Christians of various sort have been been sounding the alarm about the demographic mass suicide occurring in Europe for years only to be greeted by the sounds of a mass yawn. But it seems that cognoscenti may be rising from their slumber. Guess who just noticed that Europe is nearly pitter-patter free? The New York Times in a piece entitled “No Babies?” in which they ponder the question, “is this something we should worry about?”
In the 1990s, European demographers began noticing a downward trend in population across the Continent and behind it a sharply falling birthrate. Non-number-crunchers largely ignored the information until a 2002 study by Italian, German and Spanish social scientists focused the data and gave policy makers across the European Union something to ponder. The figure of 2.1 is widely considered to be the “replacement rate” — the average number of births per woman that will maintain a country’s current population level. At various times in modern history — during war or famine — birthrates have fallen below the replacement rate, to “low” or “very low” levels. But Hans-Peter Kohler, José Antonio Ortega and Francesco Billari — the authors of the 2002 report — saw something new in the data. For the first time on record, birthrates in southern and Eastern Europe had dropped below 1.3. For the demographers, this number had a special mathematical portent. At that rate, a country’s population would be cut in half in 45 years, creating a falling-off-a-cliff effect from which it would be nearly impossible to recover.
There is no shortage of popular explanations to account for the drop in fertility. In Athens, it’s common to blame the city’s infamous air pollution; several years ago a radio commercial promoted air-conditioners as a way to bring back Greek lust and Greek babies. More broadly and significant, social conservatives tie the low birthrate to secularism. After arguing for decades that the West had divorced itself from God and church and embraced a self-interested and ultimately self-destructive lifestyle, abetted above all by modern birth control, they feel statistically vindicated. “Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future,” Pope Benedict proclaimed in 2006. “Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present.” In Germany, where the births-to-deaths ratio now results in an annual population loss of roughly 100,000, Ursula von der Leyen, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s family minister (and a mother of seven), declared two years ago that if her country didn’t reverse its plummeting birthrate, “We will have to turn out the light.” Last March, André Rouvoet, the leader of the Christian Union Party in the Netherlands (and a father of five), urged the government to get proactive and spur Dutch women to have more babies. The Canadian conservative Mark Steyn, author of the 2006 best seller “America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It,” has warned his fellow North Americans, whose birthrates are relatively high, that, regarding their European allies, “These countries are going out of business,”” and that while at the end of the 21st century there may “still be a geographical area on the map marked as Italy or the Netherlands,” these will “merely be designations for real estate.”
Leave it to the Times to find analysts who suspect another interesting culprit for the birth dearth. Not to be caught using the arguments of the religious or common sense, the Times puts forward those who propose that one of the culprits may be those pesky traditional mores. Yes, traditional views toward families might be the problem.
Wondering how the U.S. maintains a healthy birth rate compared to our European comrades glibly notes that “The old conservative argument — that a traditional, working-husband-and-stay-at-home-wife family structure produces a healthy, growing population — doesn’t apply.” and that the key to our success is our flexibility compared to Europe. Inflexibility coupled with those traditional family values and bingo, population implosion.
There is also a social stigma in countries like Italy, where it is seen as less socially accepted for women with children to work. In the U.S., that is very accepted.” By this logic, the worst sort of system is one that partly buys into the modern world — expanding educational and employment opportunities for women — but keeps its traditional mind-set. This would seem to define the demographic crisis that Italy, Spain and Greece find themselves in — and, perhaps, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other parts of the world.
Lest all this talk of demographic problems get you down, some demographers say “no biggie, who needs all those people anyway?”
James W. Vaupel, founding director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany, suggests that “on balance, the future will probably be better than the past. People will probably live longer, healthier lives. Continued economic growth, even if at a slower pace than in the past, will further raise standards of living.”
The Times finishes with an a quote from Carl Haub of the Population Reference Bureau referring to the rosy prognostications of demographers and economists who try to convince that a non existent birth rate is a good thing.
“But you can’t go on forever with a total fertility rate of 1.2. If you compare the size of the 0-to-4 and 29-to-34 age groups in Spain and Italy right now, you see the younger is almost half the size of the older. You can’t keep going with a completely upside-down age distribution, with the pyramid standing on its point. You can’t have a country where everybody lives in a nursing home.”