Across Europe, births have been below the replacement level for decades, leading to ageing societies that increasingly struggle to support their elderly populations and maintain a good standard of living. Polly Dunbar has been looking at the worrying statistics and what’s behind them in the Telegraph.
Recently, an apocalyptic phrase has been uttered over and over again by Italy’s political class: “demographic winter”. Almost every year since 1993, deaths in the country have outstripped births, causing a slow-motion crisis which has gradually reached critical mass.
Italy’s fertility rate is dropping so precipitously that by 2070, the population – currently 59 million – is forecast to fall by almost 12 million to 47.2 million.
The situation threatens to push the world’s eighth-largest economy into an ‘economic dark age’, without a workforce capable of funding its welfare state and the pensions of its older citizens.
In fact, the picture across the whole of Europe’s population is bleak, with ominous implications for economic growth as well as pensions, healthcare and social services.
It is an ageing continent: by 2050, the share of people over 65 will rise to around 30% from around 20% today, says the European Commission.
And we’re not immune here, either. In Britain, the birth rate is at a record low. There were 605,479 live births in England and Wales last year, down 3.1% from 624,828 in 2021 – and the lowest number since 2002.
Almost a third of those births were to women born outside the U.K. The ONS has predicted that the U.K.’s natural population will start to decline in 2025, at which point there will be more deaths than births. …
The fertility rate has changed markedly across European countries in the past two decades. Between 2001 and 2021, it decreased in 11 of the 27 EU member states. Even France, the EU country with the highest fertility rate, recorded only 1.84 live births per woman, well below the magic number of 2.1 which demographers consider the benchmark of what’s needed to keep the population stable (called the substitution index.)
According to the EU’s Eurostat agency, Portugal, at 1.35, is projected to be the European country with the smallest proportion of children by 2050, with just 11.5% of the population expected to be under the age of 15.
Surveys show both men and women in Europe wish they had more children. There are many reasons they do not, including the trend towards starting a family later, but perhaps the biggest driving factor is economic uncertainty.
Worth reading in full.
Stephen J. Shaw recently looked at the issue for the Spectator. He reported the surprising finding that the problem stems not from people having smaller families – the average family size among those who have children has remained largely constant over recent decades – but from more people not having children at all.
Data showed that the preponderance of one-child families has barely changed in decades across these nations, leaving childlessness as the only possible reason for below-replacement birth rates. My hypothesis soon became that the shared explanation for low birth rates around the world was childlessness, and not smaller families.
The number of childless people in the U.K. has grown to one in four over the past five decades, yet the number of children that mothers are having has increased slightly, from 2.3 in the 1970s to 2.4 today. In Japan the figure for childlessness is one in three, yet 6% of mothers are having four or more children, exactly the same as in 1973. In Italy two in five women are childless, while the average mother is having 2.2 children, the same as 40 years ago. As for the U.S., the proportion of childless women is trending towards one in three, but the average mother is having 2.6 children, up from 2.4 in the 1970s.
This confirms that the idea we’re moving towards smaller families is simply a myth. Childlessness alone has driven our overall birth rates to ultra-low levels.
Since the demographic crisis stems from a growth in people not having children, rather than in those who have children having fewer, the solution must lie in understanding why up to a third of the population is now remaining childless. Is it by choice or through circumstance? Shaw thinks it’s mainly circumstance, citing research showing that “80% of people without children are childless through circumstance, with the most common reason being not having a partner at the right time”.
He notes statistics from an official U.S. database “of more than 5,000 women which has been the gold standard for researchers for decades”, showing that “between 93% and 96% of women consistently plan to become mothers in their early fertile years, many more than actually achieve that goal”.
If not having a partner at the right time is the issue, then the plummeting marriage rates and high divorce rates must be part of the picture.
Economic circumstances are usually blamed for falling birth rates, though if that was the critical factor you might expect everyone to have fewer children, not just the number who remain childless to increase. But perhaps unfavourable economic conditions are more likely to put people off starting a family than expanding one. A lack of affordable housing is often singled out as a barrier here.
Cheaper childcare and more flexible working is commonly touted as the solution, though the riddle there is that the countries with the most generous such provision, such as Scandinavia, are faring scarcely better than elsewhere.
Women and men in their 20s and 30s prioritising career and lifestyle over starting a family must be part of what’s behind the ‘never getting round to it’ and ‘never meeting the right person’ phenomenon.
I don’t suppose that the explosion in ‘non-heteronormative’ identities is helping much either.
What do you think – what’s behind the Western birth rate crisis, and what can be done to turn things around?