Unbelievably low birth rates have put the continent in demographic free fall
When people think about Italy, they often imagine scores of children with their parents and relatives sitting around a table with a delicious, steaming pot of pasta.
But the reality is that few Italians have more than one child these days. Many Italian children no longer know what it is to have cousins or aunts and uncles — and this isn’t unique to Italy. For the past two generations, birth rates have been declining steadily in every European country. The birth rate is so low that demographers across the continent had to invent a new term to define it: low-low fertility.
“This is not the slow road. It’s the fast road to population suicide,” said Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute and a member of Legatus’ Northern New Jersey Chapter. “There are 15 to 16 countries in Europe which lose population every year. Antonio Golini of the University of Rome said that in 100 years, the great cathedrals in Italy will exist only as museums and the ticket sellers will be Albanian Muslims.”
Nicholas Eberstadt, a Harvard University political economist and demographer at the American Enterprise Institute, is equally perplexed. “Demographers look at two different takes — total births and the total fertility rate or births per woman. On average, Europe is far below population stability.”
In 2014, the European Statistical Commission, called Eurostat, reported that Turkey had Europe’s highest fertility rate: 2.17. Next was France at 2.01. Germany had one of the lowest with 1.47, Portugal was an abysmal 1.23, and the average for Europe was 1.58. This compares to the U.S., which has fallen to 1.8.
“The question of long-term decline in fertility in Europe has set the stage for a total cross-over, when deaths exceed births,” said Eberstadt. “This may happen soon. When it does, Europe will be a net mortality region.”
Kishore Jayabalan, director of the Acton Institute’s Rome office, is concerned. “No society with a birth rate this low has ever recovered,” he said. “There is a tipping point that demographers talk about — a point that when you go below, you will never recover. I’ve heard people say that if the birth rate in Italy stays the same, there will only be 16 Italians left in the world by 2500.”
Low birth rates have already negatively impacted daily life in Europe.
“When a country is in a descending spiral of birth rates, there are too few laborers entering the workforce,” said Mosher, a demographic anthropologist. “This closes down entire sectors of the economy. For example, toy factories and maternity wards in hospitals close down. You don’t make up for what is lost.”
Another problem is that laborers pay taxes, which in turn pay for pensions. When there are decreasing laborers and increasing pools of elderly — which is the case in Europe — the system breaks down.
“When I was a doctoral student, we studied the Social Security system,” said Jennifer Roback Morse, an economist and founder of the Ruth Institute. “Social Security was a good deal as long as you had increasing numbers of taxpayers over the course of your lifetime. In the 1930s, it worked because people were having lots of kids. But when people stop having babies, it becomes a bad deal, because you just can’t sustain the system.”
The only way to continue paying for pensions is for governments to increase taxes or increase immigration.
“In Europe, immigration is a short-term Band-Aid, but it can’t go on forever,” Morse said. “Countries are emptied and then filled again with other people from outside.”
Mass immigration policies always bring problems like immigrants’ reluctance to assimilate — especially Muslims in nominally Christian Europe.
“The assimilation question with the Muslims is a mixed bag,” Eberstadt explained. “On the whole it has worked better than people realize. Some migration flows have worked better than others.”
Indonesian Muslims who have moved to the Netherlands have assimilated well.
“You never hear about problems with this group because it has worked,” he said.
“The birth rate of Indonesians has been less that those from the Netherlands. If you look at Moroccans in Belgium, their birth rate in Belgium is higher than for Moroccans in Morocco.”
Muslims in Europe generally have more children than their Christian counterparts. Those who have the fewest children in Europe are those who claim to have no religion. Muslim groups, however, differ by country of origin and by how many years they’ve lived in Europe.
“It matters which is the sending country and which is the receiving country when it comes to assimilation,” Eberstadt said.
In France, for example, Muslims tend to have one more child per family than the French. Indian Muslims in England have the same birth rates as the British. Pakistani Muslims in England have double the Brits’ birth rate.
Glimmer of hope
Every European country is trying to entice young couples to marry and have more children by offering money and some tax credits to young couples. But it doesn’t seem to be having the desired effect of increasing births.
One of the biggest reasons for low birth rates — besides economics and fewer family members to help out — is decreasing levels of religiosity.
“The strength of religious belief in the U.S. is one of the reasons why we have the highest birth rate of all the developed nations in the world,” said Mosher. “If you believe that children are a blessing and put your trust in God with big life decisions, it has an effect. What Europe needs is a recovery of the Catholic faith — people who step out in faith and see that having children is great fun.”
If 20% of couples in Italy, France and Germany decided tomorrow to have five children, according to Mosher, that remnant could make up for the rest of the population. “That is my hope and prayer — that they will recover an openness to life,” he said. “Otherwise, these pleasant lands will be called something else one day.”
SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.
Tale of the double stroller
About 14 years ago, my husband and I were living in Rome. I was expecting my second child. One day, we went to a children’s supply store to look for a double stroller.
They didn’t have any.
The cashier became very flustered. She had never gotten a request for a double stroller before. It would have to be special-ordered. Others standing in line looked at us in shock. A double stroller? They had never even heard of such a thing!
Once we had the double stroller, we discovered that it didn’t fit into the tiny elevator in our apartment building. The only solution was to leave it in our building’s lobby, which had no doorman. My mother-in-law worried that our expensive double stroller would surely be stolen. But seeing the reaction we had at the store, I figured it was safe. After all, who would want it?
No one ever did steal that double stroller.
People would stop and look at it with curiosity. Most had never seen one before.