The latest vital statistics from the United Nations vividly confirm what the world’s demographers have long known: Europe is a dying continent. Over the past decade one European country after another has fallen into the state of natural population decline, i.e. more deaths than births.
In l993/94 those countries experiencing the greatest imbalance of deaths over births were the Russian Federation (750,000), Ukraine (180,000), and Germany (nearly 115,000). In the case of Germany (and Italy), only recent net immigration has kept the total population from falling.1
During the l970’s and l980’s, a number of other European nations, including Denmark. Austria, Belgium and Luxembourg, also experienced one or more years of population decline, but now have managed to stay slightly in plus territory.
As a consequence of its birth dearth the European continent will soon have more older than younger people, a complete reversal of the traditional age pyramid. Indeed, a study undertaken in Madrid more than five years ago disclosed that at the time “the city had more people over 65 than under 15,” a situation unknown anywhere aside from American retirement communities.2
In 1965 more than one million babies were born in Italy; in 1995 little more than a half-million will be born. In August 1993, the Italian government announced that the nation’s school system would drop 56,000 classes that fall, due to the decrease in the numbers of pupils.3 By the year 2000, it was predicted that “Italy will have five million fewer children under the age of 15 than it did in l9?0,” while at the same time there would be “five million more people aged 65 and up.”4
Already Italy’s work force of 20 million has been overtaken by the number of pensions being paid out: 21 million pensions to 15 million retirees, some of whom legally draw more than one. The situation is destined to get far worse. The Agnelli Foundation, a research organization run by Fiat, has projected that in the first third of the next century there will be two people drawing pensions for every person paying contributions.5 The consequences for the nation’s pension and medical systems is ominous — how can these costs possibly be paid? One obvious solution is to substantially reduce the level of future benefits and increase the age of retirement.
In addition to the inroads of The Pill and the pursuit of “la dolce vita” as causes of the country’s birth shortage, some observers believe Italians have responded to their “crowded suburbs and cramped apartment houses by curbing procreation.”6 (See “Habitat II,” this issue, p. 5.) In Germany, the plunge in births has been going on for at least a quarter of a century. Earlier, a population age-structure weighed to young adults and children kept the country’s population from falling; in recent years, as the nation has aged considerably, death rates have risen above the birth rate. At this point immigration alone has spared Germany from undergoing a severe population decline. How much longer Germany will allow large numbers of immigrants to enter the country is open to considerable question in view of the well—publicized tensions already occurring in German society due to the presence of so many aliens.
Meanwhile in Germany, as in Italy and other Western countries, the social security and pension systems face a difficult future with retirees projected to outnumber workers early in the next century.
While the German “baby bust” has affected all areas of the country, it has been most pronounced in the former communist states of East Germany. In Brandenburg, for instance, births have plummeted from nearly 38,000 in 1989 to barely 12,000 in 1994. In the four other eastern states, births have dropped by more than 50 percent over the same period.7
In an attempt to stem the birth decline, late last year Brandenburg announced that it would pay parents $650 for every new baby they have, An even more generous program of “kindergeld ” — which can reach a monthly cap of $420 for a family of four — has been paid in western Germany since 1955 with little success. Other European countries, including Hungary, Poland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Portugal, also provide payments to families of newborns, again with few notable results.”8
The worst population implosion of all is occurring in the Russian Federation and other former republics of the USSR. The Russian population decline is especially alarming since it is fed not only by a declining and well-below replacement level birth rate, but also by an unprecedented rise in the numbers of early deaths of working-age men. The dramatic increase in deaths of Russian men aged 30 to 50 has pulled down male life expectancy from a l991 average of 63.5 years — which was already well behind most other nations — to an astonishing 57.7 years in 1994.9 Russian male life expectancy is by far the lowest of all industrialized countries.10 Indeed, the life expectancy for boys born in Russia this year is lower than that of India, Egypt or Bolivia.11
If current conditions persist, nearly half of today’s Russian youth will not even reach the retirement age of 55 for women and 60 for men. The Russian death rate in 1994 — 15.6 per 1,000 population — increased by nearly 10 percent over the previous year and has soared almost 30 percent since 1992.12 According to a UNICEF report, such abnormally high male death rates are producing demographic profiles that “parallel or even surpass those normally observed in wartime conditions.”13
Although all major causes of death have fueled the increase in Russian mortality, the largest contributors have been circulatory diseases and external causes such as accidents, murder, suicide, and alcohol poisoning. The latter “external causes” reflect long-term Russian problems newly exacerbated by the stress of coping with the socioeconomic problems resulting from the death of communism.14
A somewhat similar situation exists in Hungary, which has been losing population for the past decade. There, the murder rate has soared in recent years but even more unsettling is the finding that “for every murder in Hungary there were nine suicides.”15
Current Russian birth rates are the lowest in the nation’s history, substantially lower than those achieved during the upheavals of World War I and the Russian Revolution, and equaled only by the worst year of World War II when German armies overran the country. The sharp drop in Russian births is a direct result of the collapse of the economy and a general lack of confidence in the future due to the sudden loss of a social system that formerly and housing for nearly every Russian.
If current trends continue, some Russian demographers have projected that the present population (148 million) will drop by 20 percent within the next two decades and could then be cut in half every 25 years thereafter. “16
Throughout Europe demographic statistics point to an uncertain, if not outright bleak, future. As Jacques Chirac, the then-premier of France put it as long ago as 1984, “In demographic terms, Europe is vanishing [soon] our countries will be empty.”17 In 1987, Antonella Pinnelli, a Rome-based sociologist-demographer, called the continent’s flight from fertility “very worrisome, because when a society loses the will to reproduce, it loses its vitality.”18
Bye, bye Europe. It was nice knowing you.
1 In 1992 Germany had a net immigration of more than 710,00 into the country of which more than 238,00 were from the war0torn former Yugoslavia-Bosnia and Herzegovina (70,000) and other areas (168,000). The Russian Federation (62,000), Romania (57,000), Poland (29,000), and Turkey (39,000) were the other main European contributors to Germany immigration, while Africa (36,000), and surprisingly, Asia (133,000), were also large sources of immigrants. (Statistches Jahrbuch 1994, Wiesbaden, p. 92.).
In Italy, “due to an influx of immigrants [the] population grew [by] 128,00 in 1994 to [slightly over] 57 million….” (“Italy declining birth rate plummets further in 1994,” Reuter, Rome, 25 July 1995).
2 “Western Europe, its births falling, wonders who’ll do all the work,” The New York Times, 22 July 1990, pp. 1,12 at 12.
3 “Low birth rate is becoming a headache for Italy,” The New York Times, 28 August 1993, 00. 1,5 at 5.
7 “$650 a baby: Germany to pay to stem decline in births,” The New York Times, 25 November 1994, p. A3.
9 “Russian population declining as births, life expectancy drop,” The Washington Times, 26 September p. A12.
10 “Population changes in the former Soviet republics,” Population Bulletin, Population Reference Bureau, Vol. 49, No. 4, p. 17.
11 “Plunging life expectancy puzzles Russia,” The New York Times, 2 August, pp. 1, 6, at 1.
12 Ibid, p. 6.
13 “Deaths skyrocket in former Soviet bloc,” The Sun (Baltimore), 10 February, p. A10.
14 Note # 10, op cit., p. 23.
15 Note # 13, op cit.
16 Note # 9, op cit.
17 “Falling population alarms Europe,” The Washington Times, 2 December 1987, pp. 1, 8, at 8.