MY MATERNAL GRANDFATHER, A MILLER, was born in 1850 and lived in Upper Silesia. He had six children. Three of his six children had no children of their own, two had two each, and one had a single child. This, in a nutshell, is the story of the rise and decline of the population of Europe. The average European family had five children in the nineteenth century, but this number declined steadily until it fell below the reproduction rate (2.2) in the major European countries before the outbreak of World War I. There were brief periods when the trend went in the opposite direction, for instance the baby boom after World War II, when the birthrate in all European countries rose above 2.2 and in some nations, such as the Netherlands, Ireland, and Portugal, above 3.0. But this lasted for less than a decade, and since the late 1950s the decline has continued. At present the total fertility rate for Europe is 1.37. (The crude birthrate is the number of births per 1,000 persons per year.) To give another example, in Italy and in Spain in the early years of the twenty-first century, about half as many children were born as around 1960. This trend continues, and it is difficult to think why there should be a lasting reversal. In a hundred years the population of Europe will be only a fraction of what it is today, and in two hundred years some countries may have disappeared.
It is certainly a striking trend considering that only a hundred years ago Europe was the center of the world. Africa consisted almost entirely of European colonies, and India was the jewel of the British empire. Germany, France, and Russia had the strongest armies in the world, Britain the strongest navy. The European economy was leading the world. America was making rapid progress, but it still had a long way to go, and few were taking notice. Politically and culturally, only London and Paris, Berlin and Vienna counted; there was no good reason that European students should attend American universities, which were behind the European in every respect.
But there were clouds on the horizon, for instance the Russian revolution of 1905. But in Russia, too, there was considerable economic progress. There were tensions between the European powers, but there had been no war for several decades, and a war seemed unlikely. The confidence of Europe was unbroken. The world population in 1900 was about 1.7 billion, of whom one out of four lived in Europe. Europe’s population was about six times that of the United States, which was 76 million at the time. Then World War I broke out with its horrible devastation and its many millions of victims—some 8.5 million soldiers died and 13 million civilians perished from starvation, disease, and massacres—followed by revolutions, civil war, inflation, and mass unemployment. Europe had become considerably weaker, but it was still the center of the world, the leading force.
All the while the population clock was ticking away, but few paid attention because in absolute figures the population of Europe continued to increase, and people were living longer. But Europe’s numbers grew much more slowly than the population in other parts of the world. If the population of Europe had been 422 million in the year 1900, it was 548 million in 1950 and 727 million in 2000. In fact, there were false alarms from time to time of overpopulation. When I went to school in Germany (beginning before the Nazi takeover), the teachers talked at great length about the need for more lebensraum, “living space.” The famous bestseller of that period was Hans Grimm’s Volk ohne Raum (A People Without Space). The author had lived for many years in South Africa, and he thought, like many others, that agriculture was the most important pillar of the national economy and determined the health of the nation. This was wrong even at the time (before the great technological revolution in agriculture), and Hitler, too, had accepted that for building up and maintaining a big, modern army developing heavy industry was more important than growing potatoes and tomatoes. But even after World War II the fairy tale of European overpopulation found for a while influential supporters such as the Club of Rome, which published 30 million copies of a report in 1972 about the limits of growth that preached precisely this warning about overpopulation.
What was the reason for the steady decline of the birthrate in Europe? This is a question not easy to answer because the trend took place all over the continent—in countries of very different character in north and south, in west and east, in Catholic and Protestant and Orthodox countries, among the very rich and the relatively poor. For this reason it does not come as a surprise that there is no unanimity among demographers on this question. The birth control pill played a certain role but probably not a decisive one. More important was the fact that more and more women accepted (or felt compelled to accept) working full-time and did not want their careers interrupted by pregnancies and the need to take care of their babies. To give but one example, half of the female scientists in Germany are childless. Most important in all probability was the fact that the institution of the family had greatly declined in value and esteem. Families became outmoded; many wanted to enjoy themselves, not to be tied down by all kinds of obligations and responsibilities. Thus the apparent paradox that at the very time when Europeans could afford to have more children than at any time in the past they had many fewer children.
Given this decline, what are the predictions for the future? According to the estimates of the United Nations and the European Community (“World Population Prospects” and “Eurostat”), the population of France will decline only slightly, from about 60 million at present to 55 million in 2050 and 43 million at the end of the century, but the number of ethnic French will decline rapidly. A similar trend is forecast for the United Kingdom: from 60 million at present to 53 million in 2050 and 45 million in 2100. Most other European countries would fare considerably worse. Thus the population of Germany, 82 million at present, will decline to 61 million in 2050 and 32 million in 2100. The decline of Italy and Spain would be drastic. Italy counts some 57 million inhabitants at present; this is expected to shrink to 37 million at midcentury and 15 million by 2100. The figures for Spain are 39 million at present, declining to 28 million in 2050 and 12 million at the end of the century. All these predictions do not take into account immigration in the decades to come.
The projected population losses for Eastern Europe for midcentury are even more catastrophic:
Ukraine: 43 percent
Bulgaria: 34 percent
Latvia and Lithuania: 25–27 percent
Russian Federation: 22 percent
Croatia: 20 percent
Hungary: 18 percent
Czech Republic: 17 percent
By 2050, according to these sources, only Cyprus, Luxembourg, Malta, and perhaps Sweden will still be growing. This is only part of the overall picture, however. For once societies become overage, the number of those able to produce children falls rapidly and the decline gathers momentum. For the first time in history there are more people aged over sixty than under twenty in major European countries such as Italy, Germany, Spain, and Greece. The other factor that has to be taken into account is that the relatively slow decline in countries such as France and Britain will be the result of the relatively high fertility rate among the immigrant communities—black and North African in France and Pakistani and Caribbean in Britain.
It is true that there has been a worldwide decline in fertility; the fertility rate has halved, broadly speaking, in the third world from 6.2 children to 3.4 between 1965 and 2000, and, according to UN and other projections, the world population in 2100 will be approximately 8 billion and then decline. (It is 6 billion at present.) However, in the regions closest to Europe such as North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East, there will be no decline in the near future. According to these projections, the population of Turkey will be 100 million in 2050, that of Egypt 114 million, and there will be 45 million Algerians and 45 million Moroccans. The highest rise will be in the very poorest countries. By 2050 Yemen will have a larger population than the Russian Federation and Nigeria and Pakistan will each have a larger population than the fifteen nations comprising until recently the European Community. Germany, at present the fourteenth most populous country, will have fallen behind Congo, Ethiopia, Uganda, Vietnam, Turkey, Egypt, Afghanistan, and Kenya.
Russia has at present a population of 145 million, but it will be overtaken first by Turkey and subsequently by many other countries, including perhaps even Yemen and Ethiopia. Yemen (as Paul Demeny pointed out in an article in Population and Development Review in 2003), which had about 4 million inhabitants in 1950, has now some 20 million and, according to the projections based on current fertility rates, will have more than a hundred million by 2050. At the same time, the population of Russia is shrinking annually by 2 percent, which is to say that within fifty years its population will shrink to one-third of its current size. Demeny observes that there is hardly any precedent for such a precipitous demographic collapse in human history.
Common sense finds it difficult to accept such projections, and for good reasons—not so much with regard to the Russian demographic collapse but concerning the growth of Yemen. Yemen is a poor country, much of its territory consists of desert (only 3 percent of the country is arable), and there is little water. The prospects for agriculture are limited, and while a certain amount of industrialization will no doubt take place, the idea that the Yemen economy could sustain a population of more than 100 million defies even the most fertile imagination. It seems more than likely that the population of Yemen (and of other countries in a similar position) will grow less, because there will be neither work nor food. Similar considerations apply to Egypt. But at the same time it seems certain that even if there were to be a dramatic decrease in the Yemeni fertility rate, the population of that country will considerably increase, many will look for work outside their native country, and there will be far greater population pressure on Europe. For more fortunate countries such as Turkey, however, the projections for 2050 and beyond seem quite realistic. And it also seems quite realistic that Europe’s share in the world population will be no more than 4 to 5 percent in 2050, in the lifetime of many of those living now, having been 25 percent in 1900 and 12 percent in 1950.
The same considerations apply to projections beyond the year 2100. According to the UN projections for the year 2300, the population of Europe will have fallen to a mere 59 million. Many European countries will be reduced to about 5 percent of their current population and Russia and Italy to 1 percent, less than live at present in the cities of Novosibirsk or Turin, respectively. While such a possibility cannot be ruled out, projections for long periods almost two hundred years into the future cannot possibly take into account scientific and technological developments. We do not know what progress medicine will make or how long people will live in two hundred years. However, pandemics or wars or natural disasters may have an impact that cannot be calculated. We do not know the impact of new technologies on labor productivity—how much of a workforce will be needed to keep the economies going. New ideologies or religions may appear that could influence population growth or decline.
Some have argued that if Europe is still a continent of any importance two hundred years from now, it will almost certainly be a black continent. Others have predicted that at the end of the twenty-first century Europe will be Islamic. Such predictions are based on the higher African and Middle Eastern birthrate on one hand and the need for massive immigration into Europe on the other. Since Europe will be graying even in the next few decades, younger workers will be needed to secure the survival in reasonable comfort of the older generation no longer active in the workforce.
According to a scenario presented in the UN report Replacement Migration: Is It a Solution to Declining and Ageing Populations? no fewer than 700 million immigrants will be needed for the period between 1995 and 2050 to restore the age balance. But such figures largely belong to the realm of fantasy, for it is not known how many workers will be needed, nor from whence they will come. India and China, too, are aging and the birthrate is falling even in Bangladesh. At present the European problem is unemployment among young immigrant workers and the fact that many of them lack the skills needed to be of assistance in the workforce. Many of the second generation have not done well in the European educational system, which means that this problem is not likely to disappear soon. And even if they had the necessary skills, it is not clear whether they would be willing to work (as it were) for the well-being of the senior citizens of a society with which they do not identify. It will be difficult enough to reach a generational contract within the European societies, let alone a contract including newcomers from abroad. That Europe will need immigrants from abroad goes without saying, but whether such immigrants with the qualifications needed will be at all available is not known.
It is doubtful whether Europe will be Muslim at the end of this century. This might be true with regard to some cities and provinces, and it goes without saying that the Muslim element will play a far greater role in European politics and society than at present. But it will not apply to the continent as a whole for a variety of reasons. In the first place, many of the new immigrants to Europe are not Muslim—they come from India and Southeast Asia, from tropical Africa, the West Indies, and other parts of the world (more about this later). And while it is true that Muslim immigrants have been very resistant to absorption and integration, it is not certain that this will continue with equal intensity for several generations. In other words, the meaning of individuals or a community being “Islamic” by the end of the twenty-first century is by no means clear; it is only a projection that could be altered by all kinds of factors. That Europe at the end of the century will be very different from present-day Europe goes without saying. For all one knows, the continent might be greatly diminished in stature and influence and in deep trouble. But it will not necessarily be predominantly Islamist.
IS THE SHRINKING OF POPULATION necessarily a bad thing? And to what extent do figures really matter? Is it not in some respects desirable, because the dangers of overpopulation are only too obvious? And don’t civilized conditions prevail far more often in smaller European countries than in big ones? This may be quite true, but the problem facing Europe is how to prevent too sudden a decline, which would have enormous social and economic consequences.
When the welfare state was first introduced after World War II the population structure of European societies was quite different from that of the present; furthermore, life expectancy has risen considerably and will continue to rise. According to some experts, by 2060 the average life expectancy will be about one hundred years. These changes have a direct impact on the amount of social security that has to be paid, as well as on medical care, insurance, and other social services. The same problems face other developed countries, but they are particularly acute in Europe and will be even more acute in the future. Where will the additional funds come from? What happens to the economy once the population shrinks? Some tend to believe that the productivity of labor (and capital) will provide the additional funds, but this seems less likely as time goes by. It is far more likely that social services will be cut. For instance, the age when pensions are due, at present sixty-five in most European countries, may be increased and the sums paid out (at present up to 70 percent of the average income) may have to be reduced.
Steps in this direction have been taken in many European countries and have encountered bitter opposition, but those opposing the painful cuts have not been able to present realistic counterproposals.
The median age is at present only slightly higher in Europe than in the United States (thirty-seven as compared with thirty-five in America). However, according to projections, it will be thirty-six in America in 2050 and about fifty-three in Europe. America will be a much younger country, a fact that has not only economic, measurable statistical consequences but also, perhaps more important, political and psychological ramifications. Assuming that military forces will still be needed fifty years from now, the question arises where Europe’s soldiers will be coming from—unless the age of recruits will be increased by twenty years or so.
There are other factors that cannot be measured; within a generation or two the institution of the family will be even further weakened. In Germany the sharp decline began with the Generation of 1968 and the Frankfurt School, with its Critical Theory, which belittled the function of the family from both a social and an economic point of view. But the family declined also in other societies in which the year 1968 was not an important turning point. One prominent economist said that Homo economicus would have no children. What are the consequences if young people find that with the disappearance of the family their parents are their only relations? It will probably be a much lonelier and sadder world. We do not know the answers to this and related questions.
Two questions remain to be answered, however briefly: Could the projections be wrong? And is it possible to reverse these trends if it is accepted that this is desirable?
Historical experience tends to show that “natalist policies” are not very successful, at least not in the long run. Under Hitler and Mussolini, and also under Stalin for a while, a higher birthrate was strongly promoted by the propaganda machines of these regimes and a variety of incentives were promised and given to large families. But this did not affect the long-term trend of the birthrate. East Germany under the Communist regime provided a great deal of services for working mothers, and many complained that after the fall of the Berlin Wall many of these services were discontinued. But again this had no lasting impact on the birthrate. Among democratic societies, France and Sweden adopted policies likely to reduce the financial burden of having children. These include parental leave for many months before and after the birth of the child (and promised job security), tax reduction, and cash payment and various other incentives, including the possibility of working part-time. Some have suggested that when two candidates apply for the same job, then, other things being equal, precedence should be given to a mother over a childless woman. Altogether, Sweden spent ten times more on such incentives than did countries like Italy and Spain. But after a short-lived upsurge, the number of births went down again—a decline attributed to a downturn in the economy. But in Italy, where the birthrate went down even more, on the contrary, prosperity was thought to be the reason for the decline. In brief, Sweden and France, which provided a variety of incentives to encourage childbearing, cannot serve as a model; the most that can be said is that if not for these measures the birthrate would have declined even more.
There probably will be minor ups and downs in the European birthrate in the years to come, but the basic trend is downward, and while a radical turn is always possible, it is difficult at the present time even to imagine its causes.
What can be predicted with near mathematical certainty is that the decline will continue at least up to the middle of this century, because if there are more deaths than births, a whole generation will be missing that could have produced children. By and large the predictions of the demographers have been accurate, with only a minor quotient of error. Their predictions are made on a best-case as well as a worst-case scenario, with an additional prediction in the middle. Thus, to give but one example, the highest projection for the world population by midcentury is 10.6 billion, the lowest 7.4, and the medium 8.9. But as far as Europe is concerned, even the best-case scenarios show a negative trend.
THE LAST DAYS OF EUROPE. Copyright © 2007 by Walter Laqueur.