TCS Daily

Old Europe Fades Away

By James Ringo - March 9, 2006 12:00 AM

"Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

So Dylan Thomas urged his once-fierce father, then gone soft, to rekindle his spirit. Equally, Thomas could have been expressing the view of many Americans, culturally derived from Father-Europe at its looming death.

The bad news from Europe is that its birth rates are low, far below the level needed to maintain the current population. The worse news is that the Europeans are not fighting it.

Over the last couple of years Europeans have just begun to recognize a demographic problem exists. In a reflection of the societies, there is little or no discussion of the demise of their nations, cultures, or traditions. The much discussed worry is that old age pensions will be threatened. This mundane concern may at least serve to awaken Europe to the fact that it is dying.

The Europeans are, of course, right about the massive under-support for old age pensions looming. Germany, with the biggest economy and population in old Europe, is typical in its birthrates. The number of children per woman is currently around 1.4, or only two-thirds of the replacement rate (France and the U.K. are doing a little better, Spain and Italy a little worse).

Germany's retirement age is 60, and within 25 years it is facing the prospect of three people of working age (about half actually working) supporting two people in retirement, according to the German Federal Statistical Department. Unless the Germans do something dramatic, it is unlikely that in 25 years the ratios will be even that good as emigration will be an attractive choice to the smart, overburdened young producer.

Germany, sticking with this example, is sure to see a fading world role. It will be passed by Ethiopia in population in a year or two and its economy is dropping down the world scale. It is even losing one of its last claims to supremacy (among large countries), that it has the richest poor people in the world. It will soon be passed by the United States in having the largest income/consumption of its poorest 20 percent (Germany redistributes income more than the U.S. but is increasingly falling behind in total national income; this will get substantially worse as their demographic crisis worsens). The material well being of the bottom 20 percent of society is supposed to be an important success of the European social model, so perhaps this fall will capture some German attention. All numbers above were obtained from the UN's Web site.

Fundamentally there are only two ways to counter the European birth shortfall, increased fertility or increased immigration. European discussion has naturally turned to its old standby, a government subsidy. While there is some indication that heavy child support from the state can increase the number of children families have, it takes a great deal of money, and most Europeans countries already heavily subsidize children. The last thing the sluggish European economies need is a significantly increased social burden on the productive, causing both economic slowdown and emigration.

Far more affordable options come via the technology of reproduction. In recent years, great strides have been made in both in vitro fertilization (IVF) and artificial reproductive technology.

Denmark is the current leader in IVF. About 4 percent of Danish children are born with IVF techniques. This is an impressive number given the outright ban on egg donation (except where surplus is available from an IVF procedure) as well as any payment, even modest expenses, for surrogate mothers.

Currently new techniques are mostly used to help infertile couples under 35 produce children. While this has a small effect on birth rates, bigger effects would follow if the technology were used to make childbearing fit better in modern life. Coincident with the declining birth rate, the age of marriage has risen considerably. Germany again is typical of Europe, having an average age of first marriage for women of just over 28 years (it was about 24 in the 1950s and 60s when the fertility rates were above replacement level). While out of wedlock birth is widespread (23 percent of total), birth within marriage is still the norm, so late marriage almost automatically means smaller families. Indeed, Irish population history provides a clear example of the dependence of birthrate upon age of marriage. In Germany today, again typical of Europe, the average mother's age at the birth of her first baby is 28, a rise of 3 to 5 years from the 1950s and 60s. Since a physiologic reduction in fertility generally begins for women in their early 30s, there is a biological clock ticking down Europe's fall.

A technologically aided delay in age-related infertility, compensating for the delay in family formation, is a promising solution to the demographic crisis. Evidence that such a compensation, when available, would be welcome and used stems from the recent increase in the births to mothers over 35. In 1990, the over 35 group accounted for 9 percent of all German births, by 2000 this was 16 percent. Yet, according to the March of Dimes, almost half of women between 35 and 45 have physiologic fertility problems. The science and the technology to alleviate these problems are either in place or nearly so and improving.

The largest barrier to the use of this technology is government regulation. The bans on egg donation and any payments for surrogate mothers in Denmark are typical examples. The moral point driving such regulation is supposed to be that egg donation and surrogacy involve some small risks, and women should not be pressured by money to accept any risks. Considering there are some, not so small, 'medical' risks associated with lumberjacking, police work, crewing a fishing boat and many other jobs, this fastidiousness appears out of synch with reality. People take small risks for monetary and other rewards routinely (our choices on eating, car selection etc. spring to mind). While it is certainly right to demand informed consent, making these decisions for others smack of moral authoritarianism.

Surrogacy, for example, is more than an expedient for overworked career women. After 35, the medical complications involved in pregnancies rise significantly, with miscarriages, high blood pressure and diabetes particular worries. This must surely inhibit the desire for children in many. Indeed, in a Japanese study, over half of the women listed fear of medical complications as a reason they didn't have more children.

Does a concerted push into modern and future reproductive technology hold promise? Yes. Ultimately, however, any substantial increase in fertility will depend upon the accumulated decisions of millions of individual Europeans and is not foreseeable. If such a concerted push fails, that leaves the other choice to stem the population fall, an immigration program.

Current European experience with Muslim immigrants shows that better attention needs to be given to how well the immigrants integrate into the society. This might seem obvious, however multiculturalism has made it difficult to address such issues as full integration means largely accepting the culture of the host country. In the wide American experience, culture integration has always been followed by economic success. While the overseas Chinese in various East Asian and other countries have shown great economic success without strong integration that model is not without deep problems as the separate groups (e.g., in Indonesia and Malaysia) are a recurrent explosive mix.

Multiculturalist dogma is surely right in at least one point, where it asserts that cultures matter. Among the multicultural messages for Europe is that so far North African Muslim immigrants haven't integrated well. Behind the headlines, however, there is far more hope. The core of this hope stems from the key integration statistic, the intermarriage rate. In France, the intermarriage rates are high. According to Justin Vaisse (an adjunct professor at Sciences-Po, Paris), approximately one-third of French Muslims marry non-Muslims (no data were presented on the key issue of whether those outside the Muslim faith converted, however the bulk of the French Muslims continue to be weak on religious devotion). In Germany, Turks are intermarrying with native Germans at an increasing rate also. This rate climbed from about 2 percent 25 years ago to about 12 percent today. Interestingly, male and female Turks have very similar intermarriage rates suggesting a true integration.

So, while the Europeans may manage to assimilate most of their Muslim immigrants, and the intermarriage rates shine a more benign light upon immigrants in Europe, it would still be stupidly risky to seek more Muslim immigrants. Luckily for the Europeans, on a world scale they are still wealthy and free so make an attractive home for many ambitions young people.

The shrinkage of Europe is deceptive because it is gradual. It could, of course, go on like this for a century. What we would have, however, is a demoralized, depleted and defeated Europe, a graveyard in a museum. Their influence in current human civilization would be over. This would be a substantial loss for the world and the U.S., for while current anti-Americanism is irritating, Europe is a massive positive force in the world, in democracy, in free-trade, in science and elsewhere. Europeans might still provide a model for other countries. But that is a pathetic ambition and with failure and senescence as their central feature, they would carry all the power and vibrancy of Tibetan monks, without the style.

Rage, rage please.

James Ringo teaches at the University of Rochester.


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