mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Europe’s Greying a Disaster for Growth

The slowly expanding sovereign-debt crisis and Europe’s halfhearted attempts to deal with it have dominated reporting about Europe for the past few years, but the Continent has a graver and even more intractable problem. Megan McArdle points out at The Atlantic that even if Europe manages to get its finances under control its demographics threaten to further cripple its economy:

Unfortunately, growth (or at least the sustainable variety) is typically a long time in the baking, and dependent on two main ingredients: more workers and higher worker productivity. And much of Europe is short on the former. That has big implications for Europe’s future. […]

Italy’s fertility rate has actually been inching up from its 1995 low of 1.19 children for every woman, but it is still only about 1.4—well below the number needed to replenish its population (2.1). As a result, even with some immigration, Italy’s population growth has been very slow. It will soon stall, and eventually go into reverse. And then, one by one, the rest of Europe’s nations will follow. Not one country on the Continent has a fertility rate high enough to replace its current population. Heavy debt and a shrinking population are a very bad combination.

This nails it. Generous welfare programs, early retirement, low birthrates, and crippling debt are the most serious problems facing the developed world at the moment. As with the debt crisis, it doesn’t appear that Europe has developed any credible plan to deal with the most serious long-term issue it faces.

Read the whole thing.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Jim.

    First off — Megan, shame on you for giving that [person of whom the writer disapproves] Krugman’s Orwellian insistance that to pursue austerity is to “keep digging” when you’rein a hole. The opposite is true– to add debt, particularly entitlement (money-for-nothing) debt is to keep digging.


    It is dying of Socialism. Greece has always trended more Communist, which is pushing it towards violence when their entitlement mentality is not indulged.

    The world is facing a correction. It is getting more fair. The old 3rd world is getting the share it works for, and unproductive Europeans are watching their share fall.

    So, why aren’t the Lefties happy about this, after wanting it for so long? The world may never know.

  • Anthony

    “Generous welfare programs, early retirement, low birthrates, and crippling debt are most serious problems facing the developed world…” The aforementioned may be perhaps WRM consequence of modernity and technology’s civilizing influence over these last 60 plus years – example of unintended societal consequences of progress…

  • Cunctator

    Interesting piece, but not a new argument. I have always wondered if the demographic decline in Europe has more to do with the selfishness of the “me” generation than anything else. Raising children is hard work, costly, and is a life-long commitment. Many of the 1950s and 1960s cohort were not interested in such a role, preferring instead a free and easier lifestyle. That social understanding has been transmitted to the succeeding generations and is captured in the decline of marriage (and by implication the family).

    Is the welfare state the cause or the effect of such an outlook. I don’t know.

  • Jim.


    If you read McArdle’s article, you would see that decline in birthrate tracks rather closely to generosity in old-age pensions.

    That would suggest that yes, in fact, the Welfare State IS the cause of that outlook, and to suggest otherwise means your head is stuck firmly [in the sand].

  • Andrew Allison

    I think it’s worth pointing out that there is a, just barely possible way out. If, and it’s a very big if, Europe could get its act together, there’s a huge pool of currently unemployed workers at its fingertips.

  • Kenny

    Europe’s plan was to import Muslims to do the work for them.

  • Pat Kittle

    A billion more humanoids every 13 years and all you clowns worry about is adding even more.

    A sane foreign (and domestic) policy would recognize the ironclad laws of ecology and physics. Then again, how could you neocons be expected to do that when even most eco-weenies won’t touch overpopulation with a ten-foot pole?

    What’s missing is an honest discussion of how to reward responsible birthrates — not encouraging a baby-making race with over-breeders!

    The lunatic pursuit of endless growth on a finite planet is the greatest threat to us all.

  • Kris

    Pat@7: You know what would make your comment even more convincing? Typing it in all-caps!

    “even most eco-weenies won’t touch overpopulation with a ten-foot pole”

    Perhaps a 10-inch pole would be more apposite?

  • Cunctator

    #4 Jim – The fact that generous old age pensions seem to correlate with a declining birthrate is not necessarily representative of a causal relationship. A coincidence is not a cause, but it is nonetheless worth looking at. However, that correlation does not undermine the argument that I was making. In fact, my argument might well explain both outcomes.

  • Jack

    Pat does not have a shred of hard evidence to support his brand of overpopulation alarmism. We’ve heard all this before; Paul Ehrlich has become a whipping boy because his prognostications 40 years ago in his widely read book, The Population Bomb, were way off. Yet, overpopulation alarmism continues.

    Incidentally, a declining population is not good for the environment. Because of the economic and social dislocations that a declining population portends, people will be more concerned with basic survival and than the environment. Indeed, we will likely see more environmental exploitation as a way of compensating for economic contraction. Environmentalism is a luxury that declining economies cannot afford.

  • a nissen

    Jack concludes “Indeed, we will likely see more environmental exploitation as a way of compensating for economic contraction. Environmentalism is a luxury that declining economies cannot afford.”

    And nonetheless starts out accusing Pat of having not a shred of hard evidence. Too bad the subjects in dispute is of such consequence. My question: if all of life comes in juvenile forms and mature forms, might it be worth our while to consider that our civilization may also attain the capability of reaching maturity as well either de facto or as the saying goes—an intentional future?

  • a nissen

    Sorry: Too bad the subjects in dispute ARE of such consequence.

  • Jbird

    Pat Kittle, the only way a population decline could be handled while maintaining the quality of life that allows us to dabble in modern extreme-environmentalism, is if we end the whole pension/medicare/social security wealth transfer schemes as we know them. If the younger generation is smaller than the older, it can’t possibly continue to fund the 25 years of retirement that the elderly now enjoy. Maybe when someone turns 65 we can give them a choice: go the Soylent Green route or take the ol’ Eskimo Ice Floe treatment.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service