Could Demographic Trends Cripple Europe by 2050?

New figures bear out a looming demographic crisis in Europe. Not since the Black Death have we seen populations collapse like this.
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Demography is destiny. This axiom is underlined by HSBC's "World in 2050″ survey.

The bank's detailed analysis is based on the theoretical work of Harvard professor Robert Barro. It analyzes everything from fertility rates to education levels and the rule of law, and predicts that the world's economic output will triple by 2050, provided the major states can avoid conflict. However, a grim future seems assured for much of continental Europe.

A birth rate of 2.1 children per woman will keep a society stable in population terms. However, according to the Daily Telegraph: "The low fertility of Korea (1.1), Singapore (1.2) Germany (1.3), Poland (1.3), Italy (1.4), Spain (1.4) and Russia (1.4), more or less dooms these countries to aging crises and population decline unless they open the floodgates to immigration."

For this reason Britain is likely to displace Germany as Europe's leading economic player: "This is chiefly due to the UK's healthy fertility rate (1.9), although skeptics might question whether a birthrate inflated by the EU's highest share of unmarried teenager mothers is a good foundation for prosperity."

US birthrates will also keep America a major player in to mid-century: "America's high fertility rate (2.1) will allow it too keep adding manpower long after China's workforce has begun to contract in 2020s and as even India starts to age in the 2040s."

"Demography matters," said Karen Ward, the report's chief author. The "big losers," she says will be the smaller states like Switzerland, Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, and Austria, which will mostly drop out of the top 30: "They may struggle to maintain their influence in global policy forums."

The EU's own figures bear out a looming demographic crisis in Europe: Eurostat last year released the figures showing that in 2009 Italy's fertility rate remains one of the lowest in Europe. For any population to remain stable, it needs a "total fertility rate" of 2.1 children per woman. Italy has an average of only 1.31.

The Milan-based International Center for Family Studies has explored the country's ultra-low birth rates which have resulted in a rapidly aging nation. Their recent report on Italian population levels says that despite high levels of foreign immigration, 2009 statistics show a significant decrease in the Italian population.

Their study found that 57.8 percent of childless Italian households said they had no children out of "personal choice." Reasons given include a sense of uncertainty about the future and the difficulties involved in raising children.

Some demographers now hypothesize that Italy, along with many other European nations, has entered a "low fertility trap" -- a sort of death spiral where a nation tips over a demographic cliff, never to recover.

The "low fertility trap" hypothesis was pioneered by demographer Dr. Wolfgang Lutz of the Vienna Institute of Demography. Proponents note that no society has ever recovered from a sustained birth rate of under 1.5 children per woman.

This is because after a few decades of very low birth rates, very simply, there are no longer enough potential mothers to have enough children to recover, and an irreversible downward spiral begins. Simultaneously, they say, a more subtle cultural shift also occurs: childlessness and small families become the norm, thereby institutionalizing the trend of low birth rates.

An example of this self-reinforcing cultural change has been noted Germany, where thirty per cent of young women say they don't intend to have children at all. 48 percent of German men under 40 nowadays agree that you can have a happy life without children. When their fathers were asked the same question at the same age, only 15 percent agreed.

Unsurprisingly, given the prevalence these opinions, Germany now even surpasses Italy as the EU nation with the lowest birth rate and is also heading toward population collapse.

Demographer Peter McDonald estimates that if Italy's recent fertility levels remain as they are, bar mass immigration, it will lose 86 percent of its population by the end of this century, falling to a population of 8 million, down from 56 million today. Similarly, he estimates Spain's population will drop by 85 percent, Germany 83 percent and Greece 74 percent.

Not since the Black Death stalked Europe in the Middle Ages have we seen populations collapse like this.

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