skeleton crew 1.jpgThe New York Times on June 29 featured an 8,000 word expose on the world’s underpopulation crisis. I’ve trimmed it to 2,500:

… In the 1990s, European demographers began noticing a downward trend in population across the Continent and behind it a sharply falling birthrate. Non-number-crunchers largely ignored the information until a 2002 study… gave policy makers across the European Union something to ponder.

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The figure of 2.1 is widely considered to be the “replacement rate” – the average number of births per woman that will maintain a country’s current population level. At various times in modern history – during war or famine – birthrates have fallen below the replacement rate, to “low” or “very low” levels.
But… [f]or the first time on record, birthrates in southern and Eastern Europe had dropped below 1.3. For the demographers, this number had a special mathematical portent. At that rate, a country’s population would be cut in half in 45 years, creating a falling-off-a-cliff effect from which it would be nearly impossible to recover. Kohler and his colleagues invented an ominous new term for the phenomenon: “lowest-low fertility.”…

Continue reading article on page 2.
[HT: reader Patricia; all graphics courtesy of NYT]

To the uninitiated, “lowest low” seems a strange thing to worry about. A few decades ago we were getting “the population explosion” drilled into us. The invader species homo sapiens, we learned, was eating through the planet’s resources and irretrievably fouling and wrecking its fragile systems. Has the situation changed for the better since Paul Ehrlich set off the alarm in 1968 with his best seller The Population Bomb? Do current headlines – global food shortages, climate change – not indicate continuing signs of calamity?
They do, as far as some are concerned, but things have changed somewhat. For one thing, around the world, even in developing countries, birthrates have plummeted – from 6.0 globally in 1972 to 2.9 today….
Meanwhile, in recent years another chorus of voices has sounded. Yes, we’re straining resources, they say, and it’s undeniable that some parts of the globe are overrun with humanity. But other regions now confront a very different fate….
Putting the numbers in a broader world-historical context stirred a debate about Europe’s future. Around the time that President Kennedy went to Germany and gave his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, Europe represented 12.5% of the world’s population. Today it is 7.2%, and if current trends continue, by 2050 only 5% of the world will be European.
To many, “lowest low” is hard evidence of imminent disaster of unprecedented proportions…. Letizia Mencarini, a professor of demography at the University of Turin, told me… “But if you would read the documents of demographers 20 years ago, you would see that nobody foresaw that the fertility rate would go so low. In the 1960s, the overall fertility rate in Italy was around two children per couple. Now it is about 1.3, and for some towns in Italy it is less than 1. This is considered pathological.”
There is no shortage of popular explanations to account for the drop in fertility…. [S]ocial conservatives tie the low birthrate to secularism. After arguing for decades that the West had divorced itself from God and church and embraced a self-interested and ultimately self-destructive lifestyle, abetted above all by modern birth control, they feel statistically vindicated. “Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future,” Pope Benedict proclaimed in 2006. “Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present.”

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In Germany, where… [there is] now… an annual population loss of roughly 100,000, Ursula von der Leyen, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s family minister (and a mother of 7), declared two years ago that if her country didn’t reverse its plummeting birthrate, “We will have to turn out the light.”
Mark Steyn, author of the 2006 best seller America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It, has warned his fellow North Americans, whose birthrates are relatively high, that, regarding their European allies, “These countries are going out of business,” and that while at the end of the 21st century there may “still be a geographical area on the map marked as Italy or the Netherlands,” these will “merely be designations for real estate.”
… Policy makers fear that… these trends forecast a perfect demographic storm. According to a paper by Jonathan Grant and Stijn Hoorens of the Rand Europe research group: “Demographers and economists foresee that 30 million Europeans of working age will ‘disappear’ by 2050. At the same time, retirement will be lasting decades as the number of people in their 80s and 90s increases dramatically.” The crisis, they argue, will come from a “triple whammy of increasing demand on the welfare state and health-care systems, with a decline in tax contributions from an ever-smaller work force.” That is to say, there won’t be enough workers to pay for the pensions of all those long-living retirees. What’s more, there will be a smaller working-age population compared with other parts of the world….
Europe is entering “an uncharted territory in demographic history.”
The issue of immigration is related to “lowest low” as well. The fears on the right are of a continent-wide takeover by third-world hordes – mostly Muslim – who have yet to be infected by the modern malady called family planning and who threaten to transform, if not completely delete, the storied, cherished cultures of Western Europe. And to venture into even-deeper waters, no one knows how Europe’s birthrate might play out globally: whether it will contribute to the diminishing of Western influence and Western values; whether, as Steyn’s book title suggests, America will have to go it alone in this regard….
Venice has lost more than half its population since 1950; its residents believe their city is destined to become a Venice-themed attraction. Is the same going to happen to Europe as a whole? Might the United States see its closest ally decay into a real-life Euro Disney?…
Bulgaria’s birthrate is 1.37, and life expectancy for males is 7 years less than in Belgium or Germany; the E.U. estimates that Bulgaria’s population will drop from 8 million today to 5 million in 2050.
Since 1989, Latvia’s population has dropped 13%; its fertility rate is one of the lowest in the world, and its divorce rate is among the highest in Europe….
A 2002 study found that 27.8% of German women born in 1960 were childless, a rate far higher than in any other European country…. The main reason seems to be a basic change in attitudes on the part of some women as to their “natural” role…. [M]any observers have been surprised to find that in recent years “childlessness emerges as an ideal lifestyle.”…
[A]n author of the 2002 study… [said]… “Italy has two records that are maybe world records…. One, young people in Italy stay with their parents longer than maybe anywhere else. No. 2 is the percentage of children born after the parents turn 40. These factors are related, because if you have a late start, you tend not to have a second child, and especially not a third.”…
British politician David Willetts has noted, “Living at home with your parents is a very powerful contraception.”…
[Also] women who do more than 75% of the housework and child care are less likely to want to have another child than women whose husbands or partners share the load.,,,
Aassve says, “the age gap between generations is widening, and in many cases grandparents, who would be the ones relied upon for child care, themselves become the ones in need of care.”…
This spring, the Japanese government released figures showing that the country’s under-14 population was the lowest since 1908.
The head of Thailand’s department of health announced in May that his country’s birthrate now stands at 1.5, far below the replacement level.
“The world record for lowest-low fertility right now is South Korea, at 1.1,” Francesco Billari told me….
Which brings us to a sparkling exception. Last year the fertility rate in the U.S. hit 2.1, the highest it has been since the 1960s and higher than almost anywhere in the developed world. Factor in immigration and you have a nation that is far more than holding its own in terms of population. In 1984 the U.S. Census Bureau projected that in the year 2050 the U.S. population would be 309 million. In 2008 it’s already 304 million, and the new projection for 2050 is 420 million.,,,
Some commentators explain its healthy birthrate in terms of the relatively conservative and religiously oriented nature of American society, which both encourages larger families. It’s also true that mores have evolved in the U.S. to the point where not only is it socially acceptable for fathers to be active participants in raising children, but it’s also often socially unacceptable for them to do otherwise….
[D]emographers have been surprised to find rapid fertility changes in the third world, as more and more women work and modern birth-control methods become standard options…. According to the UN, the birthrate in 25 developing countries – including Cuba, Costa Rica, Iran, Sri Lanka and China – now stands at or below the replacement level….
Appeals to patriotism are one means of encouragement. Money is another…. (While not a direct cash payment, the U.S. has a per-child tax credit of $1,000 a year.)
[F]ew advocate a return to stay-at-home motherhood. Indeed, as David Willetts declared in a 2003 speech on Europe’s shrinking and aging population, “Feminism is the new natalism.” That is, even conservatives like Willetts acknowledge that societies that support working couples have higher birthrates than those in which mothers are housewives….
Most studies show an uptick in the birthrate in countries that implement some pro-child program, but a very small one…
Besides natalist strategies, there is another obvious approach to increasing the population. If you can’t breed them, lure them. The population flow largely went the other way during the first half of the 20th century, but immigration is quickly transforming European societies. Some are looking to Canada or Australia as models: there, the focus is on selective immigration – opening the door for those who have knowledge and training that will benefit the economy….
[B]ut it doesn’t mean that immigration is the answer to low birthrates. The actual numbers, according to several authorities, are discouraging over the long run. By one analysis of UN figures, Britain would need more than 60 million new immigrants by 2050 – more than doubling the size of the country – to keep its current ratio of workers to pensioners, and Germany would need a staggering 188 million immigrants in the same time period….
Immigration already touches all sorts of raw nerves, forcing debates about cultural identity, citizenship tests, national canons, terrorism and tolerance, religious versus secular values.

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Meanwhile… Is it even possible to increase the population significantly? Is it even necessary? There are those who think that “lowest low” is not in itself a looming disaster but more of a challenge, even an opportunity. The change that’s required, they say, is not in breeding habits but thinking habits….
“Shrinkage is a completely new phenomenon,” Akbar told me. “We have to look for new ways to deal with it.” According to some, a declining population presents certain opportunities: to increase efficiency and livability, to change lifestyle and environment for the better. The plan that Akbar’s team came up with was for 18 cities… to find a way… to shrink constructively….
The plan, therefore, calls for demolishing underused sections of the city and weaving the nature on the periphery into the center: to create “urban islands set in a landscaped zone,” as Sonja Beeck, a Bauhaus planner, told me. “That will make the remaining urban areas denser and more alive.” The city has lost 25 percent of its population in recent years. “That means it is 25 percent too big,” Gröger said. “So far we have erased 2,500 flats from the map, and we have 8,000 more to go.” Beeck and Gröger walked with me through an area where a whole street had been turned into a grassy sward…
Eisleben, another of the cities in the consortium, has a picture-perfect 16th-century downtown but is losing people fast, and many of its historic buildings have been long unused and uninhabitable. Eisleben’s shrinkage strategy centers on history: it happens to be the birthplace of Martin Luther. The city is laying out a tourist route – from the house in which Luther was born to his first church to the church in which he gave the last sermon before he died – that shows off its old center and turns its many derelict buildings and empty lots into art installations related to the father of Protestantism….
This notion – embrace shrinkage in order to revitalize your economy, rather than trying to coax women to have more babies – is, according to more than a few observers of the European scene, the right tack. Or better said, it is one part of the best overall strategy — one that embraces population decline.
For there are those who argue that low birthrate in itself is not a problem at all. Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford scientist who warned us about the “population bomb” in the 1960s, is more certain than ever that the human race is catastrophically straining the planet. “It’s insane to consider low birthrate as a crisis,” he told me. “Basically every person I know in my section of the National Academy of Sciences thinks it’s wonderful that rich countries are starting to shrink their populations to sustainable levels. We have to do that because we’re wrecking our life-support systems.”
Low birthrates and an aging population, according to Vladimir Spidla, director of employment, social affairs and equal opportunities for the European Commission, “is the inevitable consequence of developments that are fundamentally positive, in particular increased life expectancy and more choice over whether and when to have children.”
I put this to Carl Haub of the Population Reference Bureau, who monitors global fertility on a daily basis from his perch in Washington. Is it possible that these are basically “good problems,” that Europeans, having trimmed their birthrates, are actually on the right path? That all they have to do is adjust their economies, find creative ways to shrink their cities, get more young and old people into jobs, so that they can keep their pension and health-care systems functioning?
Haub wasn’t buying it. “Maybe tinkering with the retirement age and making other economic adjustments is good,” he said. “But you can’t go on forever with a total fertility rate of 1.2. If you compare the size of the 0-to-4 and 29-to-34 age groups in Spain and Italy right now, you see the younger is almost half the size of the older. You can’t keep going with a completely upside-down age distribution, with the pyramid standing on its point. You can’t have a country where everybody lives in a nursing home.”