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Yes, We’re Still in the Second Demographic Transition

Data suggest we are in the middle of a transition to singles society.

Key points

  • The Second Demographic Transition is a move from traditional families to singlehood.
  • It is characterized by rises in divorce rates, single living, and cohabitation, as well as delayed and extra-marital fertility.
  • Many countries—including the U.S., Europe, China, and Iran—have already seen a decline in fertility rates and family sizes.
BlacknoseDace/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
World Map of Age at First Marriage
Source: BlacknoseDace/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

It seems we are surrounded by a generation of singles. Therapy sessions, workshops, and the psychology literature are fixated on the ultimate question: Why am I single?

The answer appears to be a collective one, not a personal one. It is apparent that many singles are part of a wider, more global process called the "Second Demographic Transition."

The Second Demographic Transition is characterized by rises in divorce rates, single living, and cohabitation, as well as delayed and extra-marital fertility (1, 2). These processes all started after World War II, leading up to the 1970s. Beyond the reduction in the rates of marriage, the net result is a move from the rapid population growth experienced since the Industrial Revolution towards either population stability or below-replacement fertility, which was first evident in several European and Asian nations (3) and subsequently in non-Western and developing countries (4-6).

Indeed, it has been argued that the Second Demographic Transition is a developmental process that can be expected to eventually progress throughout the world (7, 8). Yet the developmental viewpoint fails to explain why the Second Demographic Transition has not spread in some national and cultural contexts and has drawn criticism for failing to contextualize the societal attitude changes that have led to demographic changes at both the individual and collective levels (9).

Moreover, a developmental understanding does not explain the differences between different social groups and national contexts under the Second Demographic Transition. A researcher named Sobotka, for example, demonstrated that while individuals with lower levels of education embrace traditional family values that place an emphasis on marriage and children, these individuals are also most frequently characterized by behavior associated with the Second Demographic Transition, such as extra-marital children, long-term cohabitation, and union nullification (10).

Yet data suggest that it is all "bumps" in the road. The below chart, for example, shows how the trend is similar across social groups:

Age and first marriage
Source: CDC/NCHS

Indeed, the theory behind the Second Demographic Transition has justifiably been defended (8, 11) and is widely accepted as mainstream, but the repeated criticisms have raised some important questions regarding the nuances of changes in marriage, fertility, and cohabitation patterns. Notably, little attention has been paid to the relationship between socio-cultural values in congruence with changes in relationship and fertility behavior and actual demographic changes. In particular, one might expect societies characterized by conservative and traditional values to be "immune" to the Second Demographic Transition, while liberal and developed societies will display the sharpest demographic changes.

Still, updated data and current research actually show that overwhelmingly religious countries (e.g., Iran) are clearly joining the Second Demographic Transition (4, 12). It seems that the trend is clear and the transition is still underway.

In Europe, data from 2020 shows: fertility rates are the lowest in known history. And in today's China the average size of families is shrinking with every passing day. It is time for us to prepare for an age of singlehood.


1. D. J. Van de Kaa, The second demographic transition revisited: theories and expectations. NIDI/CBGS PUBLICATION, 81-126 (1994).

2. R. Lesthaeghe, L. Neidert, The second demographic transition in the United States: Exception or textbook example? Population and Development Review 32, 669-698 (2006).

3. R. Lesthaeghe, J. Surkyn, Cultural dynamics and economic theories of fertility change. Population and development review, 1-45 (1988).

4. A. Aghajanian, V. Thompson, Recent Divorce Trend in Iran. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage 54, 112-125 (2013).

5. J. M. Raymo, M. Iwasawa, L. Bumpass, [Recent trends and educational differentials in marital dissolution in Japan]. Journal of Population Problems/Jinko Mondai Kenkyu 61, 50-67 (2015).

6. L. Ackermann, Divorce in South Africa: An overview. Social Work/Maatskaplike Werk 40, (2014).

7. K. Kiernan, Unmarried cohabitation and parenthood in Britain and Europe. Law & Policy 26, 33-55 (2004).

8. D. J. Van de Kaa, Second demographic transition. Encyclopedia of population 2, 872-875 (2003).

9. R. L. Cliquet, The second demographic transition: fact or fiction? , (Council of Europe, 1991), vol. 23.

10. T. Sobotka, Overview chapter 6: The diverse faces of the second demographic transition in Europe. Demographic research 19, 171-224 (2008).

11. R. Lesthaeghe, The Unfolding Story of the Second Demographic Transition. Population and Development Review 36, 211-251 (2010).

12. B. Arpino, L. P. Tavares, Fertility and values in Italy and Spain: A look at regional differences within the European context. Population Review 52, (2013).

13. J. Lu, X. Wang, in Analysing China's Population. (Springer, 2014), pp. 37-49.

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