Second Demographic Transition Essay

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The first or ”classic” demographic transition refers to the historical declines in mortality and fertility, as witnessed from the eighteenth century onward in several European populations, and continuing at present in most developing countries. The end point of the first demographic transition (FDT) was supposed to be an older stationary and stable population corresponding with replacement fertility (i.e. just over 2 children on average), zero population growth, and life expectancies higher that 70 years. As there would be an ultimate balance between deaths and births, there would be no ”demographic” need for sustained immigration. Moreover, households in all parts of the world would converge toward the nuclear and conjugal types, composed of married couples and their offspring.

The second demographic transition (SDT), on the other hand, sees no such equilibrium as the end-point. Rather, new developments bring postponement of marriage and parenthood, sustained sub-replacement fertility, a multitude of living arrangements other than marriage, the disconnection between marriage and procreation, and no stationary population. Instead, populations would face declining sizes if not complemented by new migrants (i.e. ”replacement migration”), and they will also be much older than envisaged by the FDT as a result of lower fertility and additional gains in longevity. Migration streams will not be capable of stemming aging altogether, but merely stabilize population sizes. Nonetheless, the outcome is still the further growth of ”multicultural societies.” On the whole, the SDT brings new social challenges, including those associated with further aging, integration of immigrants and other cultures, less stability of house-holds, and high levels of poverty or exclusion among certain household types (e.g. single persons of all ages, lone mothers).

The idea of a distinct phase stems directly from Philippe Aries’s analysis of the history of childhood (1962) and his subsequent 1980 paper on ”Two successive motivations for low fertility.” In his view, during the FDT, the decline in fertility was ”unleashed by an enormous sentimental and financial investment in the child.” Aries refers to this as the ”Child-king era,” and the fertility transition was carried by an altruistic investment in child quality (see also Arsene Dumont’s ”Social capillarity”). This motivation is no longer the dominant one. Within the SDT, the motivation for parenthood is adult self-realization, and the choice for just one particular life style in competition with several others. The altruistic element focusing on offspring has weakened and the adult dyadic relationship has gained prominence instead.

A second stepping stone of the SDT-theory has been Abraham Maslow’s (1954) theory of changing needs, Motivation and Personality. As populations become more wealthy and more educated, the attention shifts away from needs associated with survival, security and solidarity. Instead greater weight is attached to individual self-realization, recognition, grassroots democracy and expressive work and education values. The SDT-theory is therefore closely related to Ron Inglehart’s (1990) concept of ”post-materialism” and its growing importance in political development. The direct consequence of this is also that the SDT predicts that the typical demographic outcomes (sustained sub-replacement fertility, growth of alternative living arrangements) are likely to emerge in non-western societies that equally develop in the direction of capitalist economies with multi-level democratic institutions, greater accentuation of Maslowian ”higher order needs,” and the unfolding of a plurality of life styles that is not merely associated with existing social class differences.

It should be stressed that the SDT-theory fully recognizes the effects of macro-level structural changes and of micro-level economic calculus. As such it is not at odds with the core arguments of neo-classic economic reasoning. Only, the SDT view does not consider these explanations as sufficient but merely as non-redundant. The SDT is therefore an overarching theory that spans both economic and sociological reasoning.


  1. Aries, P. (1980) Two successive motivations for the declining birth rate in the west. Population and Development Review 6 (4): 645-50.
  2. Inglehart, R. (1990) Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ.

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