Fertility Decline Continues

Economic Consequences of an Aging Population

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, APR. 10, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Low fertility rates and an aging population will present Europe with a big economic challenge. This was one of the points made in a study published by the European Commission at the start of the month.

The “Third Demography Report” found that the number of children per woman has increased from 1.45 children, at the time of the last report in 2008, to 1.6. Nonetheless, this is still substantially below the level of 2.1 children that is required to maintain a stable population.

As well, life expectancy is increasing, which will push the trend to an aging population. Already in 4 countries — Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia and Romania — the population is decreasing due to a combination of more people dying than are born and emigration.

The report also found that the mean age of women at childbirth has been postponed significantly over the course of the last three decades. The highest age at childbirth in 2009 was in Ireland, at 31.2 years. Italy was close behind, 31.1, while the lowest was in Bulgaria, 26.6, and Romania, 26.9. In 13 of the 27 EU countries women tended to have their children when they were aged 30 or over.

According to the report fertility might continue to increase marginally, perhaps to just over 1.7 children per woman. At this rate a large inflow of immigrants would still be required to prevent the size of the population from shrinking in the long run, it noted.

It is unlikely that fertility will rise sufficiently to reach the 2.1 replacement level, or that the aging of Europe’s population will be reversed, the report concluded.

About 5 million children are born each year in the 27 states that comprise the European Union and over 2 million people immigrate from outside countries. Births outnumber deaths by only several hundred thousand persons each year. With net migration at well over a million annually this accounts for the largest proportion of the EU’s population growth.

The EU nations are now the home of some 20 million people who not have local citizenship. There is also internal migration, with another 10 million EU nationals living in another member state. In addition around 5 million non-nationals have acquired EU citizenship since 2001.


Beneath the overall EU population figures there are significant differences between the member states. For example, populations that are currently the oldest, such as Germany’s and Italy’s, will age rapidly for the next twenty years, then stabilize.

Others, with populations that are younger, mainly in the East of the EU, will undergo aging at increasing speed and by 2060 will have the oldest populations in the EU.

The report observed that by 2014 the working age population, in the age range of 20-64, will start to shrink rapidly, as the baby-boomers from the post World War II period retire.

In fact, already the number of people aged 60 and above in the EU is rising by more than two million every year, which is roughly twice the rate observed until about three years ago.

Currently half the EU-27 population is aged 40.9 years or over. This median age ranges
from 34.3 years in Ireland to 44.2 years in Germany. The median age is projected to rise to 47.9 years by 2060.

The share of the population aged 65 and over is projected to increase from 17.4% in 2010 to 30.0 % in 2060

The result of this will be an increased burden on those of working age to provide for social spending expenditure needed for an aging population.

This is even more obvious when looking at the projections regarding the number of people of working age, between 19 and 65, compared to those who are dependent, due to their youth or having retired.

At the moment the EU has about three people of working age for every two dependent people. By the year 2060 it is forecast that will be almost one person of working age for every dependent person aged under 19 or over 65 years in the EU-27.

United States

Europe is hardly alone in experiencing low fertility. In the United States the birth rate has dropped in the period 2007-09, according to statistics published in the March data brief by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

From 2007 through 2009, births fell 4% percent to 4,131,019; and the provisional count of births through June 2010 indicated continued declines, the report added.

Birth rates fell 9% for women aged 20-24, to reach the lowest rate ever recorded for this age group, and 6% for women aged 25-29. Rates also declined for women in their 30s.

One notable feature of the information was that fertility rates for Hispanic women fell more than for any other population group. While fertility dropped for all racial and ethnic groups, it fell by 9% for Hispanic women.

Another look at population figures came from data recently published by a private organization in the United States, the Population Reference Bureau (PRB).

According to this the number of babies born in the United States fell by 2.3% in 2009, and the number is continuing to slide.

This meant that the average number of lifetime births per woman, for 2009 was 2.01, the lowest level since 1998. With this drop in births the U.S. total fertility rate is now below the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman.

Another feature they remarked on was that for the first time in many years the rate of births to unmarried women declined. Nevertheless, births to married women declined even more, which meant that 41% of all births in the U.S. was to unmarried mothers, an all-time high.

The bureau speculated that the recent fall was due to the current economic downturn, This contrasted with the CDC report, which said that birth data alone is not enough to draw firm conclusions about the reasons a decline in the fertility rate.

But, the PRB observed, both the Great Depression of the 1930s and the hard economic times of the 1970s following the “oil shock,” were also periods of record low fertility in the United States.

The question is, the PRB remarked, is whether fertility will bounce back when the economy improves or will the lower rates become the new norm, as is the case in Europe and Canada.


In Canada low fertility has been the norm for some time and, as an article in the April 2 edition of the National Post newspaper pointed out, this is costly for the government. The latest budget figures calculate that in the period 2010-11 to 2015-12 spending on benefits for the elderly will surge by 30%.

This annual increases forecast will be well above projected rates of Canadian economic growth, the article noted. In fact, the article cited data according to which economic growth might fall to half the level seen in past decades, due to the impact of an aging population.

In spite of the serious problems caused by low fertility and aging the United Nations is remaining still set on its objective of reducing fertility at all costs. The 44th session of the Commission on Population and Development will convene from April 11-15 in New York.

The press release announcing this stressed the need to extend family planning and to rapidly reduce fertility in Africa and Asia. Instead, maybe they would be better off looking at the serious economic problems that such a decrease is causing in many countries already.

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