Europe is ageing. On average, each woman has 1.58 children in the EU, substantially below the 2.1 children needed to sustain the current population level. Due to low death-rates and high net-migration, the overall population in Europe may be increasing, but the median age is crawling slowly upwards: 42 years in 2014 compared to just 29 a decade earlier.
The strains on pension and healthcare systems could also increase substantially, as Europeans live longer than ever before. Young Europeans will have to work harder, and be more efficient and productive in order to pay for the healthcare and pensions of a growing cohort of older Europeans (and, in turn, older Europeans may have to put off retirement, working into their 70s).
The demographic challenge is more pronounced in some countries than others. Even when migration is factored in, some EU-28 countries are seeing their overall populations shrink, and population growth is slowing across the bloc as a whole. Unless current trends change, Europe is expected to be the only continent on Earth whose population will shrink by 2050.
Curious to know more about demographics in Europe? We’ve put together some facts and figures in the infographic below (click for a bigger version).
We had a comment sent in from Peter arguing that the EU “needs immigrants to counter [its] demographic decline”.
To get a response, we spoke to Alejandro Macarrón, Managing Director of Demographic Renaissance, a think tank based in Madrid, Spain. How would he respond to Peter?
I think we need immigration, if it’s properly managed in amounts that can be assimilated and, of course, consists of people with backgrounds able to join the job market relatively easily. But it cannot be the only solution to our demographic problem. It’s seen everywhere that solely immigration cannot compensate totally the deficit in births that we have. So, we need the two things: in the long term, more births. And, in the short term, well managed immigration is much better than no immigration.
Next up, we had a comment from Bastian, who writes that Japan responds to demographic decline by “developing sophisticated technology. For example, harvesting [vegetables] – which in Europe is often a task for migrant labour – can be done by autonomous robots. Japan already has this solution developed.”
In other words, could an army of robot workers be the solution to all of Europe’s problems?
It’s part of the solution. But I think that if your focus is only on technology you risk having only old people anyway, so that’s not good. The demographic challenge is not merely an economic problem, but also a social problem. If I have no kids, no sisters or brothers, I think life is a little sad, no? When I’m old, I would prefer that my children take care of me. I don’t expect them to live with me, but sometimes they will visit me and help me. It’s not the same thing with a robot. We’re going to live long lives, and loneliness is increasing in society. Not everything is just about money…
Finally, we had a comment from Nikolai, asking how we can encourage women to have more children if their careers will suffer as a result? Should more be done to support men and women who want to start families, so they do not need to give up working?
Something needs to be done, I agree. However, if we pass the cost of maternity to companies, they are not going to like it. So, it’s society, state, and taxpayers who have to pay for it. The other thing is that for women and men, not everything has to be about careers. At some point in time, we made the two things compatible, and it’s very sad that some people only think of career and not family. It’s not just about women – it’s also about men, who might be successful in business but have kids and don’t take care of them, and don’t know them.
So, I would say to women: don’t give up having kids because of your careers, try to make them compatible. And I think the state should, of course, take measures to make it compatible. I also think everybody has to be aware that every woman who has a child is producing a benefit for society. If everybody is telling me every day that it’s good to have kids, I’m going to look more favourably at my workmate who has a kid and has to take time off work to go to the doctor, for example. If we are really aware we need kids desperately, we will be more favourable. Compatibility between having kids and working is not perfect, but we have to make it possible.
How can Europe reverse its demographic decline? Could immigration compensate for low birthrates in the EU? Or should governments offer greater support for young people who want to balance careers and families? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!
IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – Ryan Seyeau
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