marriage.


But changes in fertility do not affect all parts of a nation equally or simultaneously, especially when different regions show very different patterns of wealth and economic development. Over time, the higher birth rates of poorer and more religious populations will gain in relative numbers, and over two or three generations, that pattern of differential growth can have far-reaching consequences. In Europe, for instance, even without the migrant boom of the past couple of years, the proportion of Muslims in Europe was certain to grow significantly.

Many Westerners still think of Global South countries in terms of classic Third World population profiles, with very high fertility and teeming masses of small children. That perception is correct for some areas, particularly in Africa, but it is radically wrong for others. In fact, many Asian and Latin American countries now look thoroughly “European” in their demographics.

India offers a startling example of this change, and its explosive political consequences. Half of that country’s component states now have sub-replacement fertility rates comparable to Denmark, or even lower. Meanwhile, some very populous states (like vast Uttar Pradesh or Bihar) retain the old Third World model. That stark schism is the essential basis for any understanding of modern Indian politics. As we might have predicted, the high fertility states are firmly and traditionally religious, and provide the base for reactionary and even fascist Hindu supremacist movements. Those currents are quite alien to the “European” low fertility states, located chiefly in the south, which tend to be secular-minded, progressive, and tolerant. Balancing those different regions would pose a nightmarish choice for any government, but the current Hindu nationalist BJP regime aligns decisively with the high fertility regions that provide its electoral bastions. The lesson is grim, but obvious: when you have to choose between two such distinct demographic regions, it is overwhelmingly tempting to turn to the one with all the voters, and all the young party militants. Invest in growth!

With some variations, that situation is closely echoed in Turkey, and understanding that parallel helps us explain the otherwise puzzling behavior of the nation’s current Islamist AKP government. Why, for Heaven’s sake, is Turkey not more concerned about the ISIS threat? Why, when its air forces go into action, do they strike at Kurdish forces, rather than ISIS? Is the government deranged?

Here is the essential demographic background: Overall, Turkey’s fertility rate is a little below replacement, but that simple fact obscures enormous regional variations. The country can be divided into four zones, stretching from west to east. The Western quarter is thoroughly European in demographic terms, with stunningly low sub-Danish fertility rates of around 1.5. The rates rise steadily as we turn east, until the upland east has very high rates resembling those of neighboring Iraq or Syria. “Europe” and the Third World thus jostle each other within one nation.

High-fertility eastern Turkey is of course much more religious than the secular west, and this is where we find the Qur’an Belt that so regularly supports Islamic and even fundamentalist causes. It simply makes electoral sense for the government to respond to the interests of that populous growing area, and to drift ever more steadily in Islamist directions.

But there is a complicating fact. Those fast-breeding eastern regions are also home to what the Turkish government euphemistically calls the “Mountain Turks,” but which everyone else on the planet calls “Kurds.” Turkey’s Kurdish minority, usually estimated at around 15-20 percent of the population, is expanding very rapidly—to the point that, within a generation or two, it will actually be a majority within the Turkish state. This nightmare prospect is front and center in the mind of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan [2], who a couple of years ago issued an apocalyptic warning of a national Kurdish majority no later than 2038. That date is a little implausibly soon, but the principle stands.

In the face of seemingly imminent demographic catastrophe, what can Turkey do? One solution is for the government to plead with citizens to start breeding again—even those western secularists—and to get the national fertility rate closer to 3 than 2. But since that outcome is highly unlikely, the government must resort to short term solutions, and to extol religious, Islamic identities over ethnicity. Ideally, a return to Islam might even provide an incentive for families to reassert traditional values, and to have more children. Alongside that policy, the government has an absolute need to suppress stirrings of Kurdish nationhood or separatism on Turkish soil.

From a demographic perspective, the Turkish government is going to find any manifestations of Kurdish identity terrifying, far more than even the hardest-edged Islamism. ISIS is an irritant; the Kurds pose an existential demographic threat.

And in large measure, that explains why Turkish jets are targeting the Kurdish PKK militias, rather than ISIS.

It’s the fertility, stupid.

Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels [3]. He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "Fertility and the Fate of Nations"

#1 Comment By df On October 29, 2015 @ 12:46 am

An extremely interesting and helpful article.

I hope you write others about the effect of demographic changes in the first world and its immigrants.

#2 Comment By bayesian On October 29, 2015 @ 1:45 am

I had no idea. Do Iranian Kurds also have a high TFR? (Iran as a whole having a European-grade TFR of around 1.8)

#3 Comment By Nelson On October 29, 2015 @ 9:20 am

It’s identity politics. We’re all human after all.

#4 Comment By TBill On October 29, 2015 @ 9:24 am

I first became sensitive to demographic issues in the mid 70’s as a teenager reading articles and watching TV reports about the Lebanese civil war . The Maronites, for all their wealth, sophistication and brilliance lost their country because they failed to reproduce.

As a father of 10 (Catholic, same wife)I’ve often been puzzled by the failure of affluent, well educated, Darwinian even, urbanites to raise families of any size.To see the bleak future is as simple as doing the same type of math one uses to compute compound interest. And yet these people work so hard and are so intelligent!

#5 Comment By Johann On October 29, 2015 @ 11:40 am

“A rate below replacement points to an aging and shrinking population, and also a crying need for immigrants and new blood.”

This is one of those conventional wisdom beliefs that we know is true because everybody says its true. Except its not. It is a good thing that Europe and parts of Asia have reversed the ever increasing population trends. Its absolutely stupid that they should then replace themselves with people that have an incompatible culture, will not assimilate, and will hurt their economy, not help it.

There are challenges with a declining population, but there are challenges with increasing populations as well. Its not true that an economy will necessarily be better with an ever-increasing population, especially if that increase is made up of immigrants. But even if it is made better, there is more to the quality of life than a constant red hot economy, and the resources needed for an ever increasing global population will eventually run out. Save the “we can increase use of renewables” response. Its all an absurd dream by pseudo scientists who don’t understand basic math and it won’t happen until and unless we can finally leave the earth, set up massive solar panels in space and beam that energy back to earth or some other such wild future thing where the math actually works.

#6 Comment By Jonathan Lester On October 29, 2015 @ 12:22 pm

So Islam isn’t enough to explain disparate birthrates, if Iranians and Turks aren’t replacing themselves any faster than their Christian counterparts in Europe, and it wasn’t so long ago when families like Tbill’s were more commonly found. Maybe there’s just something about white people that’s trending towards extinction.

#7 Comment By Mr_Mike On October 29, 2015 @ 12:59 pm

“A rate below replacement points to an aging and shrinking population, and also a crying need for immigrants and new blood.”

Does it really need immigrants,and new blood? Or, could the society just downsize, and adapt to a smaller population? Also, who is to say that the birthrate won’t start to grow again a few generations down the future road?

#8 Comment By Wick Allison On October 29, 2015 @ 1:03 pm

Fascinating. Thanks, Philip.

#9 Comment By Kirt Higdon On October 29, 2015 @ 2:09 pm

I’ve had the impression, maybe wrong, that the Kurds, especially those of Turkey and Syria, were more secular than the Turks. Is that true? If so, how high is their fertility compare to religious and secular Turks?

#10 Comment By redfish On October 29, 2015 @ 2:58 pm

The link that binds fertility and religiosity, imo, is poverty, which I don’t think the author here gives due justice to. Its mentioned really casually, but its an important link in the chain. Poverty leads to increased birth-rates, but not because of “a commitment to family” — as can be seen in the high out of wedlock pregnancies. It also helps increase religiosity because of both the difficulties of poverty and the social problems that arise out of it. The link between fertility and poverty is also what ensures the close-knit community, because lack of independence and social mobility keeps families together.

It should be pointed out that there have been many detailed analyses of what’s happening in India, and reduction of fertility has been linked to a number of factors, but most of them, arguably, have to do with economic development in some form or another. Differences between fertility rates between different populations in the US also mostly correlate to economic differences. Kurdish populations are also poor.

With that in mind, maybe the right approach for some of these worried countries isn’t in convincing the underfertile groups to become religious and have more babies; maybe the right approach is to help overfertile groups with economic development.

I’m obviously not the first to suggest this. But the argument is strangely passed over by the author.

#11 Comment By cecelia On October 29, 2015 @ 8:46 pm

the author makes some relevant points but there is a lot of myth here re: fertility rates. The notion of fertility being related to religion and an attachment to family is not supported by the research. Consider that a survey done by the EU in 2012 found that a majority of European woman want to have at least 3 kids. So what stops them? First off – a modern economy requires educated people and it is the time spent in education which delays females from having as many kids – consider if I start breeding at 19 instead of waiting to finish University and start a career and hence start breeding at 25 – I will have more children if I start at 19.

The research finds that reasons for lower fertility rates vary from country to country – there is no one size fits all explanation. In Italy the discovery was that while women are expected to work the social norms regarding men picking up some of the household and child rearing task have not caught up so women feel overwhelmed and opt out of the additional child. In some countries a lack of affordable quality day care was an issue. And of course everywhere the need for a career and a two parent working model to support a family was cited.

In general what supports replacement level fertility is a flexible work force where women can enter – exit for maternity leave and then re enter the workforce with ease. Also paid maternity leaves and support for family formation such as affordable day care, family tax credits etc.

I’d add further that we should question the belief that we need constant never ending population growth – it is clear that there are limits to the carrying capacity of this planet. Perhaps instead of encouraging cultural annihilation with massive immigration we should start thinking about alternative economic models.

#12 Comment By M_Young On October 30, 2015 @ 1:11 am

“. A rate below replacement points to an aging and shrinking population, and also a crying need for immigrants and new blood.”

Second Mr_Mike above. Actually I’ll go further — the whole idea of ‘new blood’ is silly, particularly if that blood is from people whose societies are spectacular failures.

Japan, despite all its so-called ‘demographic’ woes, remains a hugely successful society whose influence is probably stronger than it was during its economic ‘peak’ in the 1980s (think anime, manga, kawai culture). Luftansa’s CEO boasted that his company received 130,000 applications for 2000 internships. This despite Germany’s supposed lack of enough young workers.

There remain problems with the way pensions are funded — paygo systems relying on wage and salary deductions must be supplemented by taxes on capital (which has ‘earned’ an ever increasing share of the profits made possible by productivity gains). Importing Somalis or Haitians or Filipinos is not an answer — it is a disaster.

#13 Comment By Mightypeon On October 30, 2015 @ 3:44 am

For what is worth, Syrian Kurds have perhaps the highest percentage of actually believing Marxists outside of North Korea.

#14 Comment By Fred Bowman On October 30, 2015 @ 10:00 am

Israel has a similar problem with the Arab and Palestinians living in Israel proper (1948 borders) having birthrates much higher than the Jewish population. Indeed many younger Jews are leaving Israel for better opportunities elsewhere in the world. The question remains what happens when the Jews become a minority in Israel itself? It’s hard to imagine Israel being both the “Jewish homeland” and “Arab democracy” at the same time.

#15 Comment By JonF On October 30, 2015 @ 7:25 pm

Jonathan Lester,

It certainly is not just “white people.” Reread the article.

And for crying out loud “extinction” is absurd! Barring massive and unprecedented catastrophe, 100 years from now there will still be more Europeans (people with ancestral roots in Europe) there and in North America and Australia than there were when Victoria took the throne.

Re: the whole idea of ‘new blood’ is silly, particularly if that blood is from people whose societies are spectacular failures.

Once upon a time that could have been said of Europe– every last country in it. Read the history of the War of the Roses, and of the Tudors. It makes stuff happening in Africa look rather tame and dull.

#16 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 30, 2015 @ 8:54 pm

“The question remains what happens when the Jews become a minority in Israel itself?”

Absolutely nothing. The state of israel is well prepared to continue designing a political system that protects itself from Palestinian participation.

Just a couple of months ago on this site there was a discussion about the state of Israel as a Jewish state alone.

The same applies to what most nations in this part of the world engage in. And it does not matter who they are: Saudis, Jordanians, Iraqis, national identity is built into the system. When I visited France and was interested in working there, regardless anyone’s interest, language was a key component.

If i were a turk, and looking at the history the numbers would concern me based not on any political advanctage. There are a myriad ways to manage that. It would be that the populations in question are not above using terrorist tactics as part of their political dialogue and there the numbers become a significant issue when looking down the road.

#17 Comment By economista On November 2, 2015 @ 6:14 pm

Perhaps the Turkish government should be bombing the Kurds with morning-after pills and IUDs rather than with exploding ammunition. Would probably be a lot cheaper, too. Women’s education and economic development are great things, but secret birth control is way less expensive.

(Note that I don’t think this is morally right, either – but it would be an improvement over blowing people up.)

#18 Comment By Shalton On March 13, 2016 @ 5:29 pm

There is a mistake in the article.
Erdogan never said something about kurdish demography, he said that if fertility rates remain that low we will become like Germany in 2038 meaning we will have to let many immigrants in.
That the kurdish fertility rate is higher then the turkish fertility rate is bad, but the bigger problem is that the total fertility rate is about to go under 2,1.
From there it could become impossible to raise it again.