Europe's marriage crisis

Maggie Gallagher
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Posted: Feb 28, 2006 8:05 PM

A funny thing happened on the way to the overpopulation crisis.

Just when demographers expected Europeans to nest in nuclear families with 2.1 children, population trends exploded in a different direction. Ron Lesthaeghe, the great European demographer, calls this the "Second Demographic Transition."

Its two most disturbing indicators? Skyrocketing out-of-wedlock births and collapsing fertility.

Take collapsing fertility, for example. (Scholar Francesco Billari sums up the new Euro reality in a recent book chapter.) It takes 2.1 children per woman to replace the population. In 2000, only six major western European nations had total fertility rates as high as 1.7 (France, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands); four nations had on average at least 1.5 but less than 1.7 children per woman (Belgium, United Kingdom, Portugal, Sweden); four more have slipped into the crisis level demographers define as "very low fertility" of less than 1.5 -- Austria (1.3), the former West Germany (1.4), Italy (1.2) and Spain (1.2). By contrast, between 1980 and 2000, the United States' fertility climbed from 1.85 back up to 2.06.

As Billari explains, a total fertility rate of 1.5 (slightly more than the European average) cuts the population in half every 65 years. At 1.3 children per woman, the population gets cut in half every 32 years. Do the math. If Europeans were snail darters, maybe more people would be upset about it.

Europe is also in the middle of a striking retreat from marriage. Between 1980 and 2000, Norway's unmarried childbearing rate jumped from 14.5 percent to 50 percent. Over the same time period, Great Britain jumped from 11.5 percent to 39.5 percent. The out-of-wedlock birthrate in the Netherlands actually sextupled, from a low 5 percent to 25 percent of all births. (Only Ireland experienced a similar explosion.)

Over the same period, the U.S. illegitimacy rate rose from 18 percent to 33 percent. Our crisis is bad, but European countries have now surpassed America in many key indicators of the Second Demographic Transition, which is the one that leads to demographic death. Amidst America's serious marriage crisis, we are also showing signs of "American exceptionalis."

But not all over America. In a fascinating recent study, Lesthaeghe and a colleague looked for evidence of the Second Demographic Transition in America. What states are leading indicators of SDT, as measured by postponement of marriage and children? California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and (the most extreme outlier of all) Massachusetts.

Recognize this list? Except for Rhode Island, they are among the first states gay marriage advocates chose to pursue court-created gay marriage. What instinct led them to suppose that legal elites would be particularly open to the argument?

Stanley Kurtz recently argued that the explosion in Dutch illegitimacy is directly connected to a campaign for gay registered partnerships and gay marriage in the mid-1990s. It's a hard case to prove in the middle of a marital collapse of historic proportions all over Europe.

But I do think it is fair to say these two trends go hand in hand in this sense: Cultures deeply committed to "generativity" -- to the importance of men and women getting married and having children as a social norm -- tend to find the idea of gay marriage deeply disturbing, if not incomprehensible. Conversely, societies in the midst of devaluing the norms that sustain the generative family (in the name of attractive alternative values such as increasing expressive individualism and moral autonomy) will find gay marriage a natural fit, an idea that both expresses and reinforces their deepest moral preferences.

Gay marriage advocates here and abroad can expect to happily reap the benefits of the Second Demographic Transition. But as the consequences for Europe painfully suggest, maybe not for long.