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Kishore Jayabalan

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					The causes of demographic decline in Europe
Kishore Jayabalan
Director, Istituto Acton, Rome, Italy
XV International Annual Meeting in Political Studies
Cascais, Portugal
28 June 2007


I feel a bit strange addressing the topic of the causes of demographic decline in Europe
for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, I am not married and have no children; if
anything, I am part of the problem. Second, I am not European, although I have been
living in Rome for almost 8 years, so perhaps I have picked up this disease along with its
associated side effects. In the end, however, I want to see Europe prosper and the
demographic decline of Europe is too serious to ignore.

The cause of this decline is quite simple – Europeans are not having enough babies. Full
stop. I could end my talk right here. But of course we should try to find out why fertility
rates are declining. These reasons are complex because they involve so many private,
and indeed the most intimate of, decisions. But demographic decline is a general, nearly
universal trend and has serious public consequences that may seem to represent progress
but in fact are disastrous.

It is well established that fertility rates are falling all over the world, and not only in
Europe. Many people assume that it is just a problem in developed countries, but this is
not the case. According to the United Nations 2006 Revision of World Population
Prospects, the global fertility rate is now 2.55 children per woman, about half the level of
1950-1955, when it was 5 children per woman. In fact, the greatest drop in the future
will come in the least developed countries, where the fertility rate is 4.63 children and is
expected to be 2.5 children by 2050. There is not a single region on the planet where
fertility rates are actually increasing. Even in countries with high fertility rates, the trend
is that of decline.

But the problem is more troublesome for Europe than anywhere else. Its fertility rate has
gone from 2.16 in 1970-1975, just above the replacement level of 2.1, to a forecasted
1.45 in 2005-2010. Several European nations are now at historically-unprecedented low
fertility rates below 1.3, what’s called “lowest low fertility” by demographers, from
which it will become nearly impossible to recover. Portugal has gone from a fertility rate
of 2.75 in 1970-1975 to 1.45 in 2000-2005. In Spain, the rate has gone from 2.86 to 1.29,
in Italy from 2.33 to 1.29, in Poland from 2.25 to 1.25 and in Ireland from 3.82 to 1.97.
When the Treaty of Rome founded the European Union in 1957, every one of the now 27
members of the EU had fertility rates above 2.1, today not a single one does.

Because of decreasing fertility rates and decreasing mortality rates (mainly due to a much
reduced incidence of infant mortality), Europe’s population is ageing rapidly and
drastically. Of the 10 countries with the highest median ages, 9 of them are in Europe
(Japan tops the list). The median age in Portugal in 1950 was 26.2, in 2005 it was 39.1
and in 2050 it is projected to be 48.8. In Italy, the median age went from 29 in 1950 to
42 in 2005 and a staggering 50.4 in 2050. The world median age was 23.9 in 1950, 28 in
2005 and 38.1 in 2050, so Europe is ageing significantly more than the rest of the world.

The data indicate that women are postponing childbirth and having fewer children. There
are many possible explanations, none of which are entirely satisfactory. One may be
democratization and the spread of equality between the sexes. Faced with ever increasing
educational and professional opportunities, the “opportunity cost” – what women forgo
when they have children – has increased. As a result, women get married and have
children later in life, which obviously reduces the number of children they could have.
Urbanization also makes large families more expensive and less necessary when
compared to rural life where extended family relations are more common. But it does not
explain why rates have fallen so quickly in the space of two generations.

Then there is the spread of artificial birth control and abortion as a means of family
planning. For example, Russia has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, and one
of the highest abortion rates; something like 70 percent of Russian pregnancies are
terminated. No one can plausibly argue that more birth control and abortion do not result
in fewer children. Preventing conception and ending human life before birth will always
have that direct effect. To make matters worse, the United Nations and other
development agencies have been pushing these forms of family planning all over the
world in attempt to forestall the dreaded “population bomb” that has yet to explode.

Yet the fertility rate has also been decreasing in countries where birth control and
abortion are less readily available: the fertility rate is slightly higher in liberal
Scandinavian countries than in Catholic countries like Ireland, Poland, Portugal and Italy.
This has led some to conclude that more generous welfare states can provide more
complete child care services and may lead to slightly higher fertility rates, but these rates
are still declining and below replacement level. On the other hand, countries with
inflexible labor markets and little possibility of part-time work or working from home
may explain why women delay childbirth when forced to make a choice between career
and family.

In comparison with the United States, which has maintained a steady fertility rate of 2.1,
aided in part by immigration, the European social model can actually make it harder for
young people for start families. In Italy, it is not uncommon for people in their 30s to
live with their parents, partly because it is difficult for them to find a decent job which
would allow them to rent or buy their own place. This extension of adolescence defers
the responsibilities of adulthood, which include having a job, paying bills, saving and
investing money, getting married and having children.

But is a growing economy sufficient for replacement-level fertility rates? As I said,
increased job opportunities raise the opportunity cost for women to have children, and
higher living standards and rising expectations of material prosperity may be a factor in
lower fertility rates. Potential parents may not want to sacrifice their current living
standards and may feel insecure about providing adequately for more than one child.
There may even be a sort of competition among families or an exaggerated sense of a
“quality” upbringing (pre-school, private schools, tutors and universities, summer
vacations, etc.) that leads couples to have a single “designer” baby in their late 30s. Such
a child would then receive all the care and attention of the parents without having to
sacrifice or share with any other siblings. While seeming to be concerned with the well-
bring of children, this type of materialism does not result in larger families and probably
makes both children and society more self-indulgent.

So European parents may be choosing quality over quantity: what’s wrong with that?
One answer is that lowest low fertility rates result in a society that is not reproducing
itself; it is committing demographic suicide. Furthermore, Europe’s generous pension
systems rely on working young people to support retirees. Without enough native
workers, Europe is forced to rely on immigration, much of which, for geographic and
historical reasons, will be Muslim and thereby change the character of European society.
It is hard to imagine how sharia law and feminism will go together. As an immigrant
myself, I cannot complain too much, perhaps I have overly-assimilated, but to pretend
that it is of no importance is nonsense.

So what can be done? Some have suggested providing more incentives, such as tax
credits or more day care, to encourage more children. This may help at the margins, but I
doubt such steps will have a dramatic effect. More dynamism, especially for mothers, in
the economic sector may also help. European governments will probably be forced to
institute these and other “pro-natalist” policies. In the end, however, it is parents who
make the final choice about family size, as well they should.

The problem is an ethical-cultural one more than a policy one. Europeans are much less
likely than Americans to be optimistic about the future, less likely to attend religious
services, less likely to get married and have more than one child, and less likely to start a
new business. There is nothing “social” about any of this. It may not be so obvious how
all of these fit together but Europeans need to figure it out and start promoting the most
important resource of all, human capital. Relying less on cradle-to-grave welfare to
manage family life may be the best place to begin.

				
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