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Europe's Population Time Bomb - Part 3

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Lester Wills

I have been focusing on the population time bomb facing Europe in the coming decades and considering the implications of the massive change in demographic conditions around the world. I mentioned last time that the situation in Europe is looking a little crazy.

This is because there has been an unexpected upturn in birthrates in some parts of Europe. Populations are expected to shrink in Italy, Spain, Greece and Germany. The latter is currently losing 100,000 people a year! But, the decline is even more rapid further east in Russia, Romania and Bulgaria, which is set to lose almost half of its population by 2050.

However, strange though it may seem, in the UK, France, the Netherlands and Scandinavia birthrates, which declined steadily between 1900 and 1960, are creeping up again. In the UK, despite a rapidly declining population in Scotland, the overall fertility rate is 1.8 and rising. In Holland it is 1.7. Sweden's has risen to 1.9, with the rest of Scandinavia at 1.8. However, as the Independent article notes, because the figures are logarithmic, not arithmetic, these differences are actually very significant.

According to Dr John Cleland, Professor of Medical Demography at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the span of fertility across countries has never been wider. He argues that both extremes cause their own problems. He explains that if Europe continues with an average birth rate of 1.5 the population will halve every 65 years. But if Africa continues with half its population under 15 it will continue to consume more than it produces making it harder to escape from poverty and illiteracy.

As any one who has studied demography, even superficially, will understand a country's population is determined by three things, how many people are born (the birth rate), how soon they die (the mortality rate) and how many leave or enter the country (migration). As the figures demonstrate, birth rates are still rising in Africa and parts of the developing world but falling in Europe and the Far East. Mortality rates on the other hand are falling almost everywhere. As a result global life expectancy has risen from 46 in 1950 to 65 in 2008 and is expected to reach 75 by 2050 and is forecast to be around 82 in Europe by mid-century.

Migration on the other hand is the real political hot potato. However, despite what the zealots claim (remember Cronulla), it tends to be a marginal factor in population issues. It would take something like 700 million immigrants throughout Europe to counter the low-birthrates. Given the current cultural and identity tensions that already exist in many European countries, such a figure is simply unthinkable. I have no idea what the figure would be for Australia, but needless to say it would be unsustainable.

Therefore, unless we intend to reverse the direction of mortality rates (imagine the political storm that would produce), changing birth rates is the only answer. Easier said than done and of course, it takes time, lots of time. The implications of these wide demographic shifts are huge and as I keep saying, will affect everyone, not just the old.

Low-birth Europe is faced with an ageing population, a pensions crisis, later retirement, changes in work patterns, shrinking cities and a massive looming healthcare cost. Nations of children with no siblings, cousins, aunts or uncles, only parents, grandparents, and perhaps great-grandparents, will face the burden of paying for the care of a massive older generation. The same prospect of an older, more conservative, less vigorous or inventive culture looms in China, Japan and much of the Far East.

Meanwhile Africa with its high birth rates, will remain stuck in a vicious circle unless it gets economic growth, agricultural reform, improved world trade terms, infrastructure investment, better health and education systems, more girls into school and a wider availability of family planning.

But whether my fellow Brits, by limiting themselves to two children, as the BMJ is suggesting, will do the trick on its own, is debatable, to say the least.

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