Demographic Transitions and the Eclipse of the Family

Demographic Transitions and the Eclipse of the Family

Many countries have experienced a demographic transition from high to low birth and death rates. The United States made this transition gradually during the 1800s and 1900s. Japan transited quickly during the mid-1900s. Pakistan is still stuck in the transition today.

But about forty years ago, European demographers described a new second demographic transition, distinct from the first, in which more births proliferate outside marriage, more unmarried couples live together, more spouses divorce, and birth rates can fall so low that populations actually start to wither away. Proponents found this second demographic transition or SDT particularly among prosperous, educated elites in European countries, but predicted that it was propagating outward across the globe like a ripple on a pond. This SDT idea generated a lot of debate—is it really happening at all? If so, does it really concentrate among elites? Is it really spreading around the world? Lots of scholars are busy with these questions, especially in Europe.

At the 2018 European Population Conference in Brussels, I proposed a new streamlined, consistent way to think about this second demographic transition. First, we should recognize that all demographic transitions can take different forms in different times and places—here a shift to later marriages but there more birth control within marriage; here more unmarried childless couples but there more single mothers. If the SDT exhibits such chameleon-like properties, though, how can we still say that it is all the “same thing?”

happy   Second, we need to realize that symptoms of the SDT—whatever form they may take—can appear among prosperous elites, like the Murphy Brown television character from the 1990s who decided that her career success meant that she could afford to be a single mother. People call this a pattern of advantage.

But SDT symptoms also can appear among disadvantaged people. The freedom to live together or have children without marriage might be just what Janis Joplin meant when she sang, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” People call this a pattern of disadvantage.

sad Both patterns—advantage and disadvantage—should be recognized as possible outcomes of a second demographic transition. This again, of course, raises the question of how we still know that it is the same underlying process. To answer these questions we must find the fundamental defining characteristic of a second demographic transition—what makes it distinct from the first transition?

Liberation of individuals from oppressive traditions, usually celebrated in relation to the SDT, always seems to free us from what we might call reproductive social order—that is, organizing our responsibilities and connections to each other on the basis of reproductive relationships. Who are your parents? Who is your partner? Who are your children? These connections, shown in the left panel of this figure, once dominated the social world, but their importance has been eclipsed during both the first and second demographic transitions. We can visualize this eclipse of reproductive social order in two phases, roughly corresponding to the first and second demographic transitions.


modelThe first demographic transition happens when nation-states, corporations, mass production, market economies, mass media and urban living sweep away the power of lineage groups that once dominated societies, from Confucian China to the kin-based patronage still clinging to power in some African countries. As this consanguine dimension of reproductive social order dissolves, birth rates fall because powerful lineages can no longer force high birth rates. The first demographic transition launches an attack on consanguine family hierarchies as the basis for social order.

When this consanguine power dissolves, the focus in family life shifts to affinal ties of marriage instead. We put new emphasis on a conjugal family system (shown in the center panel of the figure). We even reinforce the hierarchy of breadwinner dads and homemaker moms, pushing these stereotypes to “Mad Men” extremes in the wake of the first demographic transition.

But then the attack on reproductive social order pivots, and targets instead the hierarchy of the breadwinner/homemaker caricature of family life that arose out of that first demographic transition. In the second demographic transition, individual men and women (particularly women!) reject any ascribed hierarchy based on gender. They compete directly with each other for power and position within their households and in the broader economy. “Rational” decisions no longer reflect the collective interest of large lineage groups or couples, but only the direct personal interests of each individual. The result can take many forms, from unmarried cohabitation and divorce to delayed marriage and single mothers, and can appear among both elites and disadvantaged people.

Does this mean that ascribed family connections will disappear, dissolving into crowds of individuals each pursuing his/her own personal interests? Several things seem to suggest survival of at least some remnant of normative, ascribed family hierarchies (as shown in the right panel of the figure).

First, so long as we make parents spend unreimbursed time and treasure on their children, the new institutions of corporations and the state that now dominate our lives can escape paying this major cost of replacing old generations with new ones. So we are not likely to lose the hierarchy of parents and children, although it is getting harder to convince people to take on parental roles. Kinship connections also still transmit accumulated wealth across generations, sustaining and magnifying persistent inequality. Thus elite families in particular have a strong interest in holding onto formal kinship in order to enjoy inheritance.

Neither of these reasons for keeping families around, however, say anything about marriages or husbands or wives. Paradoxically, although consanguine kinship hierarchies were the first to come under attack during the first demographic transition, it may turn out that the second demographic transition will more thoroughly dissolve gender-based hierarchies. The surviving residual family system once again might be based primarily on relationships between parents and children. Imagining the shape of this future is quite an exercise in mental gymnastics!


(published as Elwood Carlson. 2019. “Reformulating Second Demographic Transition Theory” in Robert Schoen, editor. Analytical Family Demography. New York: Springer Publishers.) Watch Dr. Carlson’s presentation based on the video here.

Dr. Elwood Carlson is the Charles B. Nam Professor in Sociology of Population.

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