A phase that a nation goes through at some point in its development. Triggered by increases in food production and improvements in medicine it is described as having three phases:
  • 1st Phase - High birth rate and high death rate. underdeveloped but has a stable populace.
  • 2nd Phase - High birth rate but low death rate. Conditions are improving so more children are surviving but the population is growing exponentially.
  • 3rd Phase - Low birth rate and low death rate. Fully developed and the populace is stable once more.
This period is also characterised by an increase in industry (supported by slave labour), a general migration of farmers to the cities (with dreams of becoming rich but actually to become slave labour) and an eventual improvement in education and working conditions

The first world went through this change during the 18th/19th century (the industrial revolution) and the third world is at present in stage 2 of the transition.

Unfortunately for the third world, its transition did not happen naturally and has been marred by interference from the first world. Multinational companies moved to the third world to exploit the cheap labour and the third world received all of the first world's medical advances instantly. These factors have lead to an extremely sharp decrease in the death rate and the migration has also been much more remarkable than normal. Also, the agrarian revolution hasn't happened yet (mainly because of the barren landscapes) causing mass starvation which is only being eased by food aid from the first world (although, ironically, this 'aid' is exacerbating the nation's poverty and overpopulation problems).

It is possible to look at the third world today and see Europe as it was in the 19th century: Spiralling population, poverty, shanty towns on the edge of cities, slave labour and poor working conditions so hopefully by the 22nd century every country on earth will have reached the 3rd phase of the transition.

What follows is an essay I wrote on the fertility transition in Great Britain, but first some general remarks.

As daz eddy correctly remarks, a post-transition population is characterised by low death rates and low birth rates. These properties characterise most developed societies today, especially Western ones. Where he falls down is that he assumes a straight causality between "increases in food production and improvements in medicine" and the transition, and says the period is characterised by "an increase in industry". Both propositions can be shot through when it is considered that Britain, the most developed country in the World at the time, and Hungary, the least developed in Europe, underwent their transition at the same time, in the 1870s. Furthermore, increases in food production had mainly occured for Britain a century before, with no revolutionary change at this time.

History cannot posit general laws about the past, but it can make generalisations. A number of generalisations can be made about the demographic transition - it appears to happen mostly in developed countries, the post-transition period is characterised by the features mentioned already, and it appears to be largely a cultural phenomena. But in reality there are many different transitions in any country which experiences this phenomena, occuring at different times in different places throughout the country. Occupational group appears to be an important factor, as we shall see for Britain. Historians can still not comprehensively explain why the transition took place on a European scale, or why it took place when it did. Particular, concrete studies are needed of each individual country, and it is unlikely any grand meta-narrative will emerge.

In the decades around 1900 there was a "quiet revolution" in the family sizes of almost all segments of the British population, one which for parts of it had begun much earlier in the nineteenth century. For most of the nineteenth century the crude fertility rate had hovered around the 34.3/1000 mark, but by the outbreak of the Great War it was only 24/1000. Similarly, average family size had descended from the mid-Victorian high of six to three.1 Although there had been a gradual alteration in the average age of nuptiality, with an increase of about a year over the period under discussion for women, the effect of this was “"subordinate to changes in marital fertility".2 The timing of the "fertility transition" was different for different parts of the population, suggesting that there were in reality a number of fertility transitions which occurred according to the differing socio-economic environment which that segment lived in. The transition occurred earliest in those segments of the aristocracy and middling sort who had increased aspirations both for their own standard of living and that of their children, especially where the children required an expensive education to enter a hierarchically-structured profession.3 Banks has argued that the school system was used to conscript the working-classes into a "bourgeois future-time perspective" as it placed young proletarians in direct competition with their peers and inculcated an appreciation of the importance of thrift and forbearance. However, this thesis is subject to the considerable criticisms that have been levelled against the "social control" theory of late-Victorian class relations, and is undermined by the patchy and decentralised nature of the education system, not to mention proletarian responses to it. More tenable theories of fertility transition among the working classes highlight the importance of communication communities and the local socio-economic conditions in bringing about a change that was originated in their own class rather than being foisted on them from above. The changing role of women and children in the household economy and the ensuing change in the relationship between all members of that household is highlighted as of prime importance in bringing about a change in the conception of an ‘ideal’ family size.

Among the professional classes, who were in the vanguard of reducing family size, Banks argues that the desire to limit fertility stemmed from economic considerations for both themselves and their children.4 The professionalisation of the job market required an increasingly costly education if a young man was to make his way in the world, requiring an investment of some several thousand pounds by the parents. The pioneers included accountants, solicitors, Army officers, clergymen and artists. For accountants the mean number of children born in marriages between 1871 and 1881 was 4.54, and for the period 1881 – 91 it was 3.20. For Army officers the figures were 3.47 and 2.18 respectively, and for solicitors 4.38 and 3.02.5 As these professions were posited on a stable financial base with relatively high job security, people working within them could adopt a future-time perspective and practice economic rationality. This element of predictability was key in allowing the bourgeoisie to make informed decisions about family size. Three-fifths of the boys at Winchester in the period 1850 – 60 followed in the occupational footsteps of their fathers, while only 2.8% became manufacturers.6 This is illuminating because the exploitation of capital was considered a risky business which precluded rational planning – educating a boy to follow in your footsteps guaranteed him the stability you had yourself enjoyed. He could then accrue prestige to himself and the family name, perhaps participating in the family business.

The obvious result of a desire to spend a lot of money on educating each child is that family size will need to be limited so that the "quality" of children can be maintained versus their "quantity". It does not seem that men chose to reduce their family size out of concern for the health of their wife, which could suffer through extensive childbearing, because most appear to have let natural fertility take its course (i.e. not practice "spacing") until they reached the "parity-dependent point" - the optimum family size. They then practiced "stopping", which was made possible by their access to and knowledge of birth control techniques – something which the working classes largely lacked. Although the medical profession was hostile to propagating birth control techniques among the poor, they themselves achieved the lowest marital fertility of all the occupational groups.7 The other factor of importance in the reduction of family size among the upper classes was increasing consumption aspirations. A certain standard of living was considered "appropriate for a civilised existence", and this could not be maintained with a large household.8 It was increasingly considered a status symbol for a man’s wife and daughters to be ladies of leisure, not needing to contribute to the household income, thus increasing the dependency ratio.

If it is possible to talk about the professional classes on a national scale because of their relative homogeneity (as enshrined by national, professional organisations), this is much less true of the working-class. Banks’ socialisation theory, which contends that the working-classes chose to reduce their family sizes because they were socialised into doing so by the education system, falls down on this count. A counter-example is the textile districts, where school attendance was the lowest but fertility regulation was well-established by 1900.9 Not only was education not uniform around the country, proletarian responses to it differed from complete avoidance to partial acceptance. Many proletarians favoured 'payment-by-results' systems which focused on the teaching of the three R's and discouraged moral indoctrination. The malleability of the working classes is also vastly overestimated if we suppose that their traditional and inherited values could be over-ridden by the education system, which would only be one of the formative influences in a child’s life. In looking for the causes of working-class fertility decline we should look at the motivations of the husband and wife in bringing it about and their ability to do so as problems defined by them, not the school system. The process of change was "highly complex" and "locally fissured" and each couple would "conceptualise advantages in their own terms".10

Caldwell's wealth-flow theory is a useful heuristic for considering why working-class families found it expedient to reduce their family size.11 He argues that populations which have not experienced a fertility transition are characterised by a flow of intergenerational family wealth from children to their parents, hence making it economically rational for parents to have a large family. The first phase of industrialisation in Britain was characterised by a premium on total family labour because of the availability of jobs for both women and children, be it in outwork or the early factories.12 But as the nineteenth century progressed a number of factors contributed to women and children leaving the labour market, and hence increasing the dependency ratio. First, population growth slowed and wages rose, which combined with the ideology of a male breadwinner – espoused by chauvinist trade unions –, led the male-dominated labour organisations to increasingly bar women from the job market. Extensive exploitation of women and children was also becoming harder because of state legislation, which led to the increased mechanisation of the tasks they used to do cheaply. The changing mode of production hence led to a change in the family roles of proletarian households – with the man as the sole breadwinner, prudential restraint in the marital bed could save him from destitution.

An increased dependency ratio meant that working-class families could expect a decreased standard of living if they had more children. In the written testimony examined by Seccombe, 49% of skilled labourers’ wives and 67% of unskilled labourers’ wives cited financial reasons for wanting to prevent future births.13 Attached to the idea of wanting to maintain a certain level of consumption was the idea of "respectability" – large families were seen as an invitation to destitution, one which was usually ascribed to the man being unable to practice self-control and hence putting his family at risk. It was increasingly recognised that much more could be provided to a smaller family than a larger one.14 The notion of respectability was posited on stability, because this made rational economic planning, which demonstrated the virtues of thrift and forbearance, possible. Thus it is entirely logical that the "aristocracy of labour" should adopt family planning first, because their economic conditions made it rational to plan ahead. For many people in unskilled work with low job security, it didn’t seem "rational" to plan at all.15 This stability which first came about among the better-paid workers would in time spread down the socio-economic hierarchy, and as the working-classes' urban environment improved and stabilised cultural and social norms could start to take root. The norms which emerged idealised a male breadwinner who was able to keep his wife at home looking after his children – this encouraged small families because the male had to provide for them all, but increased the dependence of women upon their husbands.

Diana Gittins has highlighted the effect that structural change in the economy had on the attitudes of women to their role in marriage, as well as their very knowledge of how to effect this.16 Domestic service, which was on the decline, had entailed women employed in it living very segregated lives, which was expressed in a high level of ignorance about birth control. In Gittins’ study of women who worked in service prior to marriage, most never discussed sex or family size with their husbands, which is obviously not conducive to adopting a rational future-time perspective. But as more women became employed in clerical or semi-skilled work prior to marriage, they had an increased opportunity to gain knowledge about birth control from their workmates, some of whom would be older, married women. Thus discussion between husband and wife on issues of sex and birth control would be encouraged, and they might well find a convergence of opinions emerged. Many of the men in Seccombe’s study were considered to be either "good" or "bad" by their wives depending on how they approached them sexually, and he notes that cooperative husbands outnumbered the un-cooperative by two to one in his material. The "underlying shift in the family economy" which had brought about the desire to limit births in both the husband and wife could only find expression if they talked about it.17

In his study of the fertility transition on the European scale, Ron Lesthaeghe noticed that transitions occurred in villages with similar economic conditions but different languages at different times, i.e. they following the timing of their linguistic region.18 Researchers associated with the European Fertility Project have ascribed this to cultural values, spread through communication communities, about the possibility and desirability of limiting family size. It has been claimed that limiting fertility was not "within the calculus of conscious choice" for most nineteenth century Europeans, and it could only be achieved when this changed. Indeed, the lack of sexual knowledge which characterised many members of the working-classes was startling. The medical profession withheld it for fear of promoting promiscuity and venereal disease and many daughters received little information from their mothers.19 The importance of communication communities in spreading knowledge and values should be stressed, because it often transcended class boundaries. Working-class people in middle-class districts often displayed middle-class fertility behaviour before their peers elsewhere, and middle-class people in working-class areas were "more similar to their neighbours than they would have cared to acknowledge."20

Communication communities do not just imply direct communication, but also the observance of those around you and the social norms they have adopted. The male-breadwinner ideology, which encouraged a small family so he could keep his wife at home, would be spread by example. Where a child was born and the environment it was brought up in would affect its attitude towards family-building – once smaller families were established in an area it would seem bizarre to buck the trend by yourself having a huge family. Communication communities and the values they adopt are affected by environmental and geographic factors, which helps explain the strong spatial element in the fertility transition. Almost everyone in the textile districts, whether textile worker or not, followed the low fertility pattern that was established by the workers. Garrett ascribes this to the "shared experience" of "everyone living within the sound of the factory hooter".21 His reference to such a tangible thing is best taken as a metaphor, and we should focus on how the textile factories and strict labour discipline associated with them would really characterise the area. The factories encouraged the spread of knowledge on birth control between workmates and hence throughout the area, and once norms of family size were established they would tend to linger.

So for the upper and middle classes, a concern for the economic prospects of their children and a concern for maintaining a particular standard of living were most important in them limiting their family size. If they wanted their children to do as well in life as they had, they needed to provide them an expensive, professional education which would provide stability and allow them to invest in their own children as their fathers had invested in them. The lady of leisure wished to be emancipated from the workplace and her husband would gain prestige by being able to provide for her and her leisured lifestyle, as well as to fund her numerous servants. Among the working-classes the process and timing of transition was largely differentiated by local socio-economic factors, and hence occurred at different times in different places. But the compelling factor which brought about a convergence of the interests of men and women in this sphere was the change in family roles, and especially in the relationship of each family member to the economic environment. As the male head of the household increasingly came to garner self-respect from being able to provide for his family himself, he was encouraged to reduce family size and emancipate women from the pains of constant childbirth. Similarly, he could no longer expect a substantial economic contribution from his children, who were compelled to be educated and to try and achieve social mobility. The transition from children being a net asset to a net liability and the withdrawal of women from the labour market was largely based on local conditions and cultural norms, and hence happened at different paces in different districts.

1. R. Soloway, Birth Control and the Population Question in England, 1877 – 1930
2. Garrett et. al., Changing Family Size in England and Wales
3. J.A. Banks, Victorian Values
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., p. 98
6. Ibid.
7. W. Seccombe, 'Starting to stop! Working-class fertility decline', Past and Present, 1990
8. Banks, op. cit., p. 43
9. S. Szreter, Fertility, class and gender in Britain, 1860 – 1940, pp. 45 - 66
10. Garrett et. al., op. cit., p. 289
11. Gillis et. al., The European Experience of Declining Fertility, ch. 1
12. D. Levine, Reproducing Families, ch. 4
13. Seccombe, op. cit.
14. J. Bourke, Working Class Cultures in Britain, 1890 – 1960, ch. 2
15. Szreter, loc. cit.
16. D. Gittins, Fair Sex, chs. 3 - 6
17. Seccombe, op. cit.
18. Gillis et. al., loc. cit.
19. Bourke, loc. cit.
20. Garrett et. al., op. cit., p. 435
21. Ibid., p. 321

Complete bibliography

R. Soloway, Birth Control and the Population Question in England, 1877 – 1930
Garrett et. al., Changing Family Size in England and Wales
J.A. Banks, Victorian Values
W. Seccombe, 'Starting to stop! Working-class fertility decline', Past and Present, 1990
S. Szreter, Fertility, class and gender in Britain, 1860 – 1940
J. Gillis et. al., The European Experience of Declining Fertility
D. Levine, Reproducing Families
J. Bourke, Working Class Cultures in Britain, 1890 – 1960

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