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Angela Merkel and the Decline of Europe

Is Europe’s survival and future success at stake due to its low population growth?

October 13, 2005

Is Europe's survival and future success at stake due to its low population growth?

After centuries of growth, Europe's population is now on the decline.

Near the end of the 20th century, the population of Europe reached a high of 729 million people. Today, it is declining. Over the next several decades, the pace of population decline is expected to quicken to around two million per year. As a result, by 2050, Europe's population is likely to be 75 million less than it is today.

This decline is not the result of famine, pestilence, war or some other Malthusian check.

The decline of Europe's population is being brought about voluntarily, the result of hundreds of millions of men and women choosing to have fewer children than is needed to ensure population replacement.

All European nations, except Albania, are currently experiencing low replacement-level fertility rates. The Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, the Russian Federation, Spain and Ukraine have fertility levels now closer to one child per woman.

With expanding opportunities for higher education, careers and economic independence, alongside highly effective contraception, European women are postponing or avoiding altogether the onset of parenthood. In many parts of Europe, for example, more than 10% of women in their early 40s are childless. In Finland, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, proportions are closer to 20%.

Many Europeans are choosing to have their first child at a later age. The average ages of parents at the birth of their first child have been rising for several decades and are now typically in the late 20s.

Postponing the first birth often translates into fewer first births and even fewer second or third births. The end result is clear. The average European family today has less than two children.

If fertility rates remain below the two-child replacement-level long enough, populations will shrink and age in the absence of compensating immigration.

In a couple of generations, for example, Europe's population — according to UN projections — is expected to be 10% smaller. However, the proportion of the population 65 years or older is expected to increase from 15% to 28%.

Could immigration be a solution to Europe’s population decline? While Europe is receiving some immigration, today’s numbers — a net flow of roughly one million per year — are not enough to offset the demographic consequences of very low birth rates.

To halt its population decline, Europe would need to double net immigration to halt its population decline, triple immigration to maintain the size of its current working-age population — and quintuple immigration to keep worker/retiree ratios at roughly today’s levels.

Given current political, economic and social circumstances prevailing across the continent, such increases in immigration appear unlikely in the near future.

Some, especially environmentalists, may view the decline and ageing of Europe's population as welcome developments. Many European governments, however, are increasingly alarmed by the economic, social, cultural and geopolitical consequences of their shrinking and ageing populations.

Take the Russian Federation. By mid-century, its population is expected to decline by one-fifth — or approximately 30 million people. Under those circumstances, some countries consider their low birth rates along with the resulting population decline to be a serious crisis that jeopardizes the basic foundations of their nations. Economic growth, defense, pensions and health care are all areas of major concern.

Europe’s low birth rates, alongside the higher birth rates in developing nations, have significantly shifted the global position of European countries. Europe accounted for nearly one-quarter of the world’s population until the second-half of the 20th century.

Today, the proportion is half that level — or about 11%. By 2050, the proportion is expected to be nearly halved again, with only around 7% of the world's population projected to be living in Europe.

In attempting to raise birth rates, European governments are seeking to address the underlying causes of low fertility by adopting polices that encourage couples to have more babies.

Job security, maternity and paternity leave, childcare, after-school programs, cash allowances, priority housing and other incentives are among the issues being carefully reviewed by many of the governments.

Some governments are instituting more flexible work schedules and part-time employment options to make child rearing more compatible for women in the labor force. Others believe that the key to raising fertility is to have mothers and fathers share equal responsibility in child rearing and housework duties.

Accordingly, some countries — such as Norway and Sweden — now have legislation entitling working fathers to take paternity leave and encouraging them to share in parental leave.

But will such policies, programs and incentives be sufficient enough to raise birth rates? It seems likely that European fertility will increase somewhat above the very low rates of today, as the lowering effect of postponing childbearing runs its course.

It appears unlikely, however, that European governments will be able to raise fertility rates to replacement-levels in the near future. As a result, the European population of tomorrow will in all likelihood be much smaller and older than it is today.