The Facts of Life

» The birth rate has been steadily falling in the Western world. It reached a low point in the U. S. in 1933 and will in all probability decline again in the coming decades. What do these changes portend at home and in world affairs?



ANY thoughtful person trying to find a house, purchase clothes for the baby, or secure the services of a pediatrician is acutely aware that the war brought the nation new life as well as tragic losses. The boom in babies is visible; it needs no statistical proof. The long-run significance of the boom is another matter, and an important one both to our nation and to the entire world.

It has long been the view of most students of population that the United States and the nations of Northwestern and Central Europe are drawing toward the end of their epochs of population growth; and that, in the absence of rather profound socialeconomic change, many of these countries will experience a decline in population within a few decades. We have also held that, while Western nations are moving toward slowing growth or decline, other, newly developing areas are in stages of accelerating increase. Such shifts in the rates of population growth will considerably alter the balance of the world’s population and profoundly affect the conditions of our everyday life during the coming decades.

The wartime experience has raised sharp questions concerning the validity of these predictions. Have the facts of our birth boom risen up to contradict predictions based on decades of declining birth rates? Are we on the verge of a new epoch of growth? These questions must be examined before we can go on to survey the prospects for change in the world’s fund of human life.

The superficial case for a reversal of trend is impressive. Birth rates in the United States fell almost without interruption from the opening of the record in the early decades of the nineteenth century until 1933. At the opening of the record, the average woman living through the reproductive period bore about eight children. By 1933, the figure was just above two. In the depths of the depression the decline stopped. The rate rose substantially from 1937 to 1941 and then shot up with the war, until by 1943 it was higher than at any time since 1926. It dropped again rather sharply in both 1944 and 1945, but even in the latter year it was higher than at any time between 1929 and 1941.

With minor fluctuations, the nation’s annual baby crop increased until 1921 in spite of falling birth rates. This can happen in the same way that the returns on investments can grow in spite of falling interest rates if only the capital funds grow rapidly enough. Our capital fund of potential parents was increasing. In 1921, however, the maximum number of births was reached at a little less than 3 million. Thereafter, the number fell sharply to a low point of about 2.3 million in 1933. Then it turned again in response to both rising birth rates and increasing numbers in the childbearing ages. By 1942 the annual number of births had passed 3 million for the first time in the nation’s history, and it remained above that level through 1944. It was a little below 3 million in 1945, but still above the previous maximum of 1921.

Twelve years have passed since the birth rate reached its low point, and the number of births in each of the past four years has exceeded the previous maximum of 1921. Do these bumper crops forecast a continued upward trend and the beginning of a new epoch of population growth? If so, the earlier trend toward decline has been more easily checked than most students of the subject had supposed possible, and our analysis of the world’s position with respect to population growth will have to be reconsidered.


Before coming to such sweeping conclusions, we must examine the recent course of events more closely. In doing so, we shall draw on the work of Professor P. K. Whelpton of the Scripps Foundation for Research in Population Problems. First of all, it is clear that as a result of the depression the birth rate remained lower than would otherwise have been the case. In part the low rate was the result of postponed marriages, and in part of postponed babies by people already married. As conditions improved, marriages increased, but apparently some backlog remained until 1940, when it was whisked away. Similarly, a release of the accumulated deficit in births contributed substantially to the rise of the birth rate in the years after 1938.1 Whelpton concludes: “Much, if not all, of the slow rise in the birth rate from 1933 to 1940 was merely the result of economic recovery.”

Following 1941, marriage rates jumped rapidly, and in turn the birth rate of first children mounted. There was also a substantial increase in second births. The rate for third births increased somewhat, but in 1942 it was little above the level of 1930. The rates for births beyond the fourth have continued to decline and they are now far below the levels of 1930. Thus, the wave of births during the years 1941 through 1944 was composed predominantly of first and second children.

With respect to future trends, it should be noted that epidemics of marriage, like those of measles, are inherently self-terminating. Both measles and marriage are highly immunizing events; and beyond a point, the epidemic dies out for lack of eligible subjects. Having made an extremely heavy drawing on the future’s normal quota of eligibles, we are now coming to the end of the supply. Of course there will be a train of remarriages following a huge rise in divorces, for the war has resulted in a host of relatively light cases of matrimony. From the limited point of view of the number of births, however, this reshuffling of spouses is not very important. The avalanche of first births suggests that a large proportion of the war brides who will bear children have already had their first, and the rate of first births will inevitably drop. It is evident that only substantial increases in the higher orders of birth can prevent a sharp decline in the number of babies during the next few years.

Some rise in the rates for second and third children is probable. Hundreds of thousands of couples have started their families early, and many of them will want their second and third children rather soon. This again is a matter of having children sooner instead of later, and has slight long-run effects on the size of the population. In the next five years it is most unlikely that increases in births of the higher orders will cancel the effect of the inevitable drop in first births. The birth rate will almost certainly fall below its wartime level. Since, to a considerable extent, births during the war represent advance drawings on the future’s normal quotas, the net addition to the population resulting from the war should be substantially less in 1955 than it is at present.

To say that the war and post-war gyrations of the birth rate are likely to have a relatively small net effect on the size of the population ten years from now is not at all the same thing as saying that such swings are unimportant. As of 1945, we had introduced more than a million additional people into the population under age five. In the next ten years we may expect a trough to compensate for part of that crest. But the crest and trough will be with us for a century, moving steadily through the life span.

The crest of the wave is now being felt in the demand for goods for infants and young children; it will be felt in 1945-1950 in congested kindergartens and primary grades. By 1955-1960 it will be crowding the high schools. A few years later it will be crowding the labor markets with entering workers, filling the colleges, swelling the number of marriages, and stimulating the demand for homes. By 1970 a reflected secondary wave of births will be under way. By 1985 the number of workers over age 45 will mount sharply. Shortly after the turn of the century the wave will break on the retirement systems and pension funds of the country. Following this crest, we may expect the shallower but longer trough that reverses the problems of adaptation.


Thus far we have assumed that the recent reversal of trend in the birth rate does not presage a new epoch of growth because there is no evidence of a real increase in the size of completed families. Actually, the case is much stronger than that. It is noteworthy that the truly experienced parents, those with four or more children, were not caught up in the tide of the birth boom. They were not caught up in spite of the fact that some of the usual economic deterrents to childbearing were absent. Jobs were begging for workers, money was plentiful, and many of the things that money could buy were far from plentiful. Some of these things, such as cars, radios, clothes, and vacations, are usually thought to compete rather effectively with additional children in family calculations. It is doubtful that the coming years will yield a similar relief from the economic pressures on parents, unless specific governmental action is taken.

Another reason for predicting a further long-run decline in the birth rate lies in the pattern of fertility of the various classes of the population. (The term fertility is used to refer to reproductive performance, not reproductive capacity, which is called fecundity.) The middle and upper economic groups of the urban population have long led the national trend toward smaller families. In recent decades the fertility of the white-collar classes has been far below the level required for the replacement of the parental stocks. Indeed, in the years 1935-1940 the fertility of the urban population of every major region of the country was at levels that would eventually bring population declines of more than 25 per cent per generation of about thirty years.

In the same period the rural non-farm (mainly village) population was only slightly above the replacement level. The country as a whole remained at about the replacement level only because the rural farm population reproduced at rates that would yield an increase of more than 60 per cent per generation. The significant fact about that high rate is that it was maintained only because of the very high rates of reproduction among the poorest, most isolated, and least educated segments of the farm population — the subsistence farmers.

The poorer strata of the farm population are heavily represented in the Deep South, the Appalachian and Ozark highlands, and the Northern cutover areas. Their economic production is negligible; their reproduction is enormous by modern urban standards. Their fertility, though high, has been falling in recent decades. The war has probably given a new long-run impetus to that decline. It has drained large numbers into the cities and the armed forces. The migrants will absorb new aspirations for themselves and their children — aspirations incompatible with the large families to which they have been accustomed. They will gain new incentives to limit their families, and undoubtedly will also gain new knowledge of contraception. Probably many of them will remain in the cities, subject to the strains that cities put on large families.

Others will return to their former homes, bringing back and spreading their new attitudes and knowledge. It seems unlikely that the nation will be able indefinitely to retain this substantial segment of the population outside the main stream of its economic and cultural development, to be used as a seedbed for its future population. It seems less likely that it would want to. If, as is probable, the small-family ideal spreads rapidly in the poorer rural populations, then birth rates will decline unless there is a compensating rise in the fertility of urban populations. Such a rise would require a rather radical change in long-established patterns of behavior. Of this change there is as yet no evidence.

Another factor will tend to check population growth almost mechanically. During the next generation the large birth classes of the past decades will be swelling the ranks of the aged, for whom the risks of death will remain high until the fountain of perpetual youth is discovered. If we have peace and no catastrophes, the risks of death in each age will probably decline. In spite of that fact, the increasing age of the population will almost certainly increase the general death rate. Probably both falling birth rates and rising death rates will narrow the margin of increase.

This line of reasoning has led most students of population to think that the experience of the war years has not altered the fundamentals of the growth position, and does not invalidate the essentials of their earlier analysis. Unless there is heavy immigration or an energetic program to increase the size of families, we still expect the population to undergo a period of slowing growth. Of course the date at which the maximum population will be reached cannot be foretold, nor is it very important. The important point is that in the ordinary course of events we should expect slow growth, no growth, or some decline between the years 1970 and 2000.


During the past three centuries, and especially during the past century, the human race has grown as never before. Some appreciation of the magnit ude of this increase, and of the reasons for it, will help us to fit the demographic position of the United States into a world setting.

Until the middle of the seventeenth century there probably never had been more than one-half billion people living at the same time. The number had doubled by 1800, and since then has more than doubled again. There are now more than 2 billion people. In the same three centuries Europe’s population increased about fivefold, and populations of European extraction increased perhaps sevenfold throughout the world. A simple illustration shows how unusual such rapid increase must have been in mankind’s experience. If the actual rate of population growth in Europe during the past century had existed throughout the Christian Era, there would now be more than one person for every square yard of Europe’s land area. The modern spurt of growth is unique. Why did it come?

In broadest outlines the reasons are clear enough, although much remains to be learned of the details. Before the modern era, death rates were inevitably high. Mankind had neither the economic nor the sanitary skills to achieve low death rates. We have no reason to suppose that, prior to the middle of the seventeenth century, the average newborn child had a fifty-fifty chance of reaching his thirtieth year. With substantial improvements in agriculture, with the commercial and industrial revolutions, and, finally, with the recent unparalleled advance in medical knowledge, the situation changed completely. By the late nineteen-thirties, the life tables of all technologically advanced nations were showing even chances of surviving more than sixty years. In the experience of New Zealand and the Netherlands there was an even chance of passing seventy years.

During the last three centuries, declines in the death rate have about doubled the size of the population that is maintained by a given stream of births. The rates declined gradually for a long time, then with gathering speed that became precipitous in the present century. On the whole, death rates have dropped rather freely in response to man’s scientific and social discoveries.

The trend of fertility has differed from that of mortality, and for inherent reasons. Populations that were drained by the inevitably high death rates of the pre-modern era had to be replenished by high birth rates. Those that wore not so replenished did not survive. Hence, all populations entered the modern era with high birth rates. What is more important for the purposes of this analysis, populations entered the modern era with the social institutions that would elicit high birth rates. Marriage custom, family and community organization, and religious observance were all oriented toward providing the births required for group survival.

These institutions were deeply laid in age-long experience. They were slow to change, as were the attitudes, beliefs, and aspirations that they generated. Death rates dropped fairly rapidly in response to a changing external world, but birth rates failed to respond pending profound changes in the social institutions, beliefs, and aspirations governing the most intimate sections of man’s experience.

Eventually fertility began to decline, but the downward trend was not general in Northwestern Europe until the latter half of the nineteenth century. It began much earlier in the United States, but here the rate was moving down from the extremely high levels characteristic of a frontier society that offered parents every inducement to have very large families. Our birth rate has declined long and fast, but it is still above the birth rates of nearly all the countries in Northwestern and Central Europe.

It was in the rising urban industrial society that the older values which supported high fertility began to give way to new ones favoring the small family. In an era of expanding intellectual and economic horizons, of innovation and experiment, old sanctions began to weaken, and new wants for physical and material welfare started to emerge. In the anonymity of a mobile urban society, man’s place among his fellows began to depend less and less on the status of his parents and grandparents, and more and more on what he possessed and could do. People began to aspire to get ahead as never before, and to give their children “a better chance” than they had had.

Meanwhile the factory, the shop, and the school absorbed many former functions of the family and gave new emphasis to the importance and independence of the individual parent or child. Urban life put new economic penalties on the large family. It lifted the inherent cost of child care above that of the older agrarian society, in which children were a valuable part of the labor force. Moreover, urban life greatly expanded the range of needs that parents strove to fulfill for their children. In short, the new urban society weakened the social controls that had supported high fertility and gave rise to new sets of values centered around the welfare and opportunities of the individual child — values appropriate to the small family.

Birth rates began to decline as a result of these profound social changes, but the primary means by which the declines were brought about were the rising age at marriage and the spread of contraceptive practice. There is no evidence that a reduction of fecundity was involved, and there is good evidence that such a reduction, if it occurred, was not a factor of major consequence. At least in the early stages of the decline, the chief methods of birth control used were not new inventions. They were generally known folk methods to which the new social and economic forces brought a widespread use. These same forces also have stimulated the development of new, more effective, and more acceptable methods of contraception.

We should be making a mistake if we viewed rising age at marriage and increasing birth control as causal factors in more than a superficial sense. They were the means. The true causes of the declining birth rate lie much deeper. They are to be found in the gradual shift from a society organized around the family and its perpetuation to one oriented toward the individual, his physical and material welfare, and opportunity for his advancement. This point is worth pondering equally by persons who believe that birth rates can be promptly lowered wherever they are very high merely by disseminating contraceptive knowledge, and by persons who suppose that birth rates would rebound promptly if only contraceptive knowledge and materials were withheld from the population.

Birth rates declined gradually at first, and then with increasing speed. Even so, for a considerable time the declines did not cut growth, for they were matched by declines of the death rate. However, as the small-family ideal spread from the upper economic classes down, and from the city to the country, the tempo of decline quickened and the margin of growth was narrowed. By the end of the interwar period in Northwestern and Central Europe this margin was small indeed. In fact, fertility was below the level required for the permanent maintenance of a stationary population.

The epoch of growth was drawing to a close. It came as a by-product of the transition from the grossly inefficient replenishment of human life on the basis of high birth and death rates to its efficient replenishment on the basis of low birth and death rates. The transition brought growth because death rates responded sooner than birth rates to the changes in our way of life. Similar transitions in other parts of the world will not have the same results, for many of the conditions are different. As the analysis has suggested, however, some of the elements are inherent. We may therefore consider the world’s prospects for future population change by discussing situations of three broad types: (1) incipient decline, (2) high growth potential, and (3) transitional growth.


Populations may be classified in the stage of incipient decline if the death rate is low and fertility is near or below the level required for the permanent maintenance of stationary numbers. All the countries of Northwestern and Central Europe, except the Netherlands and Ireland, clearly belong to this group, for by the thirties fertility had fallen well below the replacement level. The United States, Australia, and New Zealand are near the border line, but are properly classified in the group, on the ground that although they were slightly above replacement, a continuation of interwar vital trends would soon carry them substantially below it.

Prior to the recent war, all these countries, except France, had more births than deaths, but for most of them there was a special and transitory reason. The maximum birth classes were still in the childbearing period. When these large groups move on to the ages of high mortality, they will be replaced in the reproductive ages by the survivors of the smaller birth classes of recent years. Then the situation implicit in the pre-war vital position will become obvious. Even if there is no change either in the risk of death or the rate of childbearing, birth rates will fall, death rates will rise, and growth will be replaced by decline. In the case of England, if the vital balance of the early thirties were to be maintained without immigration, the population would eventually decline by more than 20 per cent per generation. Sweden, and Germany and Austria before the Nazi regime were in similar positions.

The case of France is instructive. For some years before the war she had more deaths than births. Age for age, however, her fertility rates were higher than those in England. Because the French population was already old, thanks to the fact that fertility had been low for a long time, she had a natural decrease, while England retained a natural increase. France has reached the situation that England is approaching. The war and post-war experiences have lifted the death rate and reduced the birth rate in France, although the losses have been somewhat less drastic than alarmist reports have suggested. Nevertheless, it is difficult to see anything that will prevent a gradual shrinkage of population, except immigration.

By the depths of the depression, German fertility had fallen to levels that if continued would eventually bring declines of about 30 per cent per generation. The Nazi regime took strong measures. There were marriage loans canceled by births, many special favors to parents, efforts at mass persuasion, and vigorous attempts to suppress abortion. Perhaps more important, there were a sharp rise in employment and a war boom. Money was plentiful, goods were scarce, rationing systems favored babies, and motherhood was a valid excuse to refuse employment. Birth rates jumped.

It is worth noting, however, as testimony to the rigidity of the small-family pattern, that at its maximum in 1939, fertility had barely reached the level required for permanent replacement. More important still, it reached this level only because the backlog of marriages postponed in the depression was wiped out and the future’s normal quotas were drawn upon. These are non-repeating items. It seems clear that even if the war had not taken place, German fertility would have again declined below the replacement level in the absence of stronger measures than those previously taken.

Since the Russian campaign, German birth rates have dropped sharply, and they may be expected to drop still further in response to the economic paralysis of the country. Moreover, the war has killed about 3 million people, many in the midst of the reproductive period. Nor is the toll yet in. If a thorough deindustrialization of Germany were to be carried out, there would be about 1000 people dependent on agriculture for every square mile of agricultural land. This density is more than twice that in British India. It seems doubtful that such a situation will actually develop; but if it does, the population will either be kept alive by relief or new millions will be just as dead as if they were hit by bombs. In any case, at least from the point of view of population growth, Germany is through.

No one can say what the future will bring. Perhaps atomic warfare will wipe us all out. In that case, it will not matter if predictions are wrong. Nothing will matter. It is worth while speculating about events some decades from now only on the assumption of a reasonably ordered world. Under the assumption that future vital rates will represent orderly extensions of past trends, and without allowances for war losses or migration, Figure 1 shows a reasonable projection of the future population for selected areas. Even on these favorable assumptions, Northwestern and Central Europe as a whole face a declining population within a few years. Because of its war losses the region may already have passed its maximum.

In some respects, changes in the age composition of populations induced by chronically low fertility are more important than changes in size. How difficult the situation could become may be illustrated from the age distribution implicit in Sweden’s vital balance of the depression years. If that vital balance were to remain unchanged and there were no migration, Sweden would eventually have a population with more people 72 years of age than babies under one year. There would be more people between 50 and 60 years of age than in any other ten years of the life span. In a population thus constituted, it is difficult to retain a flexible and dynamic society. Fertility could not be permitted to remain at the low levels actually reached in the depression years, and since 1935, Sweden has put into effect a rather strong positive population policy.

There is no reason to bemoan either the slowing growth or the gradual aging of the population in areas of incipient decline. After all, modern Western civilization has overcome its chief demographic problems. It has for the first time in mankind’s history shown the way by which life can be maintained without the vast human suffering and waste implicit in high birth and death rates. Even in this century the decline in the peacetime death rates has saved more lives than the ghastly losses of two world wars have cost.

Moreover, persons interested in maintaining these gains in health and longevity could not wish for an indefinite prolongation of the epoch of growth. European populations in particular are already dense. Growth must stop sometime, and my opinion is that it had best stop before the sheer weight of numbers enforces a return to poverty. Even a gradual aging of the population is not an unmitigated hardship. To a considerable extent it bears testimony to our growing ability to stay alive, a fact that most of us view with pleasant anticipation even in a less than perfect world.

It is true that few people will view with pleasure the prospect of such rapid declines in the numbers of their own kind as were implicit in the reproductive performance of Northwestern and Central Europe before the war. Having led the way to attaining an efficient replacement of human life, our urban industrial civilization has yet to create the conditions in which parents will want enough children to maintain the population.

The modern nations of the West face problems of adaptation to slowing growth or decline. They no longer represent the section of mankind that is expanding most rapidly in numbers. Nor will they longer have a virtual corner on the technical skills. Other sections of the world’s population will be expanding more rapidly and, in their turn, will be seeing new vistas of material welfare, health, and power through the door of expanding technology. As never before, we shall live in a world with others. Our civilization no longer marches with unruffled feathers, the undisputed cock of the walk.


At the other extreme of the scale of population change lie the areas with high growth potentials. They include most of Africa, much of Latin America, and nearly all of Asia, and contain well over a billion people, or more than half of the world’s total. Neither growth nor decline characterizes these populations. Some are growing, some are not. Their common characteristic is that fertility is extremely high, is not declining, and is ample to yield rapid increase any time that death rates fall to moderate levels.

Some of the regions of this type, including much of Africa and South America, are rather sparsely settled, and will remain so until sanitary developments cut the toll of disease. Others, those with which we are primarily concerned, already are terrifically congested. More than 400 people are dependent on agriculture for every square mile of arable land in British India, Puerto Rico, the Philippine Islands, and Java. In the valleys of the Nile, Ganges, and Yellow rivers, there are more than 1000 people per square mile, most of whom are dependent on agriculture. Today, India alone has more people than all Europe west of the Soviet Union.

In both India and Egypt the average newborn child has less than an even chance of living twentyfive years. There is reason to believe that the situation is not substantially better in China, Siam, Burma, Indo-China, the Malay States, and the Netherlands Indies. Fertility is sufficient to replenish the population in spite of such appalling mortality. Indeed, many of the areas have growing populations. India’s population increased 50 million just between 1931 and 1941. The amounts of growth were smaller in other areas, but the rates of growth were frequently higher.

Populations that have survived thousands of years of terrific depletion by disease, internecine warfare, and famine have developed the social institutions that lead to extremely high fertility. Fertility ample to permit survival under such conditions will support growth as soon as strong government, a little modern transportation, and relatively simple public health measures cut the toll of catastrophe. Even more rapid growth is permitted when, as has been the case in the more highly developed colonial areas, irrigation is extended, new agricultural techniques arc introduced, and the region’s specialized products obtain world markets. The main result of such changes is a huge increase in the number of human beings existing in a precarious state of poverty.

The current situation in India shows how precarious this state of poverty can be. Although the drought apparently will bring a reduction of less than 20 per cent in cereal production, probably at least 5 million people will starve to death this year. If huge relief is not forthcoming from the outside world, or if civil strife and epidemic should complicate the situation, the number of deaths may rise many times above that figure. In this way the balance of life is tragically tilted when the margins of subsistence are narrow. In human wreckage lies proof of the proposition that in the long run the control of mortality without the control of fertility is impossible.

The population position of the world’s most highly developed colonial areas affords almost a laboratory demonstration of the dangers inherent in an imposed, unbalanced “progress.” The Western world has utilized the Far East and the Caribbean primarily as sources of agricultural raw materials and as markets for manufactured goods. Partly for business reasons, and partly from the highest humanitarian motives, it has imposed on these regions certain elements of its culture that control mortality. Meanwhile, it has withheld, or at least failed to foster, those aspects of its culture that, in its own experience, reduced birth rates. The social prerequisites for falling birth rates are still absent. The institutions are still those selected by their survival value to maintain high fertility. As a result the huge populations are poised for spectacular growth whenever it becomes possible to reduce mortality.

Unfortunately there are no panaceas for the situation. People who propose that public health measures and efforts to improve living conditions be held in abeyance, pending a decline in the birth rate, have misread the history of population change. Nowhere has the transition from high to low fertility been made in a welter of deepening misery. On the contrary, the transition has come in the context of improving health, rising levels of material wellbeing, growing literacy, and new freedom from old taboos.

People who think a solution can be found merely in the widespread dissemination of contraceptive knowledge are not much more realistic. The fact is that the population already has more knowledge of the means of controlling fertility than it uses. Inexpensive and more effective methods would gain some acceptance, but at present the mass of the rural peasants would remain uninterested. In my opinion, it is high time that efforts comparable to those in the field of public health be directed toward finding the most efficient means of grafting the small-family ideal on these rural cultures. Thus far, work in this direction is negligible, blocked in part by our own taboos.

Hope for the eventual reduction of birth rates, and for an ultimate end to mounting pressures of population, appears to lie in rapid and balanced modernization. Such modernization would need to include industrialization, agrarian reform, popular education, health programs, active efforts to foster birth control, and growing political freedom. Unquestionably, these developments would speed immediate population growth, not check it. Some areas might not be able to stand the increase. Those that are relatively small could achieve temporary relief by migration; but for huge populations, such as those of India and China, no realistic solution lies in that direction. The tragic fact is that our present information suggests no orderly solution to the problem for regions that may find it impossible to absorb substantial growth during the transitional period. In such cases it now seems that catastrophes must intervene, without, however, wiping out all the gains of social and technical adaptation.

I do not suggest that such reasoning ought to lead us to oppose relief measures when catastrophe strikes, as at present in India. To do so would be to prefer present to anticipated catastrophe. No one is entitled to place that much confidence in his predictions where human life is at stake. For all we know, we may be at the beginning of a new age of discovery in both the scientific and social fields. Today’s insoluble problems may prove less difficult than we think. My objection is not to ameliorative programs; it is to programs that are ameliorative only. I think it is time that cold head as well as warm heart be directed toward these problems.

No one can foretell the actual course of population growth in Asia. It will be primarily dictated by the death rate. In sober fact, we must expect spurts of growth to be checked by periodic catastrophes. But the trend shown in Figure 2 may prove conservative. It would be unwise to count on Asia as having less population a century from now than the whole world has today.

Mounting population in the world’s industrially undeveloped areas of dense settlement is not likely to bring their peoples either prosperity or political power in the near future. It is more likely to bring them poverty and weakness. In a world of spreading and expanding technical knowledge, however, it is not reasonable to assume that the regions will never solve their problems of population pressure. The solution should be expected, but not in a matter of decades, and not without intense periods of stress probably accompanied by revolution. Asia in the next decades presents enormous human problems, and a temptation for strong powers to fish in troubled waters. In the near future it is not likely to become a new center of world power.


The period of transitional growth is characterized by the fact that, although both the birth rate and the death rate are high, both are declining under the impact of relatively recent modernization. Since the death rate leads in the downward trend, there is a substantial margin of growth that may be expected to continue for some decades. Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, Turkey, Palestine, Argentina, Mexico, and Japan are in this stage. In the ordinary course of peaceful developments these populations may be expected to increase rapidly.

But sheer growth in numbers is perhaps not their most important characteristic. They are young, because normally each year’s birth class is larger than its predecessor. Moreover, the same processes of modernization that are cutting the birth and death rates are bringing education, technical skills, and new freedom from debilitating diseases. They are populations in which progress should come rapidly, for the way has been charted by the experience of others. Their general positions may be briefly illustrated by the cases of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

By the end of the interwar period, Eastern Europe was well advanced in the stage of transitional growth. Its position was a little less than a generation behind that of Western Europe. Birth rates were dropping very rapidly. In the normal course of events something like a generation of slowing growth appeared to lie ahead — growth in which the people of working age would be the most rapidly expanding section of the population. Prior to World War II the major demographic problem was the mounting pressure of population on the land. It has been estimated that there were at least one-third too many people dependent on agriculture to give a per capita production that was reasonable by European standards. Industrial expansion was urgently needed to absorb the surplus rural population.

Events of the war probably have reduced to a considerable extent the amount of growth to be expected. Losses have been heavy in some sections, notably in Poland, and substantial population transfers have been under way. Since there have also been losses in productive capacity, the need for new industry will remain great. Given peace, progressive government, and adequate capital, the region should be one of rising levels of living, improved health, and considerable population growth between now and 1970.

The Soviet Union is somewhat less than a generation behind Eastern Europe in population development. Both the birth rate and the death rate are very high, but both have been falling for some time. As nearly as we can estimate, on the basis of fragmentary statistical evidence, the balance of births and deaths in 1926 was one that would yield increases of over 60 per cent per generation. In the troubled years of the early thirties, the vital balance must have been sharply cut by the hasty collectivization of agriculture, rapid industrialization, and governmental provisions for abortion. There is reason to think that with the more prosperous conditions following 1936 and the reversal of the abortion policy the rate of reproduction rose again. Apparently by 1938-1939 both birth and death rates were lower than in 1926, but the vital balance had declined rather little. It still presaged rapid growth.

The actual course of future population growth in the Soviet Union will depend on many factors that cannot be foreseen. We may illustrate the basic growth capacity, however, by projecting the future population on specific, although false, assumptions. My colleagues and I have constructed such projections on assumptions that disregard war losses, migration, and boundary changes, and that imply rapid declines in both fertility and mortality rates. On these arbitrary assumptions, the population moves from about 174 million in 1940 to 251 million in 1970. But the war losses have been enormous. Probably no one, either inside or outside the Soviet Union, knows precisely how heavy they have been. We may take 20 million as a reasonably high hypothetical figure for military and excess civilian deaths and a substantial birth deficit for the war years. Even with such losses, by 1950 the population of the Soviet Union within the old boundaries should be larger than it was in 1940, and should rise to something like 222 million by 1970.

The Soviet Union has also extended its boundaries in Europe to include a total number of people that should roughly balance its war losses. Current news reports give 193 million as the present population within the new boundaries. Probably no one knows the number to the last few millions, but the figure quoted is consonant both with the present population and with the population as of 1939, the year of the last Russian census. Given a peaceful world, a 1970 population of from 240 to 250 million seems a reasonable guess for the Soviet Union within its present boundaries. This population should also be strong in the young productive and military ages. Indeed, by 1970 the Soviet Union may well have as many men between the ages of 15 and 35 as the seven next biggest countries of Europe together.

Startling as such figures may appear, I think that taken by themselves they are not of major importance. Russia has long had a huge population. It has not long had the skills to make that population effective in terms of health, wealth, or political power. The important fact is that the same forces of modernization that account for the wave of population growth are also bringing her people the necessary health and technical skill to exploit her huge resource base. It is the combination of large undeveloped resources, rising health and technical skill, and a young and growing population that is impressive. If the Soviet Union can resolve her political problems, a few decades of peace should bring recovery from her terrific material and human losses and permit her to move on to new levels of prosperity in a position of tremendous power.

Except for Japan, whose future depends primarily on economic and political dispositions still to be determined, similar though less spectacular progress should be the lot of the other areas of transitional growth during the next decades, provided always there is a peaceful world.

For us in America, and indeed for all people in the areas of incipient decline, such changes in the balance of the world’s population are obviously important. It must be emphasized, however, that just because the expanding wave of technological civilization is bringing other peoples growing numbers, health, wealth, and power, we need not view ourselves as slipping into the twilight of decline. Our strength has never rested primarily on numbers, and we, too, have ample resources and technical skills not soon to be rivaled. Given peace, we have the possibility of achieving levels of human welfare and prosperity thus far only dreamed of by the human race. But it is no longer within the limits of our power to impose an era of constructive peace on the world. Such an era can be built only in cooperation with the world’s new rising peoples.

These are the facts of life as a demographer sees them in the long view. They yield rather few direct conclusions in matters of day-to-day political policy. Instead, they form an indispensable background against which day-to-day policy must be formulated — a background of which the world’s leaders appear to have slender knowledge, and one that will be disregarded only to the peril of mankind.

  1. P. K. Whelpton. “Effect of Increased Birth Rate on Future Population,” American Journal of Public Healtk, Vol. 35, No. 4, April, 1945; and “The Effect of World War II on Fertility in the United States,” read before the American Sociological Society, March, 1946. See also the report prepared by Warren S. Thompson and P. K. Whelpton for the National Resources Planning Board, Estimates of Future Population of the United States, l9402000, Washington, U. S. Government Printing Office, August, 1943.