The gravity of Europe’s demographic situation became clear at a conference I attended in Singapore last year. Dieter Salomon, the green mayor of the environmentally correct Freiburg, Germany, was speaking about the future of cities. When asked what Germany’s future would be like in 30 years, he answered, with a little smile, ”There won’t be a future.”Herr Mayor was not exaggerating. For decades, Europe has experienced some of the world’s slowest population growth rates. Fertility rates have dropped well below replacement rates, and are roughly 50% lower than those in the U.S. Over time these demographic trends will have catastrophic economic consequences. By 2050, Europe, now home to 730 million people, will shrink by 75 million to 100 million and its workforce will be 25% smaller than in 2000.Now, the cynic might say that this will alleviate their jobless problem, but that was not Kotkin's point.
The fiscal costs of this process are already evident. Countries like Spain, Italy and Greece, which rank among the most rapidly aging populations in the world, are teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. One reason has to do with the lack enough productive workers to pay for generous pensions and other welfare-state provisions.And, to be sure, I have discussed this point before. The United States is the world's largest reception area for immigrants, and Europe is much less immigrant-friendly. Since immigrants are typically young adults who then have children, it is their children who will help prop up the economy of the future. But in this economy, the flow of immigrants has slowed down and this worries Kotkin:
Finally the weak U.S. economy is also depressing birthrates to levels well below those of the last decade — birthrates that could soon reach its lowest levels in a century. Generally, people have children when they feel more confident about the future. Confidence in the American future is about as low now as any time since the 1930s.
This is probably an overblown conclusion. While data from the National Center for Health Statistics show that the birthrates at all ages of women were higher in 2007 (just before the Great Recession) than in 2009 (when the Great Recession was hitting very hard), the total fertility rate in the United States is still higher than it was in the 1990s. And, as Andrew Cherlin at The Johns Hopkins University told the Associated Press:
...the U.S. birth rate "is still higher than the birth rate in many wealthy countries and we also have many immigrants entering the country. So we do not need to be worried yet about a birth dearth" that would crimp the nation's ability to take care of its growing elderly population.