Why is Europe committing demographic suicide?

Carolyn Moynihan
11 April 2013
Reproduced with Permission

Everybody knows about the economic woes of Europe. In the media you cannot get away from it. What we seldom hear about is a problem that puts debt crises and austerity riots in the shade: the region's demographic suicide. Europeans, on the whole, are not having enough babies to replace themselves -- a trend which threatens the workforce, support of the aged and even the continued existence of some nations. It is a problem that goes back well before the recent housing bubbles and busts, bank failures and bailouts. It is probably a cause of the latter.

Yet it is a mystery to the people we rely to predict such things. Demographers, economists and psychologists are scratching their heads over a phenomenon that breaks all their statistical models and paradigms of human behaviour. Why would people who are prosperous (and, despite the current situation, western Europe is) not want to do what human beings have always done and leave a posterity? How can they contemplate the eclipse of their nation?

One answer might be that the public is simply not aware of what is happening. Lant Pritchett, an economist and Professor of the Practice of International Development at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, told MercatorNet: "Scientists of perception study 'change blindness' and can show people have a hard time even visually seeing gradual change, much less gradual change at the social level. Unlike the advocates for climate change there are no 'extreme events' like Hurricane Sandy in demography so it is hard to get attention onto the inevitable consequences of current fertility."

Dr Pritchett and colleague Martina Viarengo are the authors of an essay, "Why Demographic Suicide? The Puzzles of European Fertility", which is part of a collection of essays published recently by the New York based Population Council in honour of a sistinguished scholar, Paul Demeny. The papers are heavy going but repay the effort to grasp what population experts are saying right now.

This is certainly the case with "Demographic Suicide…", which states clearly the seriousness of persistent low fertility and the fact that the usual experts simply do not know how to account for it, let alone come up with a remedy. The authors speak of below replacement fertility (BRF) as "a revolution in human affairs", a "paradigm-shattering phenomenon". They are not exaggerating. They end by posing the "big open question of how children fit into an overall pattern of 'family' in the post modern era."

"Replacement" as the goal of population policy

Sixty years ago the question was completely different. Influential people like the founder of the Population Council, John D. Rockefeller III, were worried about population growth in the developing world resulting from the fall in death rates (thanks to better health care) and continuing high fertility. They thought that people could not have good quality lives with so many mouths to feed. The fact that former colonies of Europe were becoming independent and you never knew what they might do politically added to First World jitters. Nothing but a concerted effort to stabilise population would do. Demographers did their projections and "replacement fertility" (2.1 children per woman) became their holy grail.

With backing from the UN and the cooperation of Third World governments the "war against population" (as economist Jacqueline Kasun has called it) was launched. The contraceptive pill was rapidly deployed with government subsidies. Abortion became a reproductive right. These methods had their strongest effect in the rich countries, where fertility had been in decline anyway but was boosted by the post-war baby boom. Developing countries took to draconian methods such as sterilisation campaigns in India and the one-child policies in China. Economic development, education and health care also contributed to lower birth rates.

Globally, the goal of replacement level fertility is now within reach. According to the UN's medium estimate the average woman today will have 2.36 children - down from 4.95 in the early 1950s. New research suggests the 2.1 mark will be reached by around 2050. The trouble is that, while some countries will still be above that magical figure, some will be well below. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that even globally population will stabilise; decline is more probable. Already half the world's nations, including many of the less developed, have total fertility rates (TFR) below replacement.

Some of the lowest rates in the world are in East Asia, but among the 27 countries of the Europe Union not one currently has a TFR of 2.1 or more, although Ireland, Iceland, Turkey and perhaps France are around 2, and the UK and the Nordic countries have rates between 1.87 and 1.98. At least a dozen EU countries are under 1.5; Spain and Germany are on 1.36 and Italy 1.41 (2010-2011 figures).

Behind these figures are the decisions of women and men shaped not by the imperatives of evolution or the rationales of economics - let alone the assumptions of demographers -- but by factors that experts in those fields are not even equipped to understand.

Demography, as Pritchett and Viarengo point out, is a descriptive discipline and cannot make predictions without a behavioural theory to go with them - which is did not have when its practitioners assumed that fertility would magically stabilise at replacement.

Evolutionary psychology, a popular source of behavioural theory, might (might) tell us what humans will do about procreation in the context of limited resources (have fewer but better quality offspring), but it seems quite useless to explain why people whose wealth and social status are increasing would stop having children. "BRF in Europe seems a paradigm-shattering phenomenon for evolutionary psychology," Pritchett and Viarengo note.

The economic model

That leaves economics, Pritchett's own discipline and one that he admits is also at a loss to fully account for persistent low fertility. "The joke about economists is that they are people with a head for numbers that lack the personality to be actuaries," he told us in an email.

We had asked what could motivate nations to turn this problem around. He said: "I am pretty good with numbers but not only do I not know the answer to this question, being a new phenomenon, we have yet to discover numbers and data from experiences of turning it around so I don't know even what to do to begin answering this question: that is why the piece was titled 'puzzles' not 'answers'."

All the same, economics has a lot to say about procreation and most of it is a little bit shocking to the layperson who comes across it for the first time. Roughly it goes like this.

Children are "complex capital goods" in whom parents invest with the expectation of a return, or "child services". These services can be produced by a large number of low quality children or a small number of high quality children. In conditions of rising income people want fewer but higher quality children, investing more in their education and so on. This drives up the price of a child -- together with an opportunity cost in the form of the time it takes to consume the services (pleasure or satisfaction) a child produces -- compared with other goods, such as a summer holidays or a better house.

The trouble with this type of behaviour is that children can be priced off the market completely - and perhaps unintentionally - because once you get down to one child the next step is not a "little bit" of high quality child, but none at all; not a gradual change but a "massive discontinuous drop in the demand for child services," as Pritchett and Viarengo put it. This can be seen in rates of childlessness in a few European countries at or approaching 20 percent among women aged 45. (There are sub-regional differences which are interesting and worth looking up in the essay.)


Clearly, childlessness is the biggest challenge for population theorists. What might people be choosing instead of a child? Pritchett and Viarengo look at possible substitutes for the "little hedonic bundle" that a baby represents and find two likely candidates.

The first is social security for the aged, which replaces the support aged parents once expected from their children - something that is unsustainable, though, in conditions of population decline. The second is the market work that women have embraced and that may return them more meaning and status than motherhood has done up until now.

When it comes to a substitute for the love and intimacy that having children provides in traditional family life, however, the authors of "Demographic suicide" are stumped.

They note that "sexual activity, childbearing and marriage have become disconnected so that increasingly it is socially acceptable to have one without either of the other two," particularly in northern and western Europe. But: "It is not at all obvious to us what is going on with the 'demand for intimacy'." While in some countries people continue to have children without getting married, and in others to marry but have very few children, there are signs (in Finland, for example) that marriage and fertility - especially through an increase in childlessness - are declining together.

"What is substituting in the lives of women and men for the love and intimacy that came from parent-child relationships? It is certainly not a significant increase in marital love and intimacy without children substituting for less marital love and intimacy with children - particularly in countries where marriage and long-term cohabitation have declined."

One answer to this question might be "same-sex relationships". But even where children are added to these partnerships by technical means they can hardly solve the social problem of low fertility. And even if they are regarded as married that is not going to boost the birth rate.

Yet marriage, properly defined, does seem to be the answer - the only one we know from long experience - to the demand both for intimacy and for enough children to give the human race a future. Pronatalist policies such as baby bonuses, paid parental leave and gender equity in the workplace appear to have made some difference to the birth rate in countries where they have been introduced, but there are human motivations that such incentives do not touch - things like till-death-us-do-part commitment to a spouse and the willingness to sacrifice easier pleasures for the joy of seeing mutual love bear fruit in the form of a child.

The question, finally, is what can foster such motivations. In the past it was religious faith. Is there any substitute for that?