Policy ForumDemographics

Europe's Population at a Turning Point

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Science  28 Mar 2003:
Vol. 299, Issue 5615, pp. 1991-1992
DOI: 10.1126/science.1080316

Europe has just entered a critical phase of its demographic evolution [HN1]. Around the year 2000, the population began to generate “negative momentum”: a tendency to decline owing to shrinking cohorts of young people that was brought on by low fertility (birthrate) over the past three decades. Currently, the effect of negative momentum on future population is small. However, each additional decade that fertility remains at its present low level will imply a further decline in the European Union (EU) of 25 to 40 million people, in the absence of offsetting effects from immigration [HN2] or rising life expectancy. Governments in Europe are beginning to consider a range of policy options to address the negative implications of population decline and rapid aging (1, 2). Social policies and labor laws aimed at halting the further increase in the mean age of childbearing—which contributes to low fertility—have substantial scope for affecting future demographic trends. They also have an additional health rationale because of the increasing health risks associated with childbearing in older women.

Negative momentum: effect of 20 more years of low fertility on population size in the EU.

Population of the 15 member countries of the EU if one assumes that fertility immediately increases to replacement level and remains constant thereafter (black line) or that fertility remains at 1.5 (red line) or 1.8 (pink line) until 2020, when it rises to replacement level.

Negative Momentum and Low Fertility

Population momentum [HN3] measures the effect of the current age structure on future population growth (3, 4). A young population has positive momentum (a built-in tendency to grow). An older population can have negative momentum when low fertility leads to smaller numbers of children than of parents, locking in future decreases in the number of parents and a tendency toward population decline. Momentum can be calculated by performing a hypothetical projection in which all forces for change in population size except age structure are removed (5). We find that for the 15 member countries of the EU, low fertility [HN4] brought the population to the turning point from positive to negative momentum around the year 2000. Currently, negative momentum is small (see figure, above); population even grows for 15 years in our momentum projection before declining, because of the large numbers of people born during the baby boom of the 1960s. However, if the current fertility rate of around 1.5 births per woman persists until 2020, negative momentum will result in 88 million fewer people in 2100, if one assumes constant mortality and no net migration.

Fertility is currently low in Europe for two reasons: first, women are delaying births to later ages [the tempo effect (6, 7)] [HN5], and second, even after adjusting for this delay, fertility is below the level necessary for each generation to replace itself fully (low adjusted fertility). Delayed childbearing does not affect the total number of children women have over the course of their lives, provided they do not forgo postponed births altogether. However, it reduces the number of children born during the period in which delay is occurring, which lowers birth rates in that period and contributes to the aging of the population.

The population decline of 88 million resulting from 20 years of low fertility can be separated (Fig. 1) into contributions from the tempo effect and from low adjusted fertility. The tempo effect is assumed to be 0.3 children per woman, roughly consistent with recent experience in 10 EU countries for which data are available (8). Postponement of births may continue, because many social and economic factors still favor later childbearing (9). Adjusted fertility is assumed to remain constant at 1.8. Given these assumptions, if increases in the mean age of childbearing were halted, the period fertility [HN6] would rise from 1.5 to 1.8. Our simulations show that, under these conditions, substantially less negative momentum is generated, and ultimate population size is only 49 million lower than today's. Thus, 45% of the population decline caused by a birthrate of 1.5 over 20 more years can be attributed to the effect of the increasing age of childbearing women on birth rates. In general, we find that each decade of fertility at current levels leads to declines in ultimate population size of 25 to 40 million, with the contribution of timing remaining around 40% or more in all cases (see table). We arrive at the same conclusion when we assume that, instead of remaining constant, adjusted fertility continues to fall [(10), see supporting online material]. The effect caused by increasing age of childbearing clearly deserves attention not just in adjustments to fertility rates (6, 11), but also when considering determinants of the future size and age structure of Europe's population.

View this table:
Effect of further delays in childbearing on aging in the EU member states.

Aging and Delayed Childbearing

Continued increases in the mean age of childbearing will also have significant effects on the age distribution within the population. In the scenario simulating an immediate halt to the delay in childbearing, the “support ratio” declines from about four working-age persons (ages 15 to 64) per elderly person (age 65+) to considerably less than three for most of the remainder of the century (see figure, above), if we assume 0 net migration and no changes in mortality. If the delay in childbearing continued with no change in adjusted fertility, the support ratio would further decline to almost 2, nearly doubling the demographic dependence burden as compared with the present. Twenty years of continued increases in the mean age of childbearing imply an additional decline in the support ratio of about 0.5 workers per elderly person by 2065, the year when the difference is most pronounced. The cumulative effects are substantial. Looked at from the perspective of the working-age population, continued delay of 10 to 40 years will imply that an additional 500 to 1500 million person-years of workers would be needed to support the elderly population over the rest of the century, as compared with a no-delay scenario.

Policy Implications

Over the coming decades, the decisive shift to an older age structure in Europe (12) will challenge social security and health systems, may hinder productivity gains, and could affect global competitiveness and economic growth [HN7]. It could also strain relations among generations, particularly between those who are on the contributing and receiving ends of public transfer programs. It may also diminish social cohesion, particularly if increasing labor demand leads to substantial immigration from other cultures. Although population aging is the main focus of population-related social, economic, and political concerns in Europe, there is also a deeply rooted fear of population decline (13) associated with a possible weakening of national identity and loss of international political and economic standing.

Policy discussions have primarily focused on adjusting to given demographic trends, by making structural adjustments to pension systems, labor markets, and health and fiscal systems. With already very high tax rates, however, there is a limit to how much governments can squeeze out of a shrinking labor force. Hence, discussions are beginning to turn to policies that could influence demographic trends themselves [HN8]. Because substantial increases in immigration remain politically unpopular, fertility may increasingly be considered as a policy variable (14). Childbearing could come to be considered a “social act” (15) rather than a purely private decision.

In 1976, a set of policies was enacted in East Germany that included much improved child-care facilities, financial benefits, and government-supported housing if a woman became pregnant. As a consequence, period fertility in East Germany, which had declined almost in parallel with West Germany, increased from 1.5 to 1.9 (16). The mean age of childbearing stayed below 25 years, while it increased to more than 28 years in the West. In contemporary Western Europe, however, there is pronounced public resistance to explicitly pro-natalist policies. This is partly because of infamous birth promotion programs in past fascist regimes and partly because births are often viewed as an obstacle for women pursuing careers and therefore not something the government should promote as an end in itself. Family policies in Europe today [HN9] are based instead on an equal-opportunities rationale and aim to help women combine child rearing with employment. Such policies seem to have had a small, if any, effect on period fertility (17).

Policies that aim to affect the timing of births rather than family size may be more acceptable. Such policies would have to address some of the prime reasons for continued childbearing delay, including inflexible higher education systems, youth unemployment, housing markets, and especially career patterns built around traditional male life-course models. Revamping the conventional sequence of life course transitions can also help solve conflicts between work and family (18). Health benefits may provide an additional rationale. A continued delay in childbearing has not only led to burgeoning numbers of infertility treatments but also to increasing medical concerns about health risks for mother and child associated with late pregnancies [HN10].

Halting the trend toward higher mean ages of childbearing would significantly moderate population aging and decline in Europe. Changes in the timing of births have been pointed out as a possible avenue for slowing population growth in developing countries, in that case by encouraging delays in childbearing (19). Here, we are suggesting the reverse: that discouraging further delays in childbearing could help confront the population-related challenge faced by Europe.

HyperNotes Related Resources on the World Wide Web

General Hypernotes

Dictionaries and Glossaries

A glossary of population terms is provided by the Population Reference Bureau.

A glossary of demographic terms is provided by the Institut National d'études Démographiques (INED).

Definitions of terms used in demography are provided by D. Kaufman, Department of Sociology, Central Washington University, for a course on demography and contemporary world populations.

Web Collections, References, and Resource Lists

The Open Directory Project provides links to Internet resources related to demography and population studies and population issues.

The Social Science Information Gateway provides a collection of Internet demography resources.

The World Wide Web Virtual Library: Demography & Population Studies is maintained by the Demography and Sociology Program, Australian National University.

The World Wide Web of Demography is provided by the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute.

The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research provides a collection of Internet links.

The Centre for Population Studies, Department of Epidemiology and Population Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, provides links to Internet resources.

Princeton University's Population Index on the Web is a reference tool to the world's population literature.

The United Nations Population Information Network (POPIN) is a guide to population information on UN system Web sites.

DataFinder, a database of demographic variables for more than 220 countries, and PopNet, a directory of population-related Internet resources, are offered by the Population Reference Bureau (PRB).

Online Texts and Lecture Notes

Why Six Billion? is a presentation on population by the University of Wisconsin's Why Files.

Six Billion and Beyond from PBS Online is a presentation about population issues in different parts of the world.

A presentation on demography is included in M. Kearl's Sociological Tour through Cyperspace.

The Population Handbook (PDF) and the 2002 World Population Data Sheet are provided by PRB.

Human Population: Fundamentals of Growth and Change is a teacher's guide provided by PRB. An article by J. McFalls titled “Population: A lively introduction” is also available.

R. Anderson, Department of Sociology, University of Colorado at Denver, offers lecture notes on population growth and change for a sociology course.

M. Pidwirny, Department of Geography, Okanagan University College, provides lecture notes on human population history and future, human demography, and the demographic transition for a geography course on environmental issues.

The Irish Centre for Migration Studies, University College Cork, makes available lecture notes by P. Mac éinrí for a course on population studies.

General Reports and Articles

The 16 October 1998 issue of Science had a Policy Forum by J. Bongaarts titled “Demographic consequences of declining fertility.”

The United Nations Population Fund makes available a paper (PDF) by J. Caldwell titled “The contemporary population challenge,” which was prepared for a March 2002 expert group meeting on completing the fertility transition.

Beyond Six Billion: Forecasting the World's Population is a 2000 report made available by the National Academies Press. A chapter on posttransition fertility is included.

PRB makes available a March 1999 article by A. Gelbard, C. Haub, and M. Kent titled “World population beyond six billion.”

The Population Council makes available a 2001 working paper by J. Bongaarts titled “The end of the fertility transition in the developed world”; a news release about the research titled “In developed countries, an end to childbearing delays could lead to fertility rise” is also provided.

Papers from the European Population Conference 2001, sponsored by the European Association for Population Studies, are made available by Väestöliitto, the Family Federation of Finland.

The United Nations Population Division makes available highlights (PDF) of the 2002 revision of World Population Prospects; the data is also provided online. The report World Population Ageing: 1950-2050 is also available.

P. McDonald, Demography and Sociology Program, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, makes available (in Word format) a 2001 paper titled “Theory pertaining to low fertility” and a 2002 paper titled “Low fertility: Unifying theory and demography.”

The online journal Demographic Research is made available online by the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research. A collection of working papers is also provided.

The International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP) makes available policy and research papers and seminar reports.

Numbered Hypernotes

1. Europe's demographics. The Irish Centre for Migration Studies, University College Cork, makes available a historical overview of European population trends for a course on population studies. The Population Web site of the Council of Europe makes available sections from the recent annual reports of demographic developments in Europe, including the introduction to the 2002 demographic yearbook and the country reports from the 2001 demographic yearbook. The International Data Base of the U.S. Census Bureau offers displays of population pyramids for the countries of the world. N. Miller, Department of Geological Sciences, University of Texas, El Paso, offers lecture notes on Europe's population dilemma for a course on cultural geography.

2. Immigration to offset declining population. BBC News provides a 21 March 2000 article titled “Greying West 'needs immigrants'.” The UN Population Division make available a report titled “Replacement migration: Is it a solution to declining and ageing populations?” PRB makes available an article by P. Martin titled “Europe: A new immigration area?” and an article by A. Tarmann titled “The flap over replacement migration.”

3. Population momentum is defined in the glossary provided by the World Bank's Development Education Program. P. Muir, Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, Oregon State University, offers lecture notes on population momentum for a course on human impacts on ecosystems. I. Miyares, Department of Geography, Hunter College, offers lab lecture notes on population growth and population momentum for a course on population geography.

4. Low fertility in European countries. Fertility is defined in xrefer's Dictionary of Geography. INED provides demographic indicators for European countries. The European Observatory on the Social Situation, Demography and Family provides reports monitoring low fertility for 15 European countries. The Economic Survey of Europe 2000 from the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) includes a chapter (PDF) titled “Fertility decline in the transition economies, 1989-1998: Economic and social factors revisited.” PBS Online's Six Billion and Beyond includes an interview with J. Bongaarts about the European population situation. The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research makes available a working paper by L. Stark and H.-P. Kohler titled “The public perception and discussion of falling birth rates: The recent debate over low fertility in the popular press.” BBC News provides an 3 May 2000 article titled “Eastern European population to plummet.”

5. Postponement of births, the tempo effect. The European Population Conference 2001 had a paper (PDF) by A. Pinnelli and A. De Rose titled “Delayed fertility in Europe: Determinants and consequences.” The Population Council makes available a 1998 working paper (PDF) by J. Bongaarts and G. Feeney titled “On the quantum and tempo of fertility.” The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research makes available (in PDF format) a 2001 working paper by H.-P. Kohler, J. Ortega, and F. Billari titled “Towards a theory of lowest-low fertility” and a 2001 working paper by T. Frejka and G. Calot titled “Cohort childbearing age patterns in low-fertility countries in the late 20th century: Is the postponement of births an inherent element?” On 1 March 2002 Demographic Research published an article titled “Tempo-adjusted period parity progression measures, fertility postponement and completed cohort fertility” and an article titled “Tempo-Adjusted Period Parity Progression Measures,” both by H.-P. Kohler and J. Ortega.

6. Total period fertility rate is defined in the INED glossary of demographic terms.

7. Population aging and its implications. Preparing for an Aging World: The Case for Cross-National Research is a 2001 report made available by National Academies Press. The UN Economic and Social Development Division offers a presentation on the implications of an aging society. BBC News makes available a 11 September 2002 article by S. Toyne titled “Ageing: Europe's growing problem.” IUSSP makes available a 2001 policy monograph (PDF) by G. De Santis titled “Population ageing in industrialized countries: Challenges and issues,” as well as a conference report on that topic. The Oxford Centre for Population Research makes available a 2001 working paper (PDF) by D. Coleman titled “Population ageing: An inevitable future.” The Demography and Sociology Program, Australian National University, makes available a conference paper (PDF) by P. MacDonald titled “Below replacement fertility implications for labour supply and international migration, 2000-2050.” Documents from the September 2002 UNECE Ministerial Conference on Ageing are made available by UNECE's Population Activities Unit. The 14 February 2003 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report had an article titled “Public health and aging: Trends in aging —- United States and worldwide.”

8. Policies to influence demographic trends. The UN Population Division makes available documents from the 2000 Expert Group Meeting on Policy Responses to Population Ageing and Population Decline; included is a background paper (PDF) by A. Zoubanov titled “Population decline and population ageing: Government views and policies.” The European Observatory on the Social Situation, Demography and Family makes available in PDF format the synthesis report by C. Bagovos and C. Martin of the 2000 Seminar on Low Fertility, Families and Public Policies; the papers from the seminar are also available, including a paper by P. McDonald titled “The 'toolbox' of public policies to impact on fertility — a global view” and a paper by S. Taskinen titled “Alternative child-care policies and fertility.” The Population Council makes available a 1998 working paper by G. McNicoll titled “Government and fertility in transitional and post-transitional societies.”

9. Family policies in European countries. MISSOC, the Mutual Information System on Social Protection in the European Union, provides brief comparative information on health care, social protection, and family policies in European countries. The 2000 Seminar on Low Fertility, Families and Public Policies had a paper (PDF) by A. Gauthier titled “Public policies affecting fertility and families in Europe: A survey of the 15 member states.” The Clearinghouse on International Developments in Child, Youth and Family Policies at Columbia University provides cross-national, comparative information about the policies, programs, benefits and services available in the advanced industrialized countries to address child, youth, and family needs.

10. Health consequences of delayed childbearing. The June 1995 issue of the Atlantic had an article by G. Maranto titled “Delayed childbearing.” The European Population Conference 2001 had a paper (PDF) by L. Steenhof and A. de Jong titled “Infecundity: A result of postponed childbearing?” The 24 June 2000 issue of BMJ had an article by A.-M. Nybo Andersen et al. titled “Maternal age and fetal loss: Population based register linkage study” and an editorial by Z. Stein and M. Susser titled “The risks of having children in later life.” Journal Watch Women's Health had a summary and comment about an article in the March 2002 issue of Pediatrics ("Delayed childbearing and its impact on population rate changes in lower birth weight, multiple birth, and preterm delivery” by S. Tough et al.).

11. W. Lutz and S. Scherbov are in the Population Project at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Laxenburg, Austria, and at the Vienna Institute for Demography.

12. B. C. O'Neill is at the Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University, and at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

References and Notes

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