Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

"You're Not Getting Any Younger": Impacts of Europe's Population Decline

By Xavier SalvadorPublished March 24, 2017

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Written by Xavier Salvador, 3/24/17 Western Europe is in demographic disorder. Two groups define the region's population shifts: Elderly and Refugees. Increased migration from the Middle-East and North Africa may offer a short-term impact on the region's age structure and fertility potential, however, national governments need to be concerned about long-term population decline.


Written by Xavier Salvador, 3/24/17

Western Europe is in demographic disorder. Two groups define the region's population shifts: Elderly and Refugees. Increased migration from the Middle-East and North Africa may offer a short-term impact on the region's age structure and fertility potential, however, national governments need to be concerned about long-term population decline.





Western Europe is in demographic disorder. Two groups define the region's population shifts: Elderly and Refugees. Increased migration from the Middle-East and North Africa may offer a short-term impact on the region's age structure and fertility potential, however, national governments need to be concerned about long-term population decline. Numerous governments spend millions of public funds on pro-fertility efforts. In addition, demographic scholars assert that the flood of refugees seeking acceptance may help slow any potential decline. But with increasing health care advancements and spending for the dependent, elderly population, a shrinking youth cohort is becoming a major concern. Therefore, countries such as Germany, Spain, and Italy need to reassess their efforts to prevent population decline as a future drop represents broader social changes which go beyond the rapid influx of asylum seekers.
 
The fertility and aging trends across the region are almost equivalent. For Spain, by 2050, the over-65s will make up 34.6% of the population, while close to a quarter of a million Spaniards will be over 100 years old. This will decrease the Spanish youth population by nearly 2 million people. Regarding child bearing, the country's total fertility rate (TFR) rests below replacement at 1.35. Similarly, for Germany, future projections expect to decline by about 10 million people by 2060. Thus, the country would decrease to 68 and 73 million inhabitants, compared with its current 81 million. German TFR is also below replacement at 1.5. However, this is the highest birth-rate for nearly 30 years. Some scholars look to this change in fertility as a result of increased migration, but broader trends of changing work-life and domestic family policies also play a significant role.
 
In the midst of this drastic shift, demographic scholars view this declining trend as a result of ineffective government programs for social services. With current policies, the problem for citizens is not that they to live without children, but rather that they lack meaningful support from the government and their employers. This is primarily a concern in Italy, where extended families, rather than day-care systems, are still a prominent care taker unit for children. For Italian mothers, private daycare is expensive and caring for a large number of children is difficult without a stable family. Similarly, mothers in Spain also worry that their job security may be undermined by missing workdays due to child care issues. With more mothers entering the workforce, the average age at which Spanish women have their first child is expected to rise from 31.9 to 33 years. But even if these European governments do a better job of facilitating larger families, how does refugee migration fit into the discussion?
 
As mentioned before, migration provides only a short term impact on fertility rates. Refugees bring their reproductive potential and young age cohort to the receiving society. So far, Germany registered the arrival of 1 million asylum seekers, the near entirety of whom were under 65 and of working age. However, according to the Federal Statistical Office of Germany, even with refugee-net immigration levels of 300,000 people, demographers predict that this influx cannot prevent regional population declines. If increasing migration, even at high levels, will not prevent population decrease, how can national governments improve their responsibilities to facilitate family growth?
 
 Programs to prevent population decline in Italy need reformulation. A few months ago, Italy created a "Fertility Day," intended to inform families that they have federal support in bearing more children. However, the day was met with fierce backlash and criticism. Thousands of citizens took the government's actions as an encroachment on their civil liberties. Many people also criticized the government for compelling them to have more children while simultaneously increasing federal spending for the elderly. If the family is the main instrument for primary care, mothers become more resentful if the government wants them to be productive workers in society in addition to take care of more children. Thus, Italian women are prudently choosing to raise fewer children.
 
The Italian government attempted to provide bonuses for mothers with more children, however, the amount was insignificant. For every additional child, families were given on $180. Italy only allocates of its 1% of its GDP to social protection services, and even less to funding for families specifically.
 
German government programs seem more heavily funded, however, the country's TFR rests well below replacement. Families have been offered parental leave benefits and guaranteed stipends for daycare. But even when the government puts $21 billion towards issue of increasing family size, TFR still remains low.
 
Spain, on the other hand, is facing a loss of young immigrants who arrived before the 2008 financial crisis. People from Latin America and North Africa, who entered legally, helped to boost the country's reproductive and non-dependent population. Spanish demographers at the Centre for Human and Social Sciences in Madrid even counter population concerns by saying that a majority of the elderly cohort continue to be market consumers. The population center went on to say that increasing pension plans are not worsening national debt. However, Spain needs to be concerned for the lack of tax-paying, productive workers.
 
So where do these nations go from here? If migration or increased government support are not increasing overall family size, how will Western Europe afford the increased health care for the bulging elderly population? The answer may lie in making the balance of family and work life for women more affordable. This begins with national governments spending more on public services and taking the burden off mothers who possess fewer social ties for child rearing. But as several European nations experience ethno-nationalism and animosity towards refugees, it is difficult to predict if more public funds will be granted. The region is expected to decrease in population size, but only time will tell if families and governments decide to change that.