In the grey

Population experts and scientists have sounded alarm bells at a fertility conference in Copenhagen over falling birth rates in Europe. Now, one in seven couples has trouble in conceiving naturally, which could rise to one in three in the coming decade. The decline is attributed to career priorities, late marriages, obesity and sex infections.

The increasing number of infertile men and women will have an adverse effect on the sustainability of European population because very few children will be born. That means there will be more aged people than young productive men and women. The implication is, the state has to spend millions on the welfare of an ageing population, which leaves big holes in national budgets as the tax-paying base shrinks.

The birth rate in the EU is now well below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. For example, in England and Wales, the fertility rate has dropped to 1.66 children per woman; in Spain 1.15; in Italy 1.19 and in Germany 1.34. Russia, which has one of the world’s lowest birth rates at 1.17 children per woman, began witnessing a fall in population in 1993 when the headcount was 148.3 million. Last year, the population was down to 145.6 million and it is expected to drop further in the coming years.

In fact, European population growth reached a decisive moment in 2000 when the number of births dropped to such a level that statistically there will be fewer parents in the next generation. It set a negative trend that could strongly influence population numbers throughout the 21st century. If Europe wants to offset the decline, it has to encourage large-scale immigration, a risky move fraught with social and political repercussions.

A way out is to reverse the current trends now by introducing measures aimed at encouraging couples of reproductive age to conceive early and have more babies. Incentives such as career breaks for young working women, longer maternity leaves, increased monetary and health benefits will go a long way in arresting Europe from going grey too early and too fast.

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