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Too few children?

Whilst the Covid-19 pandemic has gripped the continent with both its pathogenic effects and its control on the media, there is a lesser quoted crisis heading in Europe’s direction. It may not have as catchy a name and does not possess a 14-day incubation period. In fact, it may take years to see the real damage and effects caused on the continent. What I am talking about is the ongoing fertility crisis that seemingly spawns all corners of the continent. Whilst this fertility crisis may be relatively new on the continent, a few of the world’s developed countries have been confronted by this crisis. Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and Korea have all faced staggeringly low fertility rates for the best part of a decade. Many in Europe are only starting to realize that this problem is closer to home than previously imagined. 

Fertility crises are often associated with a declining amount of childbirths or fertility rate and this is exactly what is occurring on the continent. It may seem as if this has seemingly come out of nowhere in recent years, but this would not be the case. The European Union (EU) has seen a sustained fertility decline since 1967, when the fertility rate was at 2.585 children per woman, to a rate of 1.552 recently. It is perhaps the gradual lack of fertility and not a large change that has led to such little action regarding current circumstances. The current fertility rates are substantially below the often-quoted replacement rate of 2.1 which sees a population exactly replace itself from generation to generation. Whilst the rates of fertility decline do vary across Europe it would be naive to assume that this will not be a problem for everyone.

The fertility rate in the European Union in 2019. Source: Eurostat

Whilst every country that is experiencing fertility decline will have their own certain set of factors that have caused this and there exists no single explanation for fertility decline, there are factors that seem to be universal across the continent. The most basic yet the most important factor is that of the postponement of childbirth. The average age of women at first childbirth has increased by around 4 years in the last 40 years, going from 25.6 in 1980 to 29.4 in 2019. However, there are many components that have led to this postponement. One of the most integral of these has been the increased female education and female economic autonomy. Female employment rates have increased significantly in the last decade or so, going from 58.7% in 2005 to 68% in 2018. Many women are starting to put their careers first which their male counterparts have been able to do for many years. An increased focus on climbing the career ladder often leads to the sacrifice or postponement of kinship and family building. Nonetheless, this is not a solely female trend, across the board we have seen increased investments in career development and increased competition in the workplace. Finally, it seems that a perceived increase in separation and divorce rates has led to people being more cautious in their relationships. People seem to be less certain in regards to the investment needed to create a family. 

The employment rate in the European Union in 2018. Source: Eurostat

It is not only the postponement of kinship that is creating this fertility decline, even after marriage we are seeing peculiar patterns. As the cost of raising children continues to increase it is almost impossible to support a family on a single income. British insurance company LV quotes that the cost of raising a child from birth to 18 is over 87.000 Euros for two-parent households and over 117.000 Euros for single-parent households. This necessity for multiple income streams for household prosperity has again led to lower rates of childbirth as many people see the decision to have a second child as a serious economic conundrum. Some have argued that in fact some part of this fertility decline can be pinned against the rise of the welfare state across the European continent. Some claim that in past times families would have multiple children in order to reduce their future economic uncertainty. Nevertheless, the responsibility to deal with this reduction has recently been carried by social security programs. Out with the increasing levels of women in the workforce, none of the elements listed previously has played a very significant role in the fertility crisis. However, when looking at the bigger picture it seems that the emergence of all these factors at the same point have overwhelmed fertility futures across Europe.

Despite how gloomy it has been up to here, there is one thing that may provide hope to people. That is the fact that fertility decline is in no way a recent phenomenon. Struggles with fertility and population control have been contentious matters for the ruling class for many years. Population problems have been discussed on public platforms since the very beginning of modern civilization. Although, it is only in the last century or so that conscious “research” based efforts have been made in order to either decrease or increase the fertility of given nations. Focusing on the pro-natalist policies or the attempts to increase fertility is what is needed in order to target Europe’s ongoing problems. When looking at past policies on the continent we can see one of the first modern attempts occurred in the 1920s, in France. The French government had declared all abortions to be illegal as well as the promotion of contraception. Both of these in attempts to increase the country’s fertility rate. It seems that targeting abortion and contraception laws was a popular strategy in the early and mid 20th century as in 1966 Romania prohibited abortions in the country unless in the case of medical reasons or rape. However, one of the more recent and also “out there” policies is the “Order of Parental Glory” that is awarded in Russia. This is awarded for raising seven or more children with no obligation for the children to be the biological offspring of parents.

More important is to look towards the future, and the policies that look to counteract this fertility decline. These policies should aim to fix issues in order to promote increased fertility and family planning. These are looking to diminish the direct costs of childhood for parents and looking to reduce the indirect costs burdened to women. This could be done through the use of family and childcare benefits as well as monetary compensation such as tax reductions. Russia, as one of the longest-suffering countries on the continent, has a more developed set of pro-natalist policies. In Russia, recent policies introduced include making maternal benefits that were previously only made available to women with more than one child available to first-time mothers. Further to this, there has been an introduction of increased benefits to low-income families that attempt to support with free school meals and payments in the child’s early years. Finally, Russia has looked to introduce one maternity payment of around 5,000 GBP for families with two or more children. Increasing attention and ingenuity when it comes to policy suggestions is one the only ways to efficiently increase fertility however with the nature of the problem it will take many years to see the real effect of the policies. 

The European fertility crisis is undoubtedly going to change much on the continent, and it is important that we can forecast the changes that we can expect to see. One of the best ways of doing this is to look to the countries that have been experiencing similar problems on a more intense scale and see the structural and cultural changes that have occurred. One of the most influential changes we may see on the continent is the Introduction of a high dependency ratio. With most of Europe’s largest population cohorts currently in their mid to late working years, this coupled with the low fertility rates will pose countless problems. Essentially as these large population cohorts retire there will not be large enough younger populations to efficiently replace the former working population. This will lead to a greater ratio between the working age and non-working age population, putting increased stress on the new working population to maintain output at similar rates as seen before. 

With a smaller working-age population, many European countries could experience a similar fate as that in Japan. Without the ability to produce at previous output levels many highly intensive industries will migrate to other countries unless action is taken to correct these demographic issues. Countries such as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have some of the highest reliance on the agricultural and primary sectors, without a steady flow of human capital current levels of production will not be able to be replicated thus causing significant economic problems to such countries. With reduced levels of output and thus taxable production there may also seemingly be an increased strain on the Welfare state, with a smaller working population levels of taxation would logically decrease. Coupled with the decrease in fertility Europe is also experiencing an increase in life expectancy, whilst this will exacerbate the dependency ratio there are some positives that can be taken from this situation. Firstly, there will be an increased number of older family members that can provide childcare services for working families. There will also be a larger pool of retired experts that the population can lean towards in a multitude of sectors. 

The most interesting potential changes that we may see on the continent are not related to the economy but, with the cultural and social changes we may see as a result of the fertility crisis, more importantly, how may the cities change. Seemingly one of the most probable ways to challenge this fertility crisis is to open up borders to increased levels of migrants. This was done by Singapore in order to sustain its working-age population. This seems to be one of the most logical steps towards counterbalancing the flight of industries and high dependency ratios. However, ideas like this are often met with negativity from parts of the public. With many of the potential migrants coming from outside neighbouring countries some look at these people as outsiders with different customs and backgrounds and without the potential to assimilate to their new homes. Throughout Europe over the past five years, we have seen quite negative responses to the mass influx of Syrian migrants. Despite the situation of this migration is different, many people are reserved for their ignorance and will not see this as any different. However, if large scale migration was to occur, partnered with the low levels of fertility it would be possible to see a demographic shift in countries with major ethnic shifts. If these high levels of migration were to occur, we would see an increasing amount of specialist and regional products and services that are meant to provide for these large migrant populations. We will see what was seen in the US in the 20th century with the introduction of Europe’s own “mini-cities” like we have seen with Little-Italy and Tokyo-Town in the US. 

If these fertility problems were left unchecked, we could also see some potential changes to the continent’s major cities. As stated earlier as the continents largest population cohorts and ages without an ample replacement this could have severe impacts on the structure of cities. Mass migration to rural areas could potentially be seen as the large elder populations may want to live their later years in quiet environments. With the ageing of these cities, there will also stand to be a reduction in the customers for nightclubs and bars. There will not be a large enough population to sustain the incredible amount of drinking establishments that we currently have in many of Europe’s largest cities. These are only a few of the ways we may see the continental cities change due to the ongoing fertility crisis.

This article was first published in the Girugten End of Year Edition (Year 51 of Girugten – issue 03 –  June 2021)



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