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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Europe is not heading for a population collapse

There may be a slow decline in the number of people, but it should be welcomed

by Tomas Sobotka

The Guardian (February 05 2010)

Fred Pearce vividly portrays population collapse {1} in the town of Hoyers­werda in eastern Germany and links it with a likely future for Europe: "Europe's population is, right now, peaking, after more than six centuries of continuous growth. With each generation reproducing only half its number, this looks like the start of a ­continent-wide collapse in numbers. Some predict wipeout by 2100" (Lonely planet, G2, 1 February).

As a demographer specialising in fertility and population trends in Europe I find it unsettling that so much attention is paid to overblown claims of the continent's population demise. Yes, Europe as a whole is projected to experience a gradual decline of its population, from 732 million now to 691 million in 2050 according to the United Nations. But, although further decline after 2050 will most probably follow, this gets nowhere close to a collapse.

In addition, fertility rates in Europe are currently above 1.5 children per woman. As a rate of 2.1 is needed in the long run to replace population in the absence of migration, each European generation is reproducing about three-quarters of its number, not a half. In some of the richer countries - such as France, the UK and Sweden - the fertility rate is around two.

Pearce says: "Demographer Peter McDonald calculates that if Italy gets stuck with recent fertility levels, and fails to top up with foreign migrants, it will lose 86% of its population by the end of the century, falling to eight million compared with today's 56 million. Spain will lose 85%, Germany 83% and Greece 74%." I ran such a scenario for Italy, using fertility data for 2007 when the total fertility rate there was at 1.37. This concluded that by 2100 Italy's population would fall to 23 million, almost three times higher than McDonald's reported number.

This is all theory, however, since birth rates are notoriously unstable and Europe is likely to face continued immigration in the coming decades. For example, Spain has had low fertility rates since the 1980s, and many projections assumed its slow population demise.

Instead, Spain witnessed an unprecedented immigration wave, and a gradual increase in birth rates. Despite low fertility, the Spanish population jumped fastest in Europe in the last decade, from forty million to 46 million. There is no indication, save the short-term impact of the recent economic crisis, that this migration stream is going to end: since 2000 the EU has recorded a net migration gain of fifteen million, more than during the previous four decades combined.

There will be countries and regions that will suffer long-term depopulation due to low fertility and emigration - but a combination of the two phenomena is mostly concentrated in eastern Europe, particularly in eastern Germany, Bulgaria and Ukraine. But the European population will also continue to age, and some demographers predict that babies born in the first decade of this century will live to an average age of 100.

Since the late 19th century, when a massive decline in birth rates began in most of Europe, some demographers and long-forgotten futurologists have been busy envisioning an inevitable demise of Europe and "western civilisation". However, it is not population size but affluence and technology that make some countries more powerful than others. Switzerland, with a population of eight million, is globally more significant than, say, Bangladesh, with a population twenty times larger. In any case, a slow decline in European population should be cheerfully welcomed by all who care about climate change and global pressure on resources.





Tomas Sobotka is a research scientist at the Vienna Institute of Demography

Bill Totten


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