UN paints frightening image of Europe’s future

17 Sep 2008

By The Record

Europe faces slippery slope of its own making: aging societies with nowhere to go except downwards.

The future? The computer-generated image of the Ukrainian city of Chernobyl above is what an increasing numbers of demographers and other experts are projecting: European and other societies where childbirth has become an increasing rarity and populations begin to rapidly age. Increasingly deserted cities and nations, once considered the stuff of science fiction, are now being discussed as not just possible, but unavoidable without a radical re-thinking of the way we have developed. If what is predicted as the future for Europe and countries ike Australia is true, the social, political and economic consequences are staggering. Social and economic systems based on societies where the majority of members are beyond working age simply break down. What happens next?

By Philip Longman
Today, most European countries have already passed a demographic tipping point that virtually assures not only rapid population aging, but also absolute population decline.
In Spain for example, the cohort now in its infancy (ages 0-4) is more than 42 per cent smaller than the cohort now in its prime reproduction year (ages 30-34).
What will happen when this tiny younger generation reaches adulthood?
In order to replace all members of the previous generation, each female would have to bear close to four children, as compared to the average 1.15 children produced by their mothers.
Since this hardly seems likely without an extraordinary transformation in both cultural values and the economic cost of children, Spain is all but fated to decline rapidly throughout at least the first half of this century….
According to demographer Massimo Livi-Bacci, never in the past… has Europe’s ability to renew and sustain its population been more compromised by a dwindling supply of youth.
The United Nations projects that Europe as a whole will lose 3.2 million in population between 2000 and 2005.
In the following ten years, the population will decline by more than 11.3 million.
After 2025, population loss continues compounding. Even assuming a 33 per cent increase in fertility rates over today’s levels the UN projects a loss of 28 million Europeans in the 2040s.
If European fertility rates remain unchanged, the only European countries that will avoid population loss by 2050, according to UN projections are France, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Luxembourg, and even these countries will face rapidly aging populations.
Without an increase in its fertility rate, France’s working-age population (15-64) will decline by more than 9 per cent by 2050, while its elderly population will increase by 79 per cent.
The financial implications are staggering. In Europe there are currently 35 people of pensionable age for every 100 people of working age. By 2050, on present demographic trends, there will be 75 pensioners for every 100 workers.
In Spain and Italy the ratio of pensioners to workers is projected to be one to one. Since in most major European countries pensions are financed out of current revenues, tax rates will have to soar if benefits are not cut.
The Deutsche Bank calculates that average workers in Germany are already paying around 29 per cent of their wages into the state pension pot, while the figure in Italy is close to 33 per cent.
The social implications are also staggering. By mid-century, if current trends continue, Europe will be a society in which most adults have few biological relatives…
Europe doesn’t face the prospect of gradual population decline; it faces the prospect of rapid and compounding loss of population unless birth rates soon turn upward.
Like population growth, population decline operates on a geometric curve that compounds with each generation.
If Europe’s current fertility rate of about 1.5 births per woman persists until 2020, this will result in 88 million fewer Europeans by the end of the century.
To adopt a somewhat poignant metaphor: If Europe were a woman, her biological clock would be rapidly running down. It is not too late to adopt more children, but they won’t look like her.
Excerpted from the book by Philip Longman – The Empty Cradle: How falling birthrates threaten world prosperity and what to do about it. Can be ordered through The Record Bookshop on (08) 9227 7080.