BERLIN -- Will the
last person in Europe please turn out the lights? That's the question
being asked from Moscow to Madrid, where people are having fewer
babies than ever before. The continent is anticipating something
hard to imagine 30 years ago: a shrinking population.
A generation ago,
we were warned that the "population explosion" would
lead to famine, war and environmental catastrophe. Today, the
alleged danger is a population implosion.
No one disputes the
basic trend. Here in Germany, the average woman has 1.4 children,
well short of the 2.1 needed to keep the population roughly stable
without immigration. In Italy, Spain and Greece, the rate is around
1.3. In the United States, by contrast, the rate is around the
Even with the addition
of immigrants, Europe's population is projected to decline after
2025. Germany alone will probably lose some 8 million people by
the middle of the century.
have begun to take action. Last week, the French government announced
higher government stipends for parents who take leave from their
jobs to have a third child. German family affairs minister Ursula
von der Leyen -- the mother of seven -- wants the Berlin government
to increase subsidies for childbearing.
"Germans are at risk of dying out," warns one expert.
American Catholic theologian George Weigel says Europe is committing
"demographic suicide." He fears for the fate of a continent
that "declines to create the human future in the most elemental
sense, by creating a next generation."
But rest easy: There
will be a next generation of Europeans, and another one after
that. To call a decline in population "suicide" is like
referring to a diet as "starvation." Europeans are not
refusing to reproduce -- they are just doing it at a slower pace
than their parents and grandparents did.
This is not a sign
of failure. It's a sign of success. For millennia, parents had
to produce babies in large numbers just to see some survive to
adulthood. Today, thanks to better nutrition and medical care,
people can bear fewer children but still count on having grandchildren.
The economic calculus
has also changed radically. Children used to become productive
assets early in life, laboring in fields, factories or the home.
So people generally had lots of them.
But in the developed
world, kids no longer contribute much to their upkeep until well
beyond adolescence. On the contrary, they require ever-increasing
investments in education, as well as designer clothes, music lessons,
sports camps and iPods. When the cost of a child rises, it's not
surprising that most parents would choose to have one or two instead
of three or six.
Once upon a time,
of course, many people had little choice on whether to bear children.
Let's call these people "women." Lacking birth control
or many alternatives beyond marriage and motherhood, they got
to spend a lot of time pregnant whether they wanted to or not.
For women in Europe,
things have improved. They have other options -- pursuing demanding
careers, extending their educations, remaining single -- and many
Men, too, enjoy more
choices than before, some of which are incompatible with large
families. If males and females conclude that the pursuit of happiness
entails fewer children, it's hard to see why governments should
encourage them to have kids they don't especially want.
The only real problem
is that the combination of fewer births and longer lives makes
the European welfare state even less affordable than it already
is. As the retiree population grows and the number of working
adults falls, the tax burden on workers will get excruciatingly
Europe could increase
its population by admitting immigrants. But there are other obvious
remedies to the problem. The first is for people to extend their
working lives, supporting themselves instead of asking younger
folks to support them. It's hardly cruel to say that the tradeoff
for getting to live past 80 is to keep working past 65.
The other antidote
is to boost economic growth -- generating greater income and wealth
that can be used for a variety of purposes. That is something
many countries in Europe know they need to do anyway. The looming
demographic change may serve the useful purpose of getting them
to do it sooner rather than later.
Like any major change,
a declining population will cause some pain. But with intelligent
adjustments, there is no reason Europe can't be prosperous and
stable with fewer Europeans. A couple of years ago, after all,
it was exactly that.
2006 Creators Syndicate