Declining population not apocalyptic

By Steve Chapman: Syndicated columnist

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 replacement level.

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.

European leaders 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.

Pessimism abounds. “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 embrace them.

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 heavy.

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.

Steve Chapman writes for Creators Syndicate. Contact him at:
schapman@tribune.com