In the cradle of Western civilization, the cradles are empty. From the Atlantic to the Urals, in good and bad economies, in Protestant and Catholic societies, the countries of Europe are witnessing an unprecedented decline in birthrates.
This “baby bust,” analysts warn, will affect economic growth, social-welfare programs, patterns of immigration and Europe’s ability to pull its weight diplomatically, culturally and militarily in the 21st century.
In 1900, according to U.N. estimates, one out of four human beings on the planet — 24.7 percent — lived in Europe.
Today, the European population share is a little more than 10 percent. By 2025 — with the average woman in the European Union bearing just 1.48 children in her lifetime — the ratio of Europeans to everyone else is projected to be less than one in 14 — 7 percent.
The dearth of babies, coupled with longer life spans for today’s elderly, “have major implications for our prosperity, living standards and relations between the generations,” according to a “green paper” on demographic change issued by the European Commission earlier this year.
With fewer younger workers in Europe supporting more older pensioners, the immediate worry has been the fate of generous welfare and social protection systems across the continent.
But “the issues are much broader than older workers and pension reform,” said Vladimir Spidla, EU social affairs commissioner.
“This development will affect almost every aspect of our lives, for example the way businesses operate and work is being organized, our urban planning, the design of [apartments], public transport, voting behavior and the infrastructure of shopping possibilities in our cities.
“All age groups will be affected as people live longer and enjoy better health, the birthrate falls and our work force shrinks. It is time to act now,” he said.
One direct fallout from the demographic slump was on vivid display during the riots that rocked the suburbs of Paris and a string of French cities this month.
The rioters were overwhelmingly drawn from the ranks of young, unemployed sons of immigrant families from North and West Africa. As in countries across Europe, the largely Muslim immigrants were drawn to France to take low-end jobs that the native population could not or would not do.
With large-scale immigration from former colonies such as Algeria, France’s estimated 6 million Muslims represent 10 percent of the nation’s overall population.
Michael Vlahos, a former State Department analyst now with the Joint Warfare Analysis Department at Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory, argues that the “Arab boomer” generation now in its teens and early twenties will have an outsized impact on European society.
With native European populations not producing enough children to maintain current population levels, “the bow-wave of the Arab ‘boomer’ generation, buoyed by aggressive illegal immigration, could still push the proportion of Muslims in France, Italy and Spain up to a quarter or even a third of their population,” Mr. Vlahos wrote in a recent analysis.
In the coming 40-year period beginning in 2010, “even if Muslims in Roman Europe still only represent 20 to 25 percent of the total population, working adults may reach 40 percent or more,” he wrote. “That era — from 2010 to 2050 — could alter the nature of European civilization.”
The motives of the French rioters — economic, social, religious — remain a subject of hot dispute.
Few think that Islamic fanaticism triggered the riots. But the threat of al Qaeda attacks, such as those against rush-hour commuters in London and Madrid, continues to shadow France and other Western European nations.
In one well-known case, a disaffected Islamic terrorist cited the demographic imbalance in France as one source of his frustration.
Engineering student Kemal Daoudi, the son of Algerian immigrants to France who lived in the isolated Parisian suburbs cut off from mainstream French life, joined Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda and was arrested just after the September 11 attacks in 2001 for plotting to attack the U.S. Embassy in Paris.
He told French investigators that he first was motivated to join al Qaeda by the “abominable treatment” he and fellow immigrants received as “subcitizens good only to keep working to pay for the retirement of the ‘real’ French when the French age pyramid gets thin at the base.”
When in Rome
The first wave of Muslim immigrants to France had a birthrate three times that of the native French, a pattern replicated in other EU countries with heavy immigrant populations drawn from Africa and the Middle East.
“With current trends,” Bernard Lewis, a leading U.S. scholar of Islam, has said, “Europe will have Muslim majorities in the population by the end of the 21st century.”
But other analysts say demographic history suggests that “present trends” are unlikely to continue.
Birthrates in the Muslim world are already falling sharply as well. American Enterprise Institute scholar Ben Wattenberg, author of “Few,” a study of declining birthrates worldwide, said the average family size of immigrants in Europe quickly matches that of longtime natives.
The embrace of radical, even violent Islam by disaffected European Muslims is a danger, he said, “but it is not principally a problem of demographics.”
Asked whether Europe faced a Muslim “population bomb,” Mr. Wattenberg said, “The answer to that, in my judgment, is a flat ‘no.’”
On the flip side, the idea that large-scale immigration will reverse Europe’s chronic fertility rate decline is also unlikely, said Demetrios Papademetriou, director of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute and a leading authority of global population shifts.
“Immigration, as it is currently conceived, will not provide a solution [to white, Christian Europe’s declining birthrate] because the birthrates of permanent immigrants quickly drop to those comparable to natives,” he said.
Out with ‘Old’ — and ‘New’
Even putting aside the question of assimilating Europe’s immigrant communities, the population statistics for both “Old” and “New” Europe are sobering.
According to the European Commission Green Paper, population is already falling in the EU states of Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Of the six most populous EU states, only France and Britain are projected to see population increases by 2050. Italy, Spain and Germany all have fertility rates of less than 1.3 children per woman — compared with the classic “replacement rate” for a population of 2.1 children.
Despite generous social benefits and numerous pro-family policies (including baby “bounties”) in individual EU states, overall birthrates have been falling for three decades. Overall EU population, now at 458 million, is expected to peak in 2025 at about 470 million and then start declining.
The situation in Russia is even grimmer. By midcentury, demographic trends suggest that the population of the country could decline by a fifth.
Joseph Chamie, former director of the U.N. Population Division, noted that greater educational and employment opportunities for European women have contributed to a situation in which nearly one in five women in Finland, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands in her early 40s is childless.
“The decline of Europe’s population is being brought on voluntarily, the result of hundreds of millions of men and women choosing to have fewer children than is needed to ensure population replacement,” he wrote in a recent analysis for the Washington-based journal the Globalist.
Complicating the picture is the historical baggage that comes from past European efforts to boost birthrates.
France and Estonia have had limited success with “pro-natalism” programs, but an Italian proposal to pay a 1,000-euro baby bounty to couples who have more than one child raised unfortunate echoes of past racial purity measures proposed by Benito Mussolini’s Fascists.
French Employment Minister Gerard Larcher said last week that the government does not track ethnic and religious classifications in the national census because the country was “traumatized” by the experience of the World War II collaborationist Vichy government’s role in expelling French Jews to Nazi concentration camps.
On the same page
But the question of Europe’s declining population has moved in recent years beyond fringe political movements often linked to anti-immigration and even eugenicist groups.
The United Nations, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and even the CIA have published major studies on the economic and social consequences of Europe’s baby bust.
The CIA analysis generated headlines across the continent with apocalyptic warnings that Europe’s social safety structures face collapse in a little more than a decade if the demographic meltdown is not addressed.
“The current EU welfare state is unsustainable and the lack of economic revitalization could lead to the splintering or, at worst, disintegration of the EU, undermining its ambitions to play a heavyweight international role,” according to the forecast released in January.
Even Pope Benedict XVI has weighed in on the population drain in an August address, saying the decline in birthrates in Europe “has deprived some nations of the freshness, the energy, the future embodied in children.”
Demographers admit that they have failed to identify a single controlling factor that has produced plunging birthrates across the continent.
Sweden, renowned for its generous paternal benefits and employment supports, saw birthrates climb from 1.6 children per woman in the 1970s to the replacement rate of 2.1 percent a decade later. By 1989, combined maternity and paternity leave stood at a full year at 90 percent of the regular salary.
But economic hard times and welfare cutbacks in the 1990s left Sweden quickly reverting to the European norm. The Swedish birth rate fell to 1.5 children by 2000 and now stands at 1.66.
The numbers are just as stark a continent away in Catholic Spain: The Spanish birthrate fell from 2.86 children in 1970 to 2.21 in 1980 to 1.28 today — one of the 10 lowest birthrates in the world.
Economic uncertainty and a tight job market are considered factors, but the birthrate in the impoverished former East Germany is actually higher than the rate in the wealthier western part of the country.
A German survey released earlier this year found that 15 percent of women and 26 percent of men between 20 and 39 do not want to have children, up from 10 percent for women and 12 percent for men just a decade ago.
Reviewing the findings, the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle concluded, “The natural and somewhat obscure longing to have a child has little to do with state subsidies and labor market structures.”