Lots of Data Point to Fewer Births

Pope Cites a Problem That Few Would Argue With

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ROME, MAY 6, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI cited an "urgent need" for reflection in the area of demography, in a message he sent April 28 to participants in a meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.



Experts agree that an increase in life expectancies is being met with a drop in birthrates, the Pope noted. Societies are aging and "many nations or groups of nations lack a sufficient number of young people to renew their population," he wrote.

Attention has increasingly focused on the social and economic consequences of too few babies. Last Sunday the New York Times commented on the case of Ogama, a village in rural Japan that has declined to only eight elderly residents. Town members have decided to pack everything up and sell the site to a company that will turn it into a landfill.

Sixty years ago the village had around 30 households, each with eight to nine people. Ogama belongs to the municipality of Monzen, which has 140 villages, 40% of which have fewer than 10 households, mostly composed of elderly people, the article observed.

On Tuesday, Reuters reported that the Japanese government is considering allowing TV ads for matchmaking agencies, in the hope of encouraging marriage, and more children. Data from Japan's Health Ministry show that the average age of women on their first marriage is now 27.8, compared with 25.8 in 1988.

On Wednesday the Guardian newspaper of Britain reported on the plunging birthrate in Europe. The report came the day after the German government decided to increase financial incentives for couples to have more children. Measures include tax breaks, more nursery places and government funds for men to take time off after a baby's birth.

But more money may not be sufficient to solve the problem, the article commented. Germany already spends 3.1% of its gross domestic product on families and children, well above the 2.1% average for countries in the European Union.

All downhill

The increased funds came after opinion was shocked by official figures published in March. Those figures showed that last year between 680,000 and 690,000 babies were born in Germany. This was less than in the final year of World War II, commented Rolf Wenkel in an opinion article published March 16 by Deutsche Welle.

"[W]e've completely failed to react to the fact that Germany's birthrate has been galloping downhill for the last 30 years," contended Wenkel.

On Tuesday the Guardian published the results of a poll carried out in Britain showing that people feel forced to delay family life by career pressures and the growing difficulty of finding a partner. Around 20% of British women reaching the end of their fertile life are childless, according to the British Office of National Statistics. This compares with 10% in the 1940s. And in 2004 the fertility rate in the United Kingdom was 1.77 children per woman, well down from the 1960s peak of 2.95 children.

Commenting on the poll, Libby Brooks noted that another key reason cited for the low birthrate is that couples do not stay together in the same way as in the past. The "modern absolutes of autonomy and independence" may well be hindering the formation of stable marriages and childbearing, according to Brooks.

By contrast, France is doing relatively well. Reuters on April 26 reported that France's average of 1.9 children per woman is the second-highest rate in the European Union (after Ireland's level of 1.99). Even so, none of the 25 countries in the European Union meet the 2.1 level needed to maintain current population levels.

The French government wants a further increase in numbers of children. Last September Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said the birthrate was insufficient to ensure a stable population and announced new incentives for having babies.

Long-term projections

Not surprisingly, population is forecast to decline in Europe. Details recently appeared in the bulletin Statistics in Focus (3/2006), a publication of Eurostat, the EU statistical agency.

The bulletin contains a diversity of forecasts, depending on how fertility levels evolve and how many immigrants are allowed into EU countries. Nevertheless, "in all variants deaths will outnumber births and positive net migration will postpone the population decrease only temporarily," the publication states.

The population will be notably older. In 2004 there was one elderly non-working person for every four persons of working age. By 2050 there would be about one inactive person for every two of working age. And the number of persons aged 80 and over is expected to nearly triple, rising from 18 million in 2004 to about 50 million in 2051.

Even relatively high levels of immigration will not solve the problem. Assuming positive net migration of around 40 million people over the period up to 2050, by that date the working age population of the European Union would have decreased by 52 million. The total population would have dropped by 7 million.

A recent book examined some of the implications of these changes. "The Baby Bust: Who Will Do the Work? Who Will Pay the Taxes?" (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers) is edited by Fred Harris.

In their chapter on Europe, Hans-Peter Kohler, Francesco Billari and José Antonio Ortega observe that the demographic changes will have profound social effects. Fewer siblings and increased childlessness diminishes the potential of family networks to provide social and economic support.

After a detailed analysis of the causes of low fertility, the authors express doubts over the success of government incentives to encourage more births. There is a positive relationship between reproductive behavior and a range of policies, but it is weak and takes time to have an impact.

Shrinking Russia

Low fertility is not limited to the European Union. In the first half of 2005 the Russian population shrank by 400,000, the London-based Financial Times reported April 21.

The number of children per woman plunged from 2.19 in 1986-7, to 1.17 in 1999. It has since risen to 1.3. The situation is worsened by a drop in marriage rates, and increased divorce. As well, Russian men have a life expectancy of just under 60 years. As a result, some forecast the population of 146 million in 2000 could fall to only 100 million by midcentury.

Even countries with historically high numbers of children are seeing birthrates drop dramatically. A few decades ago Mexican women on average had families of almost 7 children, but this is down to just above 2 nowadays, reported the Wall Street Journal on April 28.

Among other consequences, this fall in natality could reduce in the future the numbers of Mexicans entering the United States. Right now there are millions of Mexicans in their 20s and 30s looking for work. By 2050 the median age of Mexico's population, now 25, will rise to 42, reported the Journal, citing data from the U.N. Population Division. The United States now has a median age of 36, set to rise to 41 by midcentury.

In his message Benedict XVI noted that the causes of low birthrates are multiple and complex. But, while they are often economic and social, the "ultimate roots can be seen as moral and spiritual." There is, he added, a "disturbing deficit of faith, hope and, indeed, love." That's a deficit not readily fixed by economic policy.