Friday, 12 April 2013

Why is Europe committing demographic suicide?

Everybody knows about the economic woes of Europe. In the media you cannot get away from it. What we seldom hear about is a problem that puts debt crises and austerity riots in the shade: the region’s demographic suicide. Europeans, on the whole, are not having enough babies to replace themselves -- a trend which threatens the workforce, support of the aged and even the continued existence of some nations. It is a problem that goes back well before the recent housing bubbles and busts, bank failures and bailouts. It is probably a cause of the latter.

Yet it is a mystery to the people we rely to predict such things. Demographers, economists and psychologists are scratching their heads over a phenomenon that breaks all their statistical models and paradigms of human behaviour. Why would people who are prosperous (and, despite the current situation, western Europe is) not want to do what human beings have always done and leave a posterity? How can they contemplate the eclipse of their nation?

One answer might be that the public is simply not aware of what is happening. Lant Pritchett, an economist and Professor of the Practice of International Development at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, toldMercatorNet: “Scientists of perception study ‘change blindness’ and can show people have a hard time even visually seeing gradual change, much less gradual change at the social level. Unlike the advocates for climate change there are no ‘extreme events’ like Hurricane Sandy in demography so it is hard to get attention onto the inevitable consequences of current fertility.”

Dr Pritchett and colleague Martina Viarengo are the authors of an essay, “Why Demographic Suicide? The Puzzles of European Fertility”, which is part of acollection of essays published recently by the New York based Population Council in honour of a sistinguished scholar, Paul Demeny. The papers are heavy going but repay the effort to grasp what population experts are saying right now.

This is certainly the case with “Demographic Suicide…”, which states clearly the seriousness of persistent low fertility and the fact that the usual experts simply do not know how to account for it, let alone come up with a remedy. The authors speak of below replacement fertility (BRF) as “a revolution in human affairs”, a “paradigm-shattering phenomenon”. They are not exaggerating. They end by posing the “big open question of how children fit into an overall pattern of ‘family’ in the post modern era.”


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