A year or so ago, economic analysts were frantic about Europe’s “baby bust,” an idea that appears to have travelled across the Atlantic from the United States. They advised that we must “breed for Europe” or import millions of immigrants to forestall economic collapse due to rising pension obligations and a shrinking workforce.
These proposals are now recognized as politically unacceptable. Moreover, they provide no solutions. Falling birth rates and aging populations are nothing new to Europe: life expectancies have doubled in less than two hundred years, and birth rates have been falling for more than a century.
Necessary adjustments are being made. Early in 2004, actuaries advised United Kingdom corporate pension funds to raise their specified retirement and pension ages in line with life expectancy. A Pensions Bill was considered by Parliament, under which people would receive a cash reward if they defer retirement and claim their state pension five years later than scheduled. In the meantime, the government is looking at more ways to improve the health and skills of people of working age, of whom seven million are economically inactive. What of the Continent? In France and Germany, radical pension and employment reforms need to be speeded up. But a Europe-wide anti-age discrimination law will take effect in 2006.
Surely, action to stabilize and gradually reduce the U.K.’s population is long overdue. The whole of our small country would fit into the state of Oregon with room to spare, yet more than fifty-nine million are already packed inside our borders; population density is twelve times higher than in the United States. Even if the U.K. population stabilized tomorrow, there would be no change in the demographic support ratio (the ratio of working age population to young and old dependents) until 2012. Yet our population is growing faster than ever before, with more than half the annual increase due to inward migration.
The problems caused by continuous population growth are far more serious than the challenge of adapting to aging populations. This situation is not unique to the U.K. or Europe but is being faced worldwide. Once the need to address population growth is accepted, the only questions that remain are when to stabilize populations and how to tackle the challenges that will arise from shrinking demographic support ratios.
The Optimum Population Trust (OPT), a small U.K. environmental organization, has made rough estimates of the populations that our planet can consistently sustain at various levels of consumption and technology. For example, at current levels of consumption and technology, our world may be able to sustain only about half its current numbers in the next century, the limiting factors being greenhouse-gas-emission damage and fossil-fuel depletion. Europe faces both looming energy shortages and the deferred risks of destabilizing global warming, whose reality was brought home last year when 20,000 people died in record summer heat.
North Sea oil production, which underpinned healthy U.K. trade balances in the 1990s, is now peaking. By 2020, the U.K. will depend on imports for 80 to 90 percent of its gas. Neither nuclear power nor renewable energy can fill much of this widening energy gap. With the exception of Norway, all European countries face the same energy crunch—and here in Old Europe, voters are deeply uneasy about going to war to secure supplies of oil.
Europe is facing up to the demographic adjustment that all populations will have to make in due course. It cannot solve the dilemma of its aging population by increasing inward migration from beyond its borders. Mass immigration is no solution for two simple reasons: first, young newcomers who settle will in time also grow old; second, very large influxes would be needed to maintain demographic support ratios. More potently, the political backlash against the asylum seekers and economic migrants who surged across Europe’s borders during the last ten years has reached the boiling point. In February, the normally tolerant Netherlands (the most densely populated E.U. member state) threw in the towel and began mass deportations of illegals. By April, the U.K. government also had an immigration crisis on its hands, with an angry electorate demanding tougher controls.
Is it time for European mothers to start breeding for Europe? At OPT, we think not. The same demographic problems obtain, although it takes a baby seventy years to reach the age of seventy, while a migrant might reach it in fifty years or less. History gives a useful perspective: the Europe whose young men were slaughtered by the millions in two world wars did not see its population go into terminal decline as a result. In Western Europe, population is actually falling only in Italy. There, the government has introduced financial incentives for mothers to have more babies and may implement practical measures to make it easier for working women to raise the small families that most European mothers like to have—and which would allow our numbers to reduce gradually to more sustainable levels.
Worldwide, we have little choice. At the current rate of fertility, Earth’s population would reach 134 trillion in 2300, according to the United Nations. Continuous population growth is mathematically and environmentally impossible, and, therefore, we must accept declining birth rates and aging populations and work out how to make the best of these trends. Unless, of course, you know how to move several billion people to Mars.
Rosamund McDougall is co-chair of the Optimum Population Trust (www.optimumpopulation.org) based in Manchester, U.K., and has one child.