Home Medizin Analyse – Wie Europa einer harten Geburtenlandung entgehen kann

Analyse – Wie Europa einer harten Geburtenlandung entgehen kann

von NFI Redaktion

(Reuters) – Emmanuel Macron believes that having more babies is crucial to maintaining France’s national strength, while Georgia Meloni from Italy has made it a top priority to encourage more Italian women to give birth.

However, demographers and economists say that Europe’s efforts to boost declining birth rates are missing the mark. They are calling for a shift in thinking – including a change in course to accept and embrace the economic realities of an aging population.

„It’s very, very difficult to increase fertility,“ said Anna Matysiak, an associate professor of labor market and family dynamics at the University of Warsaw, who has observed years of underperforming pronatal measures across Central Europe.

The birth rate in Europe has remained at around 1.5 births per woman over the last decade. This is higher than the lows observed in East Asia, but well below the 2.1 needed to maintain the population level – a rate that Matysiak and other experts consulted by Reuters consider highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.

European governments are already spending billions of euros in addition to essential care to finance child-friendly measures, ranging from direct financial incentives for children to tax breaks for larger families, paid parental leave, and child benefits.

But even countries like France and the Czech Republic, which had relatively high birth rates of around 1.8 in recent years, are now experiencing a decline. The causes are varied and, in some cases, not fully understood.

Deeper cultural changes

Marta Seiz, a Madrid-based university professor of family sociology, demography, and inequalities, said that factors such as rising housing costs and job insecurity are related to Spain’s birth rate, which, at 1.19, is the second lowest in Europe after Malta.

„People would like to have children, and earlier, but for structural reasons, they have not been able to,“ she said.

Such economic constraints are felt across the board. But there are also indications of a shift in deeper cultural attitudes towards parenthood.

Norway – a wealthy country with strong family support and job security – saw a decline in the birth rate from 2 in 2009 to 1.41, the lowest level since records began, in 2022.

In a country report for 2023, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) listed reasons for the decline, including changing gender roles, a stronger focus on careers, and even how social media can amplify a sense of insecurity. However, it concluded that the slump remained a puzzle.

Finnish demographer Anna Rotkirch also observed profound cultural changes in surveys that identified a similar decline in fertility in her country, with many young adults now seeing a fundamental compromise between parenthood and other goals.

„It’s directly about an appealing and attractive life path, lifestyle, and broader values and ideals,“ said Rotkirch, a research professor and director of the Finnish Population Research Institute.

„Nobody really knows what kind of family policy would work to promote fertility in this new situation.“

UNUTILIZED POTENTIAL

So does this condemn Europe to the dire „demographic time bomb“ scenario often evoked when societies age, ultimately shrink, fail to sustain their retirement systems, are paralyzed by chronic labor shortages, and have no one to care for the elderly?

That depends on whether economies leverage some of the levers available to adapt.

Economist David Miles of Imperial College London dismisses the „time bomb“ warning and says that declining populations can prevent a decline in living standards if per capita production is maintained: including further development to work more and better.

„There is a big fallacy in the logic that 65, as the age at which work stops, has something magical about it,“ said Miles, arguing that higher life expectancy and a lower prevalence of strenuous work in the service-dominated European economies allow people to stay in the labor market longer.

Efforts to raise the retirement age remain politically toxic – an example being the protests against Macron’s reforms last year. But the age at which workers in advanced economies leave the job market has been slowly but steadily increasing since around 2000.

Improved access of women to work could bring even more advantages. The share of women in the European labor market is about 69%, 11% lower than that of men. This means the untapped potential is high.

„There are many additional economic resources to be gained from this,“ noted Willem Adema, the head economist in the OECD’s Social Policy Division, citing teleworking and other flexible arrangements as ways to get more women into the workforce.

Europe can also import more labor: Beyond the loud anti-immigrant rhetoric, it already relies on around 10 million workers from non-EU countries. While the parental decisions and welfare profile of migrants ultimately correspond to those of the wider population, they have been critical in addressing specific labor shortages.

While caution is advised in predictions of the likely economic upturn due to automation and artificial intelligence, they at least offer the possibility of increasing productivity.

Finnish politician Rotkirch emphasized that there is still a need for family policies to support the decisions of prospective parents but called for a much broader debate on how to combat low fertility rates that traditional family policies alone cannot solve.

„You see long-term trends,“ said Adema. „If people don’t want to have children, it’s pointless to force them.“

(Reporting by Mark John in London, Anne Kauranen in Helsinki, and Gergely Szakacs in Budapest; Additional reporting by Catarina Demony in Madrid; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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