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Europe’s Choice: Populate or Perish

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Also this week in Acton Commentary, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg observes that “Europe’s declining birth-rate may also reflect a change in intellectual horizons.”

Europe’s Choice: Populate or Perish

If there is one thing the global economic crisis has highlighted, it’s the need to make choices—sometimes very difficult choices. At the June G-20 summit, for example, several European governments made it clear to the Obama Administration that they do not believe you can spend your way out of recessions. Unlike America, countries such as David Cameron’s Britain and Angela Merkel’s Germany have chosen the politically-risky but economically-brave path of austerity and public-sector spending cuts.

In some instances, these measures may not be enough to prevent countries such as Greece and Portugal from sovereign-debt defaults. Still, the alternatives are ever-rising government debt-to-GDP ratios (which invariably prolong stagnation as has occurred in Japan since the 1990s) or attempts to simply inflate the debt away (thereby risking the terrible experience of 1920s Germany or America’s 1970s economic malaise).

In the end, however, escaping the Great Recession’s effects is going to require more than spending cuts. The only long-term way out is economic growth. Here, however, much of Europe faces a problem that most non-European countries do not. The challenge is one of an overall population decline and an aging population. As stated in a 2006 IMF report, “The population of the 25-member European Union in coming decades is set to become slightly smaller—but much older—posing significant risks to potential economic growth and putting substantial upward pressure on public spending.”

However one examines the statistics, the demographic picture for Europe—including Eastern Europe and Russia—is bleak. Statistically-speaking, the numbers of births per woman required merely to maintain a population’s size is 2.1 children. Not a single European country meets that figure today. Germany’s birth-rate, for instance, is 1.38. Italy’s is 1.41. Spain’s is 1.39. France and Britain are doing comparatively well at 2.0 and 1.94 respectively, but—you guessed it—Greece is the lowest in the EU.

Nor is any consolation to be found in the aging statistics. In Belgium, the percentage of the population over 65 will increase from 16 percent to 25 percent by 2050. In 2007, a World Bank document stated that by 2050 approximately half of Spain’s population will be 55 or older.

The reasons for these trends are many. The twentieth century’s two world wars tore large generational holes in Europe’s demographic landscape. Women are also having children later in life. There also seems to be a broad correlation between increasing material prosperity and diminishing population growth. Then there is the greater access to contraception from the 1950s onwards.

But more subtle cultural factors may also be at work. For one thing, it’s striking how many Europeans are reluctant to discuss the subject of their population decline. This may owe something to an association of calls to have more children with the population policies of totalitarian regimes such as Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mussolini’s Italy, and Ceauşescu’s Romania. Another factor may be many Europeans’ susceptibility to population-growth alarmism, as manifested in many European governments’ aggressive promotion of population-control in developing countries (which strikes some as verging on neocolonialism).

At a deeper level, however, Europe’s declining birth-rate may also reflect a change in intellectual horizons. A cultural outlook focused upon the present and disinterested in the future is more likely to view children as a burden rather than a gift to be cared for in quite un-self-interested ways. Individuals and societies that have lost a sense of connection to their past and have no particular interest in their long-term destiny aren’t likely to be worried about a dearth of children. Here Europe’s generation of 1968—which promoted a radical rupture with the past and is intensely suspicious of anything that might broaden people’s outlooks beyond the usual politically-correct causes—has much to answer for.

Immigration is one way for European countries to escape these conundrums. After all, it has proved to be one of America’s engines of economic growth and continues to help the United States avoid the population trap in which Europe now finds itself. For decades, Western Europe relied on immigration, especially from Islamic countries, for cheap labor, especially for those unpleasant jobs some Europeans prefer not to do.

For the moment, however, increased immigration doesn’t appear to be an option for Europe. The policies of multiculturalism have failed and produced such deep fractures in many European societies that most European governments are presently reducing immigration from non-European countries.

Is demography destiny? It need not be. Demography is only one variable among many. Moreover individuals and nations can make choices, and choices change our future. Sometimes circumstances, such as the global economy’s present problems, can provide the incentive and opportunity to break away from apparently unalterable paths.

The clock, however, is ticking. The longer Europeans fail to address their demographic difficulties, the smaller becomes their room for maneuver, and the more likely Europe will be reduced to being a bit-player on the world’s political and economic stage.

The loss would be not only Europe’s, but ours as well.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


  • Melissa

    I find this article very insightful. I enjoy the fact that you tackle real-life issues and the political relm. This is an issue I have thought about myslef, the issues plauging the nation’s governments, recessions all around the world in full force. I do not know how these issues will be resolved. But, I can say all I know to do is pray for wisdom to surround our leaders and guidance from above.

  • Patrick

    Socialism is not family-friendly. It creates, as JP-II observed “a culture of death.” Socialism’s easier, softer way, removes the need for intergenerational family integration and sustenance. Rather, social security breaks the bonds between generations. Contraception and abortion further reduce the need for family formation, as sex without consequences becomes a right. If government can reduces the number of persons who make it from conception to the cradle, can it hasten, those who drain the treasury, persons to the grave? With government health care, ‘cradle to the grave’ is a lethal path.
    Family sustainability is very dependent on how it is treated
    by government; for example, the Bush Tax Cuts are due to expire this year, which will have a detrimental effect on many families, as the family farm or small business passes from the family to the government and scavengers, who pickup the family assets in the distress sale necessitated to pay death taxes. Few who draw their livelihood from government pass it on to their children (Kennedy’s and Bushes excepted), rather, they pass on the national debt, so their concern for small business and family sustainability is confused.

  • EA

    Well I am 29, of Scandinavian origin and I have no children. Let’s look at this realistically. I do not want children before I am 35. That is my choice and a carefully considered one. A child needs a stable and prosperous home and I need to live my life first as I only have one. This is not egotistic or greed, it is a realization of the situation I am living in, of what human life is and how precious the little time we have on this earth is. Having a child means responsibilities towards that individual that is completely dependent on you for survival. Once you have a child you have relinquished your own life for and with your child which is sacred. A child is not a asset to work on a farm, something to be bargained with or to send alone to a foreign country to make you money. In modern Europe the role of a parent is shared equally by both genders. Women are not baby machines that take care of them while men work for the home. I hope to have a child or children one day and the rest of the world stops overpopulating with regular famine and civil wars. The reality is that I am doing the right thing and the population growth in less developed countries is unsustainable. Sadly, a Chinese style one child policy is the only way to fix this.