Monday, May 01, 2006

Are Europeans becoming extinct?

Many different ideologies find the idea of vast falls in the European population due to declining fertility convenient. It is a favourite of Mark Steyn who uses it as a device in 'warning' the US to avoid the cultural decadence which is destroying the old continent. Equally, it is a favourite of those who support unrestricted immigration, as seen in the comment on an earlier post on this blog. For this reason the idea often goes unchallenged. Fortunately, like most predictions of apocalypse, the evidence for a collapse in population is rather shaky.

Michael O'Hara is almost hysterical based on observations like the lack of children in Milan (people don't like to raise children in cities). While others make use of 'projections' for population to 2050. If you had projected what would happen to the British economy from 1972 to 2016 you would have honestly believed that we were staring down the barrel of an income around that of Malawi. Clive Davis challenges an overconfidence in predicting over such long time spans. This challenge is particularly important as changes in population are extremely likely to be self-regulating. If population falls too low then the chances of those children gaining a good income rise (labour shortages) and this could lead to more children.

The reason why people use predictions for 2050 is that if you look at the predictions for 2025, as noted by Joshi in Coleman's Europe's Population in the 1990s, it is for a fall in the European population from 0.5 to 0.49 billion. This hardly sounds like a catastrophe in a continent far more densely populated than similar areas like North America, let alone an apocalypse. For this reason commentators looking for a crisis are forced to rely on sketchy projections to 2050.

Early evidence suggests that the trend is likely not to be maintained into mid-century collapse. Calot and Blayo, in the journal Population Studies, describe how the common pattern across Europe has been for a fall in fertility since the Post-War high that has levelled off and/or slightly reversed since the late seventies. Equally, Baines in Schulze's Western Europe describes how a large part of the change has been a compression of family creation into a shorter period once the prospective mother's career has been established. This compression would create a temporary overestimation of declines in population.

Always best to be cautious when predicting the end of the world as we know it. Many have been wrong before and, while you only need to be right once, the world keeps on spinning.

2 comments:

Serf said...

Timing is a very major issue. For a few decades, marriage ages have increased, coupled with waiting before starting a family. This creates the impression of less fertility than is really true.

On the subject of using immigration to solve the problem, shouldn't we give points for beauty, to those that want to come ;)

Matthew JCG Partridge said...

Well, I must have been doing a different EH475 since I remember that the demographic benefits of immigration were one of the biggest things that Dudley Baines was pushing.

I agree that in absolute population terms the fall isn't large (though for countries like Japan and Russia it will be large) but the biggest problem is a rapidlly aging population with few children to pay for them. Current predictions are for an increase of 4-5% in GDP spent on pensions by 2020 --> pretty grim figures.


Also, I think it very unlikely that without some intervention birth rates will rise. What is more likely (though still unlikely) that better healthcare for the elderly and rampant obesity in the 18-35 age bracket lead to one section of society dying in their 40-50s while there are a large number of 80 year olds.

In the long run we will need to incentivise people having children (possibly by increasing child benefit). But in the short to medium term we need immigrants because they tend to be younger than the general population and because for one or two generations they have markedly higher birth rates.