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Demographic Winter and Modernization by János I. Tóth

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Demographic Winter and Modernization

Abandoned ghost town with ex-Soviet buildings, Skrunda, Latvia

The demographic processes in the world today are marked by simultaneous overpopulation and underpopulation. While Africa and West Asia have seen a population explosion, the countries of Eastern Europe and East Asia struggle with dwindling populations. Unlike population growth, the problem of population decline remains little known and understood, despite the growing number of countries in the northern hemisphere—at present precisely 38—where populations are shrinking. The onset of demographic winter manifests itself in a variety of social symptoms such as lower childbirth rates, ageing, natural decrease, population decline, the depopulation of villages, labour shortages, and pension crises. The American documentary Demographic Winter (2008) compares the magnitude of the devastation to that of a nuclear winter.

Demographic winter

The ecological crisis has given rise to the broad consensus that the exponential growth of various peoples is harmful, and this has led many to conclude that the exponential decline of populations is therefore desirable. This latter view is fundamentally mistaken, because it does not follow from the former. In reality, both extreme tendencies are harmful, not to mention the fact that the population explosion of certain peoples is not compensated for by the population decline of countries experiencing a demographic winter, so their suicide simply does not make sense from the ecological point of view.

The notion of demographic winter is not just a scientific (descriptive) term, but also has a negative value content. As we accept that the decay, the atrophy, and ultimately the extinction of species and other ecological structures is morally wrong, we must also consider the same processes affecting the demographic shape of nations to be morally wrong. Since the stable population is salutary, the requisite fertility rate of two is also beneficial, and vice versa; the population explosion and the demographic winter are undesirable. That is why the societies with a fertility rate higher or lower than that are treading the wrong path.

The aforementioned three states of population resemble the principle of the golden mean, at least formally, which regards excess and deficit as equally undesirable. By the same token, the ideal is represented by a stable population between the two demographic extremes. One might as well apply the well-known formula of dialectics, taking population explosion as the thesis, demographic winter as the antithesis, and stable population as the synthesis. Such heuristic schemes may facilitate thinking about and understanding the problem, but they obviously lack the demonstrative force of conclusive evidence.

A demographic winter not affected by the impact of migration can be defined as a long-term natural decrease

The head count of a nation depends on four factors, namely births, deaths, immigration, and emigration. Let us now focus on the so-called natural population trends, and particularly on that of new births, which has significant implications for demographic policy, social philosophy, and ideology. A demographic winter not affected by the impact of migration can be defined as a long-term natural decrease. The direct cause of this is the low fertility rate, understood as fewer than 2.1 childbirths per woman on average. While the population of a country takes many generations to become completely extinct, it can be halved and decimated surprisingly quickly, as Pál Demény writes in analysing the situation of closed (i.e. migration-free) indigenous peoples in Europe with a low fertility rate of 1.37. ‘If left unchecked, such a rapid trend would reduce the population to half its original size in barely 47 years, and by 77 per cent over the span of one hundred years. In 177 years, only 77 would remain of each 1,000 of the initial population.’1 This implies that peoples with a low fertility rate will disappear as collective entities from the face of Earth relatively quickly.

The megatrends of modernization

Demographically speaking, traditional societies are characterized by two crucial trends: high mortality rates and high birth rates. As Spengler observed: ‘The abundant proliferation of primitive peoples is a natural phenomenon, which is not even thought about, still less judged as to the utility or the reverse.’2 Initially, modernization—understood as the rapid advances in industry, manufacturing, commerce, and urbanization—was confined within the framework of the traditional society. Eventually, it transgressed the existing boundaries not only of traditional agriculture but also of established social, political, and ideological structures. Modernization in this sense is known in several forms and national versions (from England to France, Italy, Germany, Russia, Japan, and Korea). Rather than being ended abruptly by the emergence of the industrial society, modernization lives on in its changes, developments or, as the case may be, may even take the wrong path. The current (primarily Western) version of modernization can be described as neoliberal, globalist, radical, and antinatalist (i.e. discouraging childbirth).

As modernization proceeds, two major demographic megatrends appear concurrently: lower mortality rates and declining natality. The former is the deliberate and publicly admitted goal of modernization, and is at once in harmony with the self-preservation drive (conatus) of humans. It is everyone’s main ambition to live in good health, security, and prosperity. This universal human demand has been satisfied by modernization in the West, with its focus on the well-being of the economy and the individual. A value system like this obviously sets great store by developing medicine and health care, ultimately leading to higher life expectancy at birth and gradually scaling back infant mortality. This, then, is the bright and intended good side of modernization.

The other important feature of modernization is the decline in the willingness to raise children or, in the language of demographers, in the total fertility rate. This trend entails fewer births, and has a negative effect on population size, mortality figures, and the rate of natural decline. The drop in fertility is not so much a goal of modernization as a collateral outcome of the type of modernization that concentrates on industry, commerce, and production in general. Even expert statisticians need to study various charts to detect this trend, the explanations for which remain far from unambiguous. In short, the impact mechanism whereby modernization exerts its influence of reining in natality is an invisible and mysterious process, all the more inscrutable because it does not manifest itself until an advanced stage, when the fertility rate has dropped below two. To complete the picture, let us add that the last decade in the history of Western modernization has seen the appearance of conscious and deliberate antinatalism, side by side with spontaneous antinatalism.

The antinatalistic influence of modernization is illustrated well by the case of the United Kingdom, where fertility dropped from a very high 6.02 children/woman in 1815 to a low 1.6 in 2020. This downward trend has been almost unbroken for the past two hundred years, but proceeded at varying speed. In fact, it was briefly reversed during the Baby Boom after the Second World War, when the fertility rate began to climb. The average rate of the decline is –0.02156 children/woman/year. In practical terms, this means that one thousand British women give birth to 22 fewer children, and one million to 22,000 fewer children each year. The trends are roughly similar elsewhere in Western Europe, with certain variations in respect of when the decline began, its speed, and current value. For instance, Germany had its apex of fertility in 1875, at 5.35, which was followed by a precipitous drop and a minor upswing after the Second World War (2,47 in 1965), and with today’s rate of 1.59 all adds up to an average decline of –0.02593. In practical terms, this means that one thousand German women give birth to 26 fewer children, and one million to 26,000 fewer children each year. (Let us for the moment ignore how these figures have been affected by the commonly known higher fertility rate among women with an immigrant background.)

There is another difference implied between these two fundamental trends, namely that people cannot be immortal, but they can certainly be childless. Human life is finite or, to put it differently, there is a positive number that marks the limit of human life expectancy, currently estimated at 120 years. It follows that the growth of life expectancy is inevitably slowing down, causing a proportionate increase in mortality rates and figures concurrently with the ageing of the population. On the other hand, theoretically any number of people can be childless, and therefore population decline knows no lower limit.

In turn, it follows that modernization leads from natural decrease or the demographic winter, through the disappearance of peoples and nations, ad absurdum, to the extinction of the population. Ultimately this means that the dark side of modernization will reap eventual triumph over its bright side. True as it may be, this dark side of modernization has not yet been recognized and addressed except by a few commentators and philosophers.


The formal causes of the demographic winter cannot be grasped except by studying the process and theory of demographic transition. The theory in question is formal because its focal point of investigation consists of the Abandoned ghost town with ex-Soviet buildings, Skrunda, Latvia quantifiable aspects of shifts in mortality and natality—in other words, of the question of ‘how’. According to the generally accepted explanation, the high rates of mortality and natality characteristic of traditional societies begin to drop as a consequence of modernization.

There are a number of theories about this demographic transition. There is the almost universal consensus that the first transition consists of four stages: it begins with the equilibrium of high mortality and natality and ends with the equilibrium of low mortality and natality.3 The second demographic transition, which is far less commonly accepted among analysts, begins with a ‘low’ equilibrium and ends in the state of natural decrease.4

The question arises whether these textbook scenarios represent universally valid models or should be seen rather as exceptions applicable to the Western world. I argue that the latter is the case.

The nations at the vanguard of modernization march toward zero fertility and natality in a spontaneous, asymptotic manner

It is readily apparent that the demographic transition is playing out in a different way among the nations of Eastern Europe and East Asia than in the West. For a better understanding of national, regional, and cultural variables, I propose to introduce the notion of analytic demographic transition. This conceptual construct is a vital fiction or thought experiment in that it provides a universally useful point of reference for correctly interpreting the nature of the demographic transition that is very real but varies from region to region. The analytic demographic transition shows us that there is but one single demographic transition, the end result of which is natural population decline—the demographic winter. In other words, the nations at the vanguard of modernization—ceteris paribus— march toward zero fertility and natality in a spontaneous, asymptotic manner.

The closest approximation of this ideal model is represented by the peoples of East Asia. The demographic transition the rich English-speaking world converges on produces an end result far more favourable than the analytic model, mostly on account of the post-war baby boom and the ongoing immigration into these countries or, to be more exact, on account of the ‘supplementary’ live births among immigrant groups. By contrast, the demographic transition in East European countries results in a situation far worse than the analytic model, predominantly due to the ongoing emigration from these countries and a slower growth of life expectancy. In this way, we must see the synthetic (real-world) demographic transition as a consequence and synthesis of analytic demographic transition plus regionally specific factors. The prosperity and affluence of the given region are a leading factor, although the issue of cultural isolation versus openness plays an important part as well. Firstly, wealth has a positive impact on life expectancy. Secondly, it encourages the immigration of young individuals of fertile age, which in turn can boost natality, and vice versa. This is why the demographic transition ultimately produces ‘positive’ equilibrium in the wealthy and open countries of the West, a moderate natural decline in the wealthy and closed societies of East Asia, and a high rate of decline in the less affluent but open countries of Eastern Europe.

The structural roots of antinatalism

While the increased life expectancy and the reduced inclination to have children constitute an empirically demonstrable megatrend, in the absence of empirical proof we can only speculate as to its causes. This is why it is particularly essential to make a sharp distinction between empirical fact and hypothetical explanation. The antinatalist megatrend among rapidly modernizing nations is an established fact, although major variation among the nations exists in terms of its duration and speed. The antinatalist megatrend goes back two hundred years in Great Britain and France, a hundred years in several other European countries, and can only be measured in decades outside Europe.

My hypothesis is that the correlation between modernization and the aforementioned trends is not simply chronological but causal in nature: specifically that lower mortality and lower natality are both caused by modernization. Of course, ‘the antinatalist impact of modernization’ is just a phrase, which I mainly use to denote the interaction between several factors, including contraception, urbanization, the antinatalist pension system, working women, the sexual revolution, the increasing costs of raising children, and so on.

The authors who have recognized the antinatalist effect of modernization—and they are surprisingly few—take much the same view as to the causes underpinning the process. Oswald Spengler argues that Western civilization, having passed its Golden Age in medieval times, entered the era of decline in the nineteenth century and is inevitably headed toward annihilation. This self-destructive trend has a lot to do with the expansion of civilization, the increasing popularity of urban lifestyles, and the attendant flagging of the inclination to raise children. As Spengler wrote a hundred years ago, ‘Children do not happen, not because children have become impossible, but principally because intelligence at the peak of intensity can no longer find any reason for their existence.’5 Gyula Fekete blamed the insufficient replenishment of the Hungarian population on communism, liberalism, and in general, all forces and individuals hostile to life,6 while Michel Houellebecq lays the failure of the French people to proliferate at the feet of liberal individualism, which he says undermines the institution of family.7 Demény cites economic interests, the slow unfolding of demographic processes, and the modern mindset which glosses over them as factors behind the decline in natality and the silence surrounding the problem.8 Since the demographic winter has been brought upon us by modernization, it is imperative that we understand the factors that have led to it, be they inevitable or accidental. The former cannot be changed, but the latter can. Therefore, identifying the substantive causes, the ‘whys’ of the demographic winter, is paramount not just for diagnostic purposes but also for therapy.

Moreover, we should not be oblivious to the spontaneous intensification of the antinatalist effects of modernization, specifically the growing popularity of single lifestyles, the criminalization of courtship (sexual harassment, ‘Me Too’), the questioning of the male–female dichotomy, and in general, the advance of ideologies hostile to the family as such. In our age, the antinatalist bent of so-called ‘progressive ideologies’ is far more influential than it was fifty or even ten years ago. This is partly because of the need of modernization to commit ever-greater forces in its ongoing effort to discourage the inclination to have children. It is much easier to persuade people, especially women, to have not three but two children than to choose a childless life instead of having just one child. Thus, modernization becomes ever more extreme as its antinatalist orientation continues to gather strength. It is a downward demographic spiral that will eventually wipe out the population of the Earth—gradually but relentlessly. Today, the process threatens the poorest and smallest nations of Europe, but tomorrow it will spread to the richer and more populous nations of the continent, and the day after tomorrow it will endanger all the modern, advanced nations in the world.

Unfortunately, the inability to stop the dwindling of human reproduction causes long-term damage that is beyond the foresight of modern societies centred on the individual, even as women working as hard as men are making a very tangible and beneficial contribution to GDP. This is one of the reasons why modernization, carried to the extreme, has failed to experience the absence of population growth as a crisis. Furthermore, the affluent Western world, arrogating the right to define the path and ideology of progress, hardly ever encounters a shortage of labour owing to the unceasing, massive influx of immigrants.

Alternatives of modernization

The West will outsource the costly replenishment of workforce as well as costly industrial operations to reproduction centres in the South

Western modernization will inevitably (albeit perhaps unwittingly) lead to ultimate ‘labour force drain’,9 the only long-term sources being Africa and West Asia—the Global South— where high fertility rates and poverty reign supreme. (With a fertility rate of over two, South America cannot be regarded as an ideal outlet, at least not by demographic argument.) In turn, mass immigration from the South creates a new global order marked by the dualism of the rich West and the poor South. The former will provide capital, scientific and technological progress, military supremacy, global administration, and global ideology, while the latter will supply mass production and the requisite amount of labour. In other words, the West will outsource the costly replenishment of workforce as well as costly industrial operations to reproduction centres in the South. Undoubtedly, this is what the brave new world would look like for the Western capitalist elite. Just as undoubtedly, the West would pay a price by having the poorer groups of its societies abdicate classic forms of community such as the people, the nation state, and the family. This solution would be dubious if only from the ecological and humanitarian point of view, given the West’s vested interest in maintaining the population explosion and poverty of the South.

For culturally insular East Asia and economically underdeveloped Eastern Europe, the Western type of modernization and its likely outcome cannot present an attractive alternative. A poor but open Eastern Europe has no place in this new dualist world order, as it is not rich enough to become truly integrated with the West, nor is it fertile or productive enough to be lumped with the South in this model.

Given the nature of the demographic winter as a social rather than natural phenomenon, the eastern peoples affected in the first round of these changes still have a chance in principle to stabilize their demographic position. Not that they will find this easy to pull off.

What is required, on the one hand, is to realize that there is no such thing as a low natural equilibrium arising spontaneously. For the rapidly modernizing North, the only demographic options are a demographic balance achieved through immigration, or a natural equilibrium driven by pronatalist family and demographic policy, or devastating depopulation. Having been modernized at a slower rate, the East still remains free to choose, but the failure to go the pronatalist way will inevitably leave it with one of the two remaining options.

Admittedly, these poor and mostly indebted states will be reluctant to embrace yet another policy for the public good. Finally, it will not benefit the better-off countries of Eastern Europe (for instance the Visegrád Four) and the nations of East Asia to devote enormous resources to provide incentives for childbirth, if in doing so they cannot find a chink in the armour of the antinatalist forces deployed for the defence of modern civilization. Spending vast sums without the prospect of transforming the social structures and value systems fashioned by global ideology at best serve to decelerate adverse processes, but willfail to yield genuine improvement.

A conservative turn

Nations experiencing the harsh reality of the demographic winter can only extricate themselves from the spiral of population ageing and depletion if they recognize their situation for what it is: a demographic emergency. Therefore, the first and most important step is to raise awareness of the demographic winter. The next step is to realize the urgent need for a new model of modernization. Despite the ever-deeper antinatalism of extreme modernization, it has become painfully obvious that there is no return to the kind of pronatalism that marked traditional society and its values.

The solution is presented by traditional (moderate) modernization, which is capable of consolidating and synthesizing various individual and social values, both modern and traditional, on both the macro and micro levels, as well as reconciling the effects of antinatalism with those of pronatalism. Again, to resort to the terminology of Hegelian dialectics, we might say that traditionalist modernity is capable of transcending neoliberal or extreme modernity by simultaneously preserving and eliminating it.

Moderate modernization takes a view of the relationship between man and woman that is fundamentally different from that embraced by radical modernization. It considers men and women as equal before the law but different in their nature, and it regards production and reproduction as equally important responsibilities, both instrumental in the survival of peoples and nations. In reproduction, the role of women takes precedence over that of men. It follows that men must shoulder more responsibilities in production than women do. We must find the values that are traditional yet modern— that is, the conservative values, structures, and institutions that will vindicate these tenets. A society that expects both sexes to perform equally in production will have no choice but to either place an undue burden on women or relinquish reproduction altogether.

As demonstrated by the United Kingdom at the dawn of the Modern Era and by Israel today, modernization of a traditional kind that balances the needs of production with those of reproduction is indeed possible, both theoretically and in practice.10 Of course, Israel is prevented by its special position and high fertility from serving as an immediate model for the nations of the East, but it can certainly stake out the general direction of changes to be made: more tradition and less modernization, more reproduction and less production, more pronatalism and less antinatalism.

Metaphorically speaking, when it comes to reproduction, traditional modernization ought to retrace its steps rather than push forward. Having said that, it is impossible to return directly to the values and ideologies of previous decades, but the East must find its own way of breaking with the Western model of modernization that has been neoliberal, globalist, and antinatalist in its fundamental nature. A conservative modernization capable of stabilizing the size of a population by maintaining a fertility rate of at least two presents the East, the South, and the biosphere itself with a better alternative than modernization of the neoliberal kind, which does not even benefit Western societies except for the narrow group of the globalist political and economic elite.

Translated by Péter Balikó Lengyel

This article was originally published in Hungarian in the 3 (2021) issue of the journal Kommentár, pp. 36–43.

János I. Tóth is a habilitated associate professor at the Department of Philosophy of the University of Szeged. His main areas of research are environmental philosophy, applied ethics, game theory, and the aspects of social philosophy in demography. He is the author of more than 150 publications and several books. He is a member of the György Málnási Bartók Doctoral School of Philosophy at Szeged University, where he has supervised four doctoral students. In 2001, he won the Békésy György Postdoctoral Fellowship. He is the Erasmus coordinator for the Department of Philosophy.


1 Pál Demény, Népességpolitika. A közjó szolgálatában (Demographic Policy: Serving the Public Good) (Budapest: KSH Népességtudományi Kutatóintézet,2016), 167.

2 Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (Oxford University Press, 1991).

3 Balázs Kapitány, ed., Demográfiai fogalomtár
(A Glossary of Demographic Terms) (Budapest: KSH Népességtudományi Kutatóintézet, 2015).

4 Ron Lesthaeghe and Dirk van de Kaa, eds, Twee demografische transities? Bevolking: groei en krimp (Second Demographic Transition? Population: Growth and Shrinkage) (Deventer: Van Loghum Slaterus, 1986), 9–24.

5 Lesthaeghe and van de Kaa, eds, Twee demografische transities?

6 Gyula Fekete, Véreim, magyar kannibálok! Vádirat
a jövő megrablásáról 
(My Kin in Blood, Hungarian Cannibals! An Indictment of Robbing the Future) (Budapest: Magvető, 1992).

7 Michel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particles (New York: Vintage, 2001).

8 Demény, Népességpolitika.

9 Béla Pokol, Európa végnapjai. A demográfiai összeroppanás következményei (Endgame for Europe: Consequences of the Demographic Collapse) (Budapest: Kairosz, 2011).

10 Dafna Maor, ‘With Fertility Rising, Israel Is Spared a Demographic Time Bomb. Our Fertility Rate Is Much Higher than Elsewhere in the Developed World, and It’s Rising’, Haaretz (29 May 2018).