What the Amish and the Shakers can teach us about demographics
Amish numbers double every generation. Credit: Mark Wilson / Getty Images   

You may not be familiar with the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, but evidence of their handiwork is everywhere. Indeed, you may be able to see it for yourself in your own home. The United Society, better known as the Shakers, became famous for their plain, but elegant, craftsmanship. Shaker style furniture remains popular to this day, but Shakerism itself rather less so.

Even at the sect’s mid-19th century zenith, there were never more than six thousand of them – today there are two. No, not two thousand, two: Brother Arnold Hadd and Sister June Carpenter.1

The Amish are another US-based religious denomination. In 1920 there were roughly five thousand in number. Today, estimates put the Amish population at more than 300,000.2

The Shakers and the Amish are both part of the non-conformist Protestant tradition – whose ancestors fled Europe for the Americas the 17th and 18th centuries. Both are counted among the ‘plain people’ – Christian groups who reject the fashions and conveniences of the modern world, who dress simply and who often live in close-knit communities apart from mainstream society.

A demographic divergence

The Shakers and the Amish, therefore, have a lot in common, but their fortunes have diverged spectacularly – the latter flourishing while the former have dwindled to near extinction.

Ultimately this is about sex, not sects. Though the Shakers lived in mixed communities, where women had equal status to men, they also practiced universal life-long celibacy. Even when they were growing in number, it was only through recruitment from the outside world. 

The Amish could hardly be more different. Very few outsiders join their communities – not least because of the language barrier (the Amish still speak the ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’3 of their ancestors and related dialects). However, unlike the Shakers, they get married, stay married and have lots of children.

Furthermore, most of those children choose, as young adults, to stay with the Amish church (and, therefore, the community).4 This is despite – or, perhaps, because of – an Amish tradition called the rumspringa,5 in which youngsters venture for a time into the ‘English’ world (i.e. non-Amish America). They then decide whether to stay there or return to be baptised as a full member of the church.

Retention rates are said to be higher now than they’ve ever been. Apparently smartphones and vaping aren’t viewed as an acceptable substitute for purpose, structure and community.

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The Amish expansion

All of this translates into a rapid rate of population growth. The rule-of-thumb is that Amish numbers double every generation.6 Because they prefer to live in smaller communities of about 30 families, population growth requires the founding of new settlements. When your way of life doesn’t depend on close connections with the global economy (quite the opposite, in fact) this isn’t so difficult. There is plenty of cheap farmland to be had for from America’s big cities. Remarkably, of the 500 or so Amish settlements, about half were founded in the 21st century.7

If the Amish keep doubling their numbers for another century, then there will be eight million of them. If they keep it up for two centuries, America will be a majority Amish nation. Credit: William Thomas Cain / Stringer, Getty

The internet was supposed to have conquered the tyranny of distance. Instead, the ‘knowledge workers’ of the world find themselves competing for cramped living quarters in a limited number of global cities. Meanwhile, the Amish, who deliberately and severely limit their use of digital technologies can take their pick of America’s wide open spaces. How’s that for an irony?

The Amish and the Shakers represent opposite extremes of the demographic spectrum – and provide a living (and dying) demonstration of the idea that ‘demographics is destiny’. We can look at the Shakers and boggle at their lack of foresight, but let’s not forget that birthrates throughout most of North America, Europe and East Asia are well below what’s required to replace the existing population. Like the Shakers, we too are committing demographic suicide – albeit more slowly.

From tiny acorns

Birthrates aren’t uniform, however. Some groups within each nation tend to have more children than others – the Amish being a noteworthy example. We might assume that doesn’t matter. After all, given a US population of more than 300 million people, what difference can an isolated group of 300,000 make? 

Quite a lot as it happens.

There’s a old story about an emperor who wished to reward a merchant who had done him a great service. “Name anything you desire,” said the emperor. The merchant produced a chessboard and asked for one grain of rice to be placed on the first square, two grains on the second square, four grains on the third and so forth – the number of grains doubling each time for every square on the board. “Is that all that you want,” asked the emperor, “a few piles of rice?” It wasn’t until the 17th square that more than a kilogram of rice was required. But by 27th square, it was more than a tonne – and by the 32nd square more than 40 tonnes.8 It was then that the emperor realised that he’d been had. The second half of the chessboard would drain the empire, indeed the whole world, many times over – or it might have done had the emperor not chopped the merchant’s head off for being a clever dick. 

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The point of this pretty tale is that exponential growth matters. Obviously, the Amish can’t continue doubling their numbers every generation forever. But if they keep it up for another century then there will be eight million of them. If they keep it up for two centuries, America will be a majority Amish nation. Even today, their numbers are big enough in some parts of the country for campaigners to go after their votes – as the existence of Amish PAC attests. 

Of course, that assumes not only that the Amish continue to grow at their current rate, but also that no one else keeps pace with them. In fact, there are a few other groups in America with above average fertility – the Mormons,9 for instance. One can imagine a Mormon majority expanding outwards from Utah, while an Amish majority does so from rural Pennsylvania – until they meet somewhere in the middle. If war breaks out, it’ll be a rather one-sided one – the Amish are pacifists. 

Decline and fall?

Admittedly, this is a rather extreme scenario, but then we live in extreme times. Keeping a population stable requires a fertility rate of just above two. It is below that across the western world and still falling. It is 1.6 in Canada, 1.5 in Germany, 1.4 in Spain, 1.3 in Greece, 1.2 in Taiwan.10 A fertility rate of 1.41, by the way, means that the size of each new generation halves every two generations.

Immigration can help stave off population decline, though the flip-side, i.e. emigration, can accelerate decline elsewhere. It’s also worth noting that, in America, the birth rate among the immigrant population is declining even faster than among the US-born population.11

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We should of course, be grateful for the choices that we have in a liberal society. We are free to marry or not get married. We are free to have children or not have children. There are lifestyles and occupations open to us that are not open to people (especially women) in less liberal societies. And yet, by definition, the only cultures that will survive into the centuries ahead are those that reproduce themselves.

It is said that history is made by those who turn up. But it’s equally true that the future belongs to those who have children.

FOOTNOTES
  1. Erin Blakemore, ‘There are only two Shakers left in the world’, Smithsonian, 6 January 2017
  2. ‘Amish population profile 2017’, Amish Studies, Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, Elizabethtown College
  3. Actually a dialect of German, influenced by American English
  4. Nate Berg, ‘Why the Amish population is exploding’, CityLab, 1 August 2012
  5. which translates as ‘running around’
  6. Nate Berg, ‘Why the Amish population is exploding’, CityLab, 1 August 2012
  7. Joseph Donnermeyer and Cory Anderson, ‘A mid-decade update on Amish settlement growth’, Journal of Amish and Plain Anabaptist Studies, 2015
  8. I’m assuming 50,000 grains of rice per kilogram
  9. Allison Pond, ‘A portrait of Mormons in the US’, Pew Research Centre, 24 July 2009
  10. ‘Total fertility rate by country 2018, World Population Review
  11. Steven A. Camarota and Karen Zeigler, ‘The declining fertility of immigrants and natives’, Centre for Immigration Studies, 2 October 2017
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