Barcelona: the demographic games

Carolyn Moynihan
24 Mar 2010
Reproduced with Permission

Sorry for the long gap in posts on this blog but following the two-day conference on demography that I attended in Barcelona on the 12th and 13th of March, I was travelling for another week with little access to the internet.

Barcelona is an impressive city and the conference equally so. I set out from my homely base in the South Pacific with some preconceptions which were quickly blown apart. For one thing, after 30 years of Fawlty Towers I thought I would at last meet Manuel; instead, I ran into Barcelona's own Basil Fawlty, a hotel restaurant manager (NOT at the conference hotel, I hasten to add) who each evening would order myself and two companions into whichever dining area we were not already seated in, muttering to himself as he strode from one to the other. "Why are there so many people here?" I asked innocently on the first night as a large group poured into the restaurant. "Because people are crazy!" he retorted. We thought we had better do as we were told.

On the conference theme, Whither The Child? The Causes, Consequences and Responses to Low Fertility, I was pretty certain that Europe was doomed to a future of secularisation and shrinkage (which, so far, have gone together) taking the children of Muslim immigrants down with it. I imagined London, Paris and Berlin would eventually be inhabited by small populations of Richard Dawkins clones and Optimum Population Trust faithful. But on the way to Spain (Catholic country, lots of immigrants, total fertility rate 1.3 children per woman) I got to read a conference paper that shot holes in that notion.

Eric Kaufmann, a Reader in Politics and Sociology at Birkbeck, University of London, reckons that the secularisation trend in Europe is slowing down and by 2050 the continent will begin to become more religious, thanks to various factors, not the least of which is current Muslim immigration. Second generation European Muslims are tending to hang onto their religion as a matter of political identity, says Kaufmann (who has a book on the subject coming out this week) and will not follow the secularisation pattern of native Europeans or Christian immigrant groups. More about this another time, including what is happening among the Christians.

Not everything was surprising -- for instance, research by Catherine Hakim of the London School of Economics showing that the political emphasis on full time jobs with childcare help for mothers does not match what a lot of women actually want, and research by University of Virginia sociologist Bradford Wilcox -- the academic leader of the conference -- showing that the division of family labour within marriage does not have to be 50:50 to make women happy, since a lot depends on whether they have children at home. Makes sense, doesn't it, unless you are blinkered by gender ideology.

There were demographers, sociologists, labour market experts, political scientists, scholars from various think tanks and journalists at the conference, with views that touched a range of points on the philosophical spectrum. All shared their research and opinions in a friendly spirit, assisted by the excellent facilities and organisation provided by the sponsoring body -- the New York based Social Trends Institute -- at the IESE Business School, one of the world leaders in its field. The conference papers are to be published as a book, but we will be interviewing some of the contributors in the meantime.

One thing the conference confirmed: as our blog of that name has it, demography is destiny. In other words, attitudes to fertility today will determine the basic political shape of society as time goes on. It won't necessarily be obvious what that shape will be.

Some 30 to 40 years ago most demographers thought that the plunge in birth rates following the mass use of the contraceptive pill would correct itself and the population would "stabilise" at replacement level, but there are very few developed societies at that level today; now they are talking about population "quality" rather than quantity, meaning that a highly educated a skilled population will compensate for what it lacks in numbers. Hmmm. Don't know about you, but talk of population quality makes me a bit nervous, especially if it becomes a political goal.

We'll return to this theme again.