Refugees can make up for Europe's low birth rate

The continent could benefit with the influx of migrants, if it integrates them well into its societies

By Jon Van Housen & Mariella Radaelli (Euroscope)

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Published: Mon 19 Jun 2017, 8:44 PM

Last updated: Mon 19 Jun 2017, 10:49 PM

The population of Italy declined by 96,000 last year as the country's birth rate fell below half a million for the second consecutive year, according to the latest data from the national statistics agency ISTAT.
Low birth rates have been making headlines for years as Italy battled a prolonged recession, but the trend actually began long before. The biggest drop came between 1970 and 1990, when the average number of births by women of childbearing age fell from 2.38 to 1.33.
And it isn't only Italy. Countries across Europe have long been registering low birth rates. The population of Spain has been shrinking since 2012. On an average, every woman of childbearing age has 1.27 children compared to the EU average of 1.55. Germany had the lowest birth rate in the world between 2008 and 2013, some 8.2 per 1,000 people, according to a study by the Hamburg World Economy Institute.
Though higher than many countries in Europe, the birth rate in France was an average of 1.93 children per woman in 2016 - the lowest since 1976, according to France's National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies.
The demographics in Western Europe have set off alarm bells as the region faces an aging population, nagging economic doldrums and an influx of refugees.
Many in search of the answer look to the economic crisis that began in 2008, but it appears cultural factors and changing roles for men and women began to shape the trend long before.
"The reasons why Italy and Spain have low fertility are complex, and not only related to the problematic economic developments over the last decade," says Sebastian Klüsener, a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute for
Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany. "A factor that western Germany, Italy and Spain have in common is that they are laggards in the introduction of family policies that support parents to reconcile family and career goals."
Though Germany is led by a strong woman, Angela Merkel, statistics show that the country retains a male-dominated outlook on family life and work, with the husband often the breadwinner and wife is the traditional hausfrau at home raising children. Maria Saab, a research fellow at the New America Foundation, notes that "despite having a female chancellor and quotas in place requiring a third of non-executive board members to be women, just 15 per cent of senior roles are held by women in Germany".
As a result, Germany does not have a well-established programme for widespread childcare outside the home. German women seem to see it as a decision between either having a career or children.
In Italy and Spain, the economic crisis did take a toll. Figures from Eurostat in 2015 showed that 66 per cent of Italians aged between 18 and 34 years still lived with their parents instead of starting their own nuclear family. Spain has a net exodus of youth leaving in search of better job prospects.
The picture is brighter in northern Europe with "many countries close to replacement levels (of around two children per woman), where a generation of daughters would replace a generation of mothers," says Klüsener. Though lower than historic levels, the birth rate in France, too, is also at almost "replacement" levels.
"Researchers believe that the rather high fertility rate in France is indeed linked to the fact that the country introduced family policies very early, which supported parents in the reconciliation of family and career goals," he says.
Low birth rates combined with an aging population have long-term planners concerned. Can a diminishing workforce continue to fund Europe's enlightened health and retirement programmes?
Klüsener, for one, has a sanguine outlook. "Human societies are quite adaptive. Otherwise, they would have not managed the massive increase in the world population over the last 100 years," he says "It is likely that human societies will also be able to cope with population shrinking and aging.
Retirement programmes can sustain, if politicians manage to implement reforms to make the retirement systems resilient to population aging."
Some wonder if Europe's influx of refugees can provide the additional working population needed. According Germany's statistical office Destatis, the country's total population rose by 978,000 in 2015 as "the result of a high net immigration". The newcomers boosted Germany's GDP by 0.25 percentage points, said the Berlin-based DIW economic institute.
But Olga Poetzsch, a spokesperson for Destatis, notes the overall trend remains a declining population. "Developments that might prevent high numbers in the deficit of births are currently not in sight," she says.
And actually integrating refugees as useful, productive members of society remains a difficult hurdle.
Judy Dempsey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Institute in Europe and editor-in-chief of Strategic Europe, writes that "the EU has in the past few decades become a prosperity-distributing mechanism, (but) it unquestionably needs to be reintegrated around certain values".
"George Orwell once wrote bitterly that intellectuals do not want to change the world, but to accuse it. In the case of integrating refugees, Europeans should perhaps be less intellectual. There is a need for a cool head, specific aid, and educational programmes - not only for refugees from countries like Syria, but also for European citizens, who need to understand the new situation."
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are editors at Luminosity Italia, a news agency based in Milan, Italy

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