Europe grapples with its population “trilemma”


There are 280 humans born each minute, 403,241 every day, with most of those babies taking their first breaths in Africa or Asia. By the year 2050, the earth that today hosts 7.4 billion inhabitants will be home to nearly 10 billion people, according to a new report. Africa’s population will more than double, faster than previously believed.

As Europe’s long-lamented decline in its overall birth rate is set to continue, combined with migratory pressures from conflict areas and the developing world, these new figures make it clear that demographics will become an increasingly critical issue for the continent.

The 2016 World Population Data Sheet from the Washington DC-based Population Reference Bureau (PRB) tallies the population of 200 countries. The total is set to increase by a third by 2050 – projected to reach 10 billion by 2053. The increase, larger than the United Nations projections, is in part due to a slower decline expected in the birth rates of developing countries.

The PRB’s research also tracks health and environment indicators, which help illustrate how the balance between human needs and natural resources is being managed around the world. Noting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, it also examines the needs in the Global South that are causing net-migration from particular countries.

The latest numbers show that the multiple problems of declining and ageing populations are quickly becoming acute for Europe. Amongst the eight countries the PRB projected would see the greatest reductions in population, three are European Union members: Romania, Poland and Spain. Of the 10 countries with the lowest birth rates in the world, Europe occupies seven spots.

Germany already has the lowest birth rate in the world, according to the Hamburg Institute of International Economics (HWWI), with an average of 8.2 children born per 1,000 inhabitants. Romania also stands out in the PRB study: its present population of 20 million is expected to plunge to 14 million by 2050, due to high rates of emigration and a tie for the lowest global birth rate of 1.2 children per woman. Programmes in many countries providing financial incentives to increase family sizes have fallen short.

Europe set to peak – then decline

The EU’s own statistical bureau, Eurostat, forecast last year that the EU population as a whole, just over 508 million at present, will peak at 526 million in 2050 and then start to decline. By 2060, the number of working-age people for every retirement-aged resident will be cut in half, from four workers per 65-year-old to two.

Yet even as EU governments recognise their need for a larger labour pool, they are pushing potential workers away. Many countries are strengthening their anti-immigration policies due to the refugee crisis, keeping out even highly-skilled professionals who’ve been forced to flee war.

Nor is Europe maximising its potential for EU labour mobility, according to Mikkel Barslund and Matthias Busse, co-authors of a study for the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS). They argue that Europe is underestimating the need for worker mobility at its own peril.

The bloc must adapt to “managing the tensions inherent between the impetus for deeper economic integration as set out in the treaties, conserving member states’ control over the design of the welfare state and initial large differences in income levels,” they argue.

Barslund and Busse say this ‘trilemma” has undermined the system to the point that only 2 to 3 per cent of EU citizens live in a different member state from their own, partly out of inherent fear of different environments but partly because social benefts are not equitable across the bloc.

These questions and more were on the agenda at the recent biannual European Population Conference in Mainz, Germany, with the theme Demographic Change and Policy Implications. Demographers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA ) and the Vienna Institute of Demography were presented new data that gives more weight than previously to the impact of changing life expectancy.

“This changes the picture of ageing in Europe drastically,” says IIASA World Population Program deputy director Sergei Scherbov.

Using the new measures, Scherbov and his colleagues found that eastern European countries show the fastest rate of population ageing in Europe, rather than the slow rate of ageing indicated by traditional research methods.

Scherbov explained what he thinks Europe can do with figures like those revealed by PRB. The research team found that if the EU accepts zero migration, its population will decline 5.4 per cent by 2050. With migration, projections show a population increase of 6.6 per cent across the EU.

But researchers like Scherbov believe there’s no time to waste. The PRB says 33 countries in Europe and Asia already have more pensioners than people under age 15.