Just over a month ago I was back in Ireland at the funeral of my last remaining grandparent, my paternal grandmother, who had lived to the grand age of 98. Since she was so well on in her years that the event was less a tragedy, and more a celebration of a long life that had begun before even the creation of an independent Ireland. Yes, my grandmother was older than Ireland, and many people came to pay their respects last month at her funeral, the most important of whom being her own family. She was the mother of 7 children (including my own father), a number that seems extremely large nowadays but at the time was quite normal for an agricultural Irish family. These seven children proceeded to make their own ways in life, settled down and altogether produced 20 children (including myself). This group of 20 between them (so far), they have produced 5 members for the next generation, who would be my grandmother’s great-grandchildren. Adding up all her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, there are 32 people on this Earth whose existence could be directly attributed to my late grandmother.

This is a pretty impressive number obviously, but again, in the Midlands of Ireland, it’s nothing extraordinary: people have a lot of children, and countrywomen live well into their nineties. The number of my grandmother’s descendants is impressive, but the really interesting part of it is the generational breakdown. My grandmother (with my grandfather!) had 7 children, these 7 had 20, and this 20 thus far have had 5. The average age of my generation of 20 grandchildren is just under 31, so there is still plenty of time to add to our meager return, but the extreme likelihood (unless all my cousins go on breeding missions!) is that this figure will probably end up below 30. My grandparents represent a single couple, therefore produced an average of 7 children. These seven children produced an average of about 3 children (20 divided by 7) each, but the next (/my) generation most likely will not even produce two each. That’s quite a shift in just three generations.

This breeding breakdown is the story of Ireland’s past century in the form of fertility rates. When my grandparents started their family in the 1940’s, Ireland was a much poorer country than it is now, and people had larger families, especially in farming communities, as extra family members were a way to help with the workload. The theory goes that as a country get richer and move away from agriculture (as Ireland has done over the past 30 years), fertility rates drop significantly. This can be seen starting with the increasing prosperity and declining fertility rates of my fathers generation, and even more extremely with my own generation, who seem to need some motivation. It seems counterintuitive when written down, but poor people have more children, and richer people have less. To us residents of Europe this is nothing strange, as it is a fact that has been thrown at us since high school, as the various education boards of Europe thought it prudent to instill in all of us from a young age that if Germans keep breeding as they are currently breeding, soon enough there would be no more Germans (to pay for all of our stuff). Germany currently has a fertility rate of 1.38 births per woman, which means that two Germans (a couple) contribute one German (their child) to the next generation. To keep a stable population, each couple in a country must produce 2.3 children. Germany is obviously well below this and therefore its population will halve with every generation, and become increasingly old in the meantime. The same is true all over Europe, even in Catholic Ireland, as the projected fertility of myself and my cousins was detailed above. Developed, affluent, boring countries will soon die out, so what do we do?


A perceived answer, for a decade or two now, has been that accepting young, unskilled migrants from poor countries outside Europe is the only way to ensure European population stability, and even growth. The theory is that these migrants are much poorer, will have more children than the native population, and this will increase the overall fertility rate, while at the same time the current migrants work in the country and pay into the social security system which takes care of the increasingly ageing population. This logic has been used by Open Borders campaigners for a few decades now, but it has been thrown around again in the past few weeks as a justification for allowing refugees to enter and settle within Western Europe: they are poor, they can work, and they will/would/could have a lot of children. It’s a crude, desperate logic, and one that I have never liked, since if you take the logic to its natural conclusion, it ends with the elimination of the human race.

As a thought experiment imagine, all other things equal, that the borders of the world were suddenly removed, and anyone, from any country, could move where they wanted. We would have a lot of people from poorer countries moving to richer countries in order to pursue a better life (in theory). These poorer migrants would probably have a lot of children in their first generation, adding much needed youth to the population pyramids of rich industrialised countries. However, just like the breeding structure of my own extended family through the past few generations, it is likely that further generations of those families would probably have decreasing fertility rates, and with increased wealth these fertility rates would soon reach the current German levels, which brings us back to the point of how to save the Germans! Once a certain point is reached, each generation of the new, open borders world will be half the size of the previous generation, only in this open borders case there is no source of young, poor migrants to exploit and prop up the population pyramid. In this scenario, with the population halving every generation, it will only be a few hundred years until the human race is at the level of the humble panda, being encouraged to procreate in order to save its species. So, based on the fertility rate theory of economic development, open borders will one day lead to the destruction of the human race, through long-term demographic erosion and boring, sex-deprived affluence. The only way to save humanity therefore is to ensure there are always poverty-stricken parts of the world with overflowing populations, ready to send their best breeders to prop up the social security system of Western and Central Europe, generation after generation.

I realise that my ravings above could easily be used by right-wing anti-immigration politicians, however none of those guys knows what a long-term issue is, so I think I am safe. The point is that neither of these long-term results of the ‘bring in migrants to pay for social security’ argument really sounds right, and therefore I am extremely uneasy about the idea as a whole. Demography (the study of population structure) is more of an observational social science than anything else, and probably should not be used to govern policy, or political debate. An economic argument to welcome migrants, and refugees in particular, is probably not a good one. Welcome refugees because it’s the right thing to do- not because their kids will pay for your pension, would be the main thing to take away from this. For those afraid of immigrants and their large families, don’t worry, they will be just as abstinent as you in a few decades, as the example given by the generational structure of my family over the past 70 years. We are educated a lot about how different religions affect fertility, and generally are told those that encourage a high birth rate, such as Catholicism, are bad for society as they hold back the economic participation of women in an egalitarian, capitalist society. Rarely do we realise that the affluence that capitalism sometimes brings with it also affects fertility, by lowering it significantly, as shown by the economically dirt-poor yet high-fertility rate of my grandmother in 1940’s Ireland, and comparing it to the economically prosperous yet negligible birth-rate of my generation. Anyway: 98 years and 32 people, an average of one descendant added every 3 years, is probably the record to beat, and I think I can say already that it will never be beaten by any member of my extended family.


3 thoughts on “Family, Demography, and the End of the World

  1. World population is currently predicted to stabilize at ~10 billion around the end of the century and stay there for a while (consider that modern medicine also significantly increased human lifespan & will continue to do so). This is due to developing countries themselves developing into lower birth rates, not their citizens migrating to the west.

    I say bring on a wealthy, sparsely populated future! I wouldn’t shed a tear if we dip below 7b again in a couple centuries, and it would be foolish to extrapolate human extinction due to depopulation a millennium from now (it reminds me of the extrapolation from this graph: http://www.ivystreetstudio.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/discostustats.jpg).

  2. Interesting piece and spectualation…. Obviously you were keeping it simple, and that said, I wouldn’t quite agree with some of your conclusions. Unforeseen sociopolitical or global circumstances could in some way reverse the birth trend in particular countries. Also, one could assume that there will always be a huge supply of migrants from third-world countries to work the jobs that no one wants. (Interesting to think what would happen if there wasn’t, though.) On a related note, M. has a 98-year old relative with something like a hundred descendants.

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