An Aging Europe in Decline

Arthur C. Brooks, New York Times, January 7, 2015

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As the United States economy slowly recovers, analysts across the political spectrum see little to cheer them from Europe. {snip}

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{snip} As important as good economic policies are, they will not fix Europe’s core problems, which are demographic, not economic. This was the point made in a speech to the European Parliament in November by none other than Pope Francis. As the pontiff put it, “In many quarters we encounter a general impression of weariness and aging, of a Europe which is now a ‘grandmother,’ no longer fertile and vibrant.”

But wait, it gets worse: Grandma Europe is not merely growing old. She is also getting dotty. She is, as the pope sadly explained in an earlier speech to a conference of bishops, “weary with disorientation.”

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Start with age. According to the United States Census Bureau’s International Database, nearly one in five Western Europeans was 65 years old or older in 2014. This is hard enough to endure, given the countries’ early retirement ages and pay-as-you-go pension systems. But by 2030, this will have risen to one in four. If history is any guide, aging electorates will direct larger and larger portions of gross domestic product to retirement benefits–and invest less in opportunity for future generations.

Next, look at fertility. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the last time the countries of the European Union were reproducing at replacement levels (that is, slightly more than two children per woman) was the mid-1970s. In 2014, the average number of children per woman was about 1.6. That’s up a hair from the nadir in 2001, but has been falling again for more than half a decade. Imagine a world where many people have no sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts or uncles. That’s where Europe is heading in the coming decades. {snip}

There are some exceptions. France has risen to exactly two children per woman in 2012, from 1.95 in 1980, an increase largely attributed to a system of government payments to parents, not a change in the culture of family life. Is there anything more dystopian than the notion that population decline can be slowed only when states bribe their citizens to reproduce?

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One bright spot might seem to be immigration. In 2012, the median age of the national population in the European Union was 41.9 years, while the median age of foreigners living in the union was 34.7. So, are Europeans pleased that there will be new arrivals to work and pay taxes when the locals retire?

Not exactly. Anti-immigrant sentiment is surging across the Continent. Nativist movements performed alarmingly well in European Parliament elections last year. Europe is less like a grandmother knitting placidly in the window and more like an angry grandfather, shaking his rake and yelling at outsiders to get off his lawn.

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So what is the prescription for Europe’s ills–and the lesson for America’s future?

It is true that good monetary and fiscal policies are important. But the deeper problems in Europe will not be solved by the European Central Bank. No matter what the money supply and public spending levels, a country or continent will be in decline if it rejects the culture of family, turns its back on work, and closes itself to strivers from the outside.

Europe needs visionary leaders and a social movement to rediscover that people are assets to develop, not liabilities to manage. If it cannot or will not meet this existential challenge, a “lost decade” will look like a walk in the park for Grandma Europe.

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