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Europe’s falling population

Abandoned village in PortugalAbandoned village in PortugalIn many parts of Europe, birth rates are tumbling. Many think this will lead to economic decline across the continent. While the average world population growth rate is 1.2%, Europe’s is just 0.2% (Africa is 2.5%). At the same time, record numbers of migrants and asylum-seekers (people wanting to live in another country to escape persecution in their own)—especially from Africa and the Middle East—are risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea in an attempt to enter the European Union (EU). Security forces battle to keep the migrants out, yet Europe is in need of more young people to run its health services, populate its rural areas and look after its elderly.

Afghan refugees camping in ParisAfghan refugees camping in Paris

Percentage of population aged over 65Percentage of population aged over 65

The Ageing of Europe

Europe has an ageing population. This is caused by both a decrease in fertility and falling death rates. Birth rates are now much lower than many other countries in the rest of the world. For example, the average birth rate in central Europe and the Baltic countries is 12.6 per 1000 people compared to 38 in sub-Saharan Africa. The rates are declining because Europeans are choosing to have smaller families later in life. For them, contraception is easily available and well understood.

At the same time, European people are living longer. This higher life expectancy is due to improvements in health care and medicine, greater knowledge about diet and regular exercise and improved living standards. As people have smaller families, the number of young dependants is falling while the number of elderly dependants is rising. This means that there will be fewer younger, working people to support the elderly population.

For population decline to be reversed, the fertility rate would need to rise from its present average level of about 1.4 children born for every woman of childbearing age, to a “replacement level” of 2.1. It would also be necessary to allow young, working-age migrants to settle in Europe in order to prevent labour shortages. But some have expressed concerns that immigration could lead to ethnic conflict.

According to UN estimates, there were about 292 million people in Eastern Europe in 2015, about 18 million less than in the early 1990s—equivalent to more than the population of the Netherlands disappearing from the region. Emigration to Western Europe is one of the main reasons behind the decline.

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