Jewish Demography: An Alarming Trend

The recent survey of American Jewry – at least, the parts that have been released thus far – contains demographic data that should alarm anyone who has an interest in the continuity of the Jewish people.

The data describes a community that is slowly, but inexorably, dying out. Logic suggests that two is the minimum number of children a couple must have in order to sustain a population in a stable manner. However, research shows that the actual rate necessary to sustain the population is 2.1 children per family.

The Jewish family is currently averaging 1.8 children per family. This signifies a decline in the number of Jews, even without considering other elements that diminish our numbers, such as assimilation and mixed marriages.

A closer look at the data shows that there is no sign of improvement in the future. Large numbers of adults remain single, and a significant proportion of American Jewish women do not have children at all (or certainly not during their most fertile years) – even more than the comparable figure for non-Jewish women. These numbers point to an even bleaker future, in which the average number of children per family will decrease even more.

Although there are no equivalent statistical data from Western Europe, anecdotal descriptions indicate that the situation there is similar, if not worse, than in the United States. The problem is still worse in the former Soviet Union.

The inescapable conclusion is that, at least in the Diaspora, the Jewish people are in a demographic decline. We are shrinking and becoming older. If nothing dramatic occurs to reverse these trends, it may be that the Jewish community should no longer concern itself with building schools, but with constructing more old-age homes and larger cemeteries.

In the short term, these findings suggest that Israel may soon hold a majority of the Jews; and that the percentage and influence of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox will grow steadily, for only these groups have birthrates that meet or exceed the replacement rate. Neither of these phenomena will come about because of any explicit action or choice (such as aliyah). Rather, they will occur by default, because of demography, not ideology.

Any nation or any social group may, at any time, undergo demographic decline due to immigration, war, economic depression, or other factors. But in the case of the Jews of the United States and other Western countries, the current decline is primarily the product of prevailing attitudes that are shortsighted at best, egotistical at worst. As usual, the Jews nowadays are like other people – only more so.

This is not to say that every person who fails to produce at least two children is selfish. Certainly, some people are truly unsuited to being parents or are unable to have children through no fault of their own. Nevertheless, a significant portion of the declining birthrate seems to be attributable to the influence of the values that have held sway in the West for more than a generation.

Being single – for both men and women – most easily accommodates the intense cultural pressure to achieve career “success.” It is also a natural, if not always intentional, consequence of insisting on finding the “perfect” mate. Children, too, are perceived to interfere with one’s career. In this context, it is much easier to have a dog.

Thus the natural drive for love and companionship, the urge and desire to be creative in the only way that has long-lasting meaning – by having and rearing children – are submerged in short-term goals and contemporary priorities. Unfortunately, these moods take their toll not only on the single or childless person but on the nation at large.

And so it leaves us with a fast aging, slowly dying people.