Second Demographic Transition

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The French characterization of the onset of the decline in marital fertility late in the eighteenth century as a révolution démographique, found no international favor. Instead, the process became known as the "demographic transition." The implication was that populations were passing through a period of change from one demographic regime to another. More particularly, a regime marked by a combination of high mortality and compensatory high fertility would be replaced by a regime in which the combination of low levels of both mortality and fertility would ensure a new and stable equilibrium. Rapid population growth would be a transitional phenomenon. Thus, if fertility had indeed declined to replacement level, there would then have been little interest in post-transitional fertility trends. These trends would have been in line with the underlying concept.

Negative Population Growth

But things did not turn out that way. Advanced industrial societies face a new imbalance between the components of natural population growth. Fertility has declined well below replacement level. Life expectancies at advanced ages have risen substantially. The combination of the two leads to a rapidly aging population. Negative rates of natural population growth are already observed in numerous countries. National projections show that this phenomenon will spread. There are no indications this state of affairs is temporary; hence the conclusion that a second demographic transition is in progress.

The justification for that term lies in the crucial difference between the situation in the early twenty-first century and that of the late-eighteenth century. Then, the decline in mortality upset the balance and led to an adjustment in fertility behavior. Now it is the second natural population growth factor–fertility–that apparently makes reaching and maintaining a long-term population balance an unattainable objective. The fundamental changes in fertility and family formation in industrialized societies after the mid-1960s were revolutionary–completely unexpected and occurring with astonishing simultaneity. Continuation of unprecedented low levels of fertility is bound to generate a further adjustment in demographic regime.

The third determinant of population growth, international migration, is the obvious variable to provide compensation. Indeed, the term "replacement migration" has been coined to draw attention to that role. More importantly, positive rates of net migration already characterize advanced industrial societies.


Demographic Transition and Migration

Figure 1 illustrates graphically how the first transition may have evolved to become the second. The graph has some novel features. While most demographers are aware that in many industrializing countries emigration helped to reduce the pressure on resources during the period of rapid population growth, the classical picture of the demographic transition usually only displays the changes in the birth rate, death rate, and rate of natural population growth. The model of the first transition presented here rectifies that omission; net migration is included. The model of the second transition is, of course, largely prospective. The underlying assumptions are, however, straightforward and well founded in empirical data.

Aging will cause the death rate to rise; it will exceed the birth rate due both to the comparatively small number of women in the reproductive age groups and a completed family size that, owing to competing aspirations, typically will not reach replacement level. Immigrants, first attracted as guest workers well before population growth rates turned negative, are bound to find their way to more developed regions for many years to come. The assumption is that the inflow remains under some sort of control. Nevertheless, the influx of migrants, whether arriving as refugees, tourists overstaying their visas, asylum seekers, undocumented migrants brought in through trafficking, seasonal laborers, or economic migrants allowed entry under an official scheme, will be a crucial factor in the future growth and population structure of advanced industrial societies.

Changes in Values and the Second Demographic Transition

The suggestion that after the mid-1960s the industrialized countries of Western Europe had entered a new stage in their demographic history was first made by Ron Lesthaeghe and Dirk J. van de Kaa in a Dutch sociological journal in 1986. In selecting the term second demographic transition for it, they were clearly influenced by Philippe Ariès's 1980 conference paper entitled "Two Successive Motivations for the Declining of the Birth Rate in the West." In that paper Ariès argued that the decline in the birth rate that began at the end of the eighteenth century "was unleashed by an enormous sentimental and financial investment in the child." The current decrease was "on the contrary, provoked by exactly the opposite attitude. The days of the child-king are over. The under-forty generation is leading us into a new epoch, one in which the child, to say the least, occupies a smaller place" [emphasis added]. In their paper Lesthaeghe and van de Kaa extended the change to one from a "bourgeois family model" to an "individualistic family model" affecting not only childbirth but the whole process of family formation and dissolution. There the discussion rested for a while. van de Kaa attemped to broaden the concept to include mortality and migration in papers published in 1988 and 1999.

There can be no doubt that just as occurred during the first transition, the new shifts in demographic patterns result from the interplay of structural, cultural, and technological factors during a complex process of social change. The welfare state ensures citizens an income and protects them from the vagaries of life. New, highly efficient contraception has been introduced; frequently restrictions on abortion and sterilization have been lifted. Significant changes in value systems have been documented. These ideational transformations accentuate individual autonomy, involve the rejection of all forms of institutional controls and authority, and show a rise of expressive values connected with self-fulfillment, according to Lesthaeghe and Johan Surkyn. Thus, they strongly emphasize so-called "postmaterialist" values.

For a while it appeared as if the new transition process would remain limited to Northern and Western Europe. Data for the 1990s show, however, that Southern and Eastern Europe are increasingly affected. Lesthaeghe and Surkyn feel that even "economic recovery in Eastern Europe is not likely to alter the demographic trend in a fundamental way."

Understanding the Second Demographic Transition

Proving the existence of sequences and generalizations in the first transition has not been very easy. John Cleland concluded after surveying half a century of research: "Too many mediating factors obscure any mechanical dose-response relationship between the probabilities of survival and fertility trends." Researching the second transition will be equally difficult. The increase in life expectancy at advanced ages may, perhaps, be interpreted as the lagged response to greater individual efforts to prevent disease, presumably fueled by the same value changes that generated the shifts in fertility behavior and family formation. The relationship with international migration is, no doubt, much more indirect. A number of theoretical postulates and considerations may apply. However, changes in population growth rates, in age structure, and in the composition of the labor force of advanced industrial societies, are of crucial importance in explaining the onset and continuation of inflows.

See also: Aging of Population; Ariès, Philippe; Demographic Transition; Fertility, Below-Replacement.


Ariès, Philippe. 1980. "Two Successive Motivations for the Declining Birth Rate in the West." Population and Development Review 6(4): 645–650.

Cleland, John. 2001. "The Effects of Improved Survival on Fertility: A Reassessment." In Global Fertility Transition, Suppl. to Vol. 27: Population and Development Review, ed. Rodolfo A. Bulatao and John. B. Casterline. New York: The Population Council.

Lesthaeghe, Ron, and Dominique Meekers. 1986. "Value Changes and the Dimensions of Familism in the European Community." European Journal of Population 2: 225–268.

Lesthaeghe, Ron, and Johan Surkyn. 2002. "New Forms of Household Formation in Central and Eastern Europe: Are They Related to Newly Emerging Value Orientations?" IPD-WP 2002-2, Brussels.

Lesthaeghe, Ron, and Dirk J. van de Kaa. 1986. "Twee demografische transities?" In Bevolking: Groei en Krimp, eds. Dirk J. van de Kaa and Ron Lesthaeghe. Deventer, Netherlands: Van Loghum Slaterus.

——. 1994. "The Second Demographic Transition Revisited: Theories and Expectations." In Population and Family in the Low Countries 1993 Amsterdam: Lisse, Zwets and Zeitlinger.

——. 1999. "Europe and Its Population: The Long View." In European Populations: Unity in Diversity, ed. Dirk J. van de Kaa, Henri Leridon, Guiseppe Gesano and Marek Okòlski. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

van de Kaa, Dirk J. 1987. "Europe's Second Demographic Transition." Population Bulletin (42) 1.

Dirk J. van de Kaa