Europe reached a his­toric turn­ing point in 1998: the pop­u­la­tion stopped grow­ing at 728 mil­lion peo­ple — for the first time in cen­turies. Accord­ing to all pro­jec­tions, Europe will be the only con­ti­nent in the com­ing decades with a steadi­ly shrink­ing pop­u­la­tion. This change is eval­u­at­ed very dif­fer­ent­ly. Some rave about full employ­ment and paint a future in which chil­dren no longer have to study in over­crowd­ed class­es, in which park­ing lots and chron­i­cal­ly con­gest­ed streets are a thing of the past and queu­ing is an end. It is also hoped to send out a sig­nal to rapid­ly grow­ing devel­op­ing coun­tries. Oth­ers say, how­ev­er, that Ger­many will not be able to main­tain its infra­struc­ture and will become impov­er­ished. A col­lapse of social secu­ri­ty sys­tems, an esca­lat­ing nation­al debt and a sharp decline in human cap­i­tal are feared.

Demographic change and intergenerational justice

So far, econ­o­mists have large­ly neglect­ed shrink­ing process­es, which is why there is still a con­sid­er­able need for research. How­ev­er, there are many indi­ca­tions that the pre­dict­ed demo­graph­ic change will have a rather neg­a­tive eco­nom­ic impact on future gen­er­a­tions in Ger­many. Bur­den effects are like­ly to occur above all in the social secu­ri­ty sys­tems and with regard to per capi­ta debt.
From an eco­log­i­cal point of view, how­ev­er, the relief effects for nature in the event of shrink­age can­not be denied (this is not nec­es­sar­i­ly the case for age­ing). Even if the eco­log­i­cal bur­den cor­re­lates more strong­ly with the num­ber of house­holds than with the num­ber of inhab­i­tants and there­fore the rela­tion­ship does not sim­ply fol­low the rule of three, demo­graph­ic change offers pos­i­tive poten­tials, espe­cial­ly for the prob­lems of bio­di­ver­si­ty and soil seal­ing.

Adaptation strategies

How­ev­er, demo­graph­ic change has already begun, so that strate­gies are need­ed in the short and medi­um term that make use of the pos­i­tive poten­tial of demo­graph­ic change and at the same time neu­tral­ize the neg­a­tive effects as much as pos­si­ble.
Good adap­ta­tion strate­gies for deal­ing with shrink­age would be decen­tral­ized sup­ply sys­tems (e.g. plant-based purifi­ca­tion plants) and mobile, tem­po­rary and work-shar­ing forms of sup­ply (e.g. urban call taxi instead of reg­u­lar bus line) or the use of vacant halls as show rooms.

As demog­ra­phers point out, the iner­tia effect (‘pop­u­la­tion momen­tum’) makes a cer­tain shrink­age of the pop­u­la­tion in the indus­tri­al­ized coun­tries vir­tu­al­ly irre­versible. A fur­ther decline after 2050 could only be avoid­ed if mea­sures are tak­en at an ear­ly stage. Accord­ing to cal­cu­la­tions by Her­wig Birg, even if the birth rate grad­u­al­ly ris­es to the sus­tain­able lev­el by 2030, it would take until 2080 for the con­trac­tion to stop and the birth bal­ance to be bal­anced again. Even if 150,000 younger peo­ple immi­grat­ed every year, the long peri­od until the end of the shrink­age would not change much, and the birth bal­ance would remain neg­a­tive until 2068. In any case, such cal­cu­la­tions sharp­en the aware­ness that the pop­u­la­tion momen­tum in the direc­tion of shrink­age is com­pa­ra­ble to a cum­ber­some tanker that must be stopped in good time. Four fam­i­lies with one child each have more off­spring than a fam­i­ly with three chil­dren. Those who take a pop­u­la­tion of 70 mil­lion as their tar­get fig­ure, for exam­ple, must not intro­duce prona­tal­ist mea­sures only when this fig­ure has been reached. Then it’s already 30 years after 12:00, so to speak.

Since 1972, more peo­ple have died in Ger­many than were born. Only immi­gra­tion has pre­vent­ed shrink­age in the last 30 years. Immi­gra­tion will con­tin­ue to be seen as a means of halt­ing demo­graph­ic change in the com­ing decades. Con­cepts for a sus­tain­able immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy must there­fore be devel­oped. A sen­si­ble immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy should also have inte­gra­tion mea­sures in mind.