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Post-materialism and the Second Demographic Transition



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    It is quite evident to all of us that our way of life has rapidly changed in the last few decades. We are richer, are living longer, racism and gender discrimination are not as prevalent anymore; overall the world is a much nicer place to live in that it was 50 years ago. But why has our world transformed so rapidly? One explanation for this is the sociological theory of ‘post-materialism’. The ‘post-materialist theory’ was first talked about by American social scientist Ronald Inglehart in 1977. Inglehart (2007) defined post-materialism as the ‘’value orientation that emphasizes self-expression and quality of life over economic and physical security’’. Inglehart (2007) also describes how from the 1970s, people started to stop giving attention to ‘material’ values such as wealth and economic growth and placed greater importance on humanitarian goals such as environmentalism, freedom of speech and gender equality. A lot of these changes arose from a phase known as ‘The Second Demographic Transition. In this essay I will first explain what the Second Demographic Transition was and explain its impacts on fertility rates and attitudes towards marriage. I will also look at the impact of aging populations in Europe and touch on the increase in immigration since the start of the Second Demographic Transition.

    What was the Second Demographic Transition?

    Van de Kaa (1987) cites the Second Demographic Transition consisted of a series of radical changes of values in the West, starting in Europe in the 1960s. This demographic transition was the main driver behind the post-materialist theory which would change the way humans live their lives. According to Lesthaeghe (2010), The Second Demographic Transition led changes in fertility rates, as well as the attuites towards marriage, divorce and even religion. According to McLanahan (2004), this demographic transition involved delays in marriage and fertility, as well as an increase in divorce rates, childbearing out of wed lock and a rise in the number of mothers working outside the home.

    Decline in Fertility Rates and Delays in Marriage

    From the 1960s, fertility rates began to decline in most of Europe, and that most people live in regions with a below replacement fertility level of less than 2.1 children per woman (Myrskylä, Kohler and Billari, 2009) The number of births fell from 2.7 births per woman in 1960 to a mere 1.6 births per woman in 2020. (Europe Demographics 2020 (Population, Age, Sex, Trends) – Worldometer, 2020) A major reason believed for falling fertility rates is that more couples want to have fewer or sometimes no children at all. (The ESHRE Capri Workshop Group, 2010). Post materialism caused a shift in the attitudes of young women. Ideas of gender equality influenced young women to go to university or pursue careers rather then marriage and childbearing at a young age. According to a study carried out by Smallwood and Jeffries (2003), 5% of childless women aged 18-20 intended to have no children in 1980, which almost doubled to 9% in 2000. For couples who wanted to have children, the mean family sizes they wished to have fell. The ESHRE Capri Workshop Group (2010) cited Goldstein, Lutz and Testa, (2003) who found that in 1990, 50% of young Austrians aged 16–24 said that it was very important for a couple to have children which fell sharply to 27% in 2000.

    Despite this, most people still wanted to have children, albeit fewer. The ESHRE Capri Workshop Group (2010) explains how Simpson (2007) found that in the UK, the level of one child families has remained steady, but there are fewer families with four or more children. Virtala, Kunttu, Huttunen and Virjo, (2006) cited how among Finnish students, more than 50% of men and more than 40% of women reported two children as their ideal family size. It seems nowadays that 2 child families are commonplace among Europe and are preferred to not having children at all.

    Since the second demographic transition, parents have started to delay childbearing. According to Broekmans, Soules and Fauser, (2009) more couples are reaching the end of a woman’s reproductive career without reaching the desired family size, another explanation for the fall of fertility rates. Since the widespread availability of tertiary education young people are more focused on building their careers rather than marriage and childbearing. Young men and women were delaying marriage to later stages of their lives (Lesthaeghe, 2010). The average age of a woman having her first child had risen significantly, up to 29.9 years in 2018, from 24.4 years in 1970 (Average age of first-time mothers up to 29.9 years, 2019)

    Effects of an Aging Population

    Another thing rapidly changed by the second demographic transition and post-materialism was the age structure of the population. Lesthaeghe (2014) stated that populations will decline and be older unless replaced with immigrants, due to the decline in fertility rates and an increase in life expectancy. Since fertility also begins to decline, the number of children and youth as a proportion of the total population declines. At the same, the proportion of adults in the prime ages for work and childbearing rises, changing the population pyramid (United Nations, 2017). The median age of the European population in 2020 now stands at 42.5 years, a significant increase on a median of 30.3 years in 1960.

    This trend is worrying for a lot of European countries, as this is increasing the dependency ratio on working adults. As people number of old people are increasing while the number of young people are decreasing, there are fewer adults of working age to run the economy. The dependency ratio reached 29.9% in 2017 in the EU, a record high. (Record high old-age dependency ratio in the EU, n.d.) This trend has a lot of worrying consequences. As the working force is reduced, there are less people paying income tax and therefore tax revenues fall (Pettinger, 2017). Government spending also has to increase as the government has to pay a higher number of pensions, as well as spend more on the health service as older people are more likely to use it. Pettinger (2017) also points out that because of all this the government has no choice but to increase taxes on a limited workforce, which reduces in the incentive to work and lowers disposable income levels.

    Lesthaeghe (2014) mentions that a way to stop populations from falling is through replacement migration. The average fertility in Europe I pointed out earlier of 1.6 births per woman is slightly lower than the sub replacement fertility level of 2.1 required to keep the population stable. As the majority of migrants tend to be young, substantial levels of immigration tend to diminish, the tendency towards population ageing (United Nations, 2017). Pettinger (2017) claims that net migration has increased the UK Labour force and it has reduced the dependency ratio as migrants tend to be of working and pay taxes and not claim benefits. Net migration also helps create a more flexible labour market. Low-skilled workers from Eastern Europe has helped fill the shortages in various labour sectors such as plumbing, construction and transport workers. High-skill workers such as doctors and nurses from countries like the Philippines have helped the health service in Ireland massively due to their skills. Because of these benefits the number of immigrants of Europe has risen rapidly since the 1990s. In Ireland, only 6.4 % of the population was foreign born, compare this to 15.92 % in 2015, a rapid increase. (Ireland Immigration Statistics 1960-2020, n.d.)


    In this essay I have examined and explained ‘post-materialist theory’ first studied by Ronald Inglehart extensively through the Second Demographic Transition and it’s impacts on demographics. I couldn’t have done this without the various sources I have cited throughout my essay, which I have enclosed in my bibliography. To recap my work, I explained how the Second Demographic Transition has led to fall in fertility rates, below the sub-replacement in many European countries. The age at which people are getting married and having their first child has also risen significantly. I have outlined how the age structure of the population has changed and that the proportion of elderly people are rising. The effects of this have been discussed above, the main one being the taxpayers have a higher burden to provide pensions and for an increased health service. Immigration has been touted as a response to the higher dependency ratios, seen through the increased number of immigrants in Europe, including in Ireland.

    I personally believe that post-materialism and the second demographic transition has greatly improved life for the vast majority of people. Both young men and young women are going into third level education and entering the workforce in much higher numbers. Young couples are having children when they are ready and are more likely to provide better for their children. The world has become more globalised and multicultural, especially in Ireland where there are many diverse cultures and the population has become more open and tolerant to new ideas. However, there are some downsides to this new post-materialist world, such a reducing native population in some countries, as well as having to provide for an aged population. Racism and hate crimes also continue to rise against new immigrants into European counties (Gürbüz, 2019) and has led to the rise of far-right ideologies including Brexit in 2016. Overall from this report, it is evident that the post-materialist theory has changed our lives for the better.

    Post-materialism and the Second Demographic Transition. (2021, Aug 30). Retrieved from

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