Is demography destiny?

Europe reached a his­toric turn­ing point in 1998. The pop­u­la­tion expand­ed to 728 mil­lion and then, for the first time in cen­turies, stopped grow­ing. Accord­ing to pro­jec­tions Europe will be the only con­ti­nent in the com­ing cen­turies which is effec­tive­ly becom­ing emp­ti­er. This devel­op­ment pro­vokes wild­ly dif­fer­ent reac­tions. Some rave about full employ­ment and paint a future of small­er class­es, more park­ing spaces, few­er traf­fic jams and short­er queues. Some also hope that this will send out an impor­tant sig­nal to those coun­tries whose pop­u­la­tions are still rapid­ly expand­ing. Oth­ers fear that a shrink­ing num­ber of tax-pay­ers will neces­si­tate a less gen­er­ous state and lead to ris­ing pover­ty. Pre­dic­tions of depre­ci­at­ing human cap­i­tal, ris­ing pub­lic debt and col­laps­ing social-secu­ri­ty sys­tems pro­vokes anxiety.


Demographic change and intergenerational justice

There are many indi­ca­tions that this demo­graph­ic change will strain the pub­lic finances, lead to prob­lems for the social secu­ri­ty sys­tem and cause pub­lic debt to increase. The envi­ron­ment should, how­ev­er, ben­e­fit from a shrink­ing pop­u­la­tion (although this is not nec­es­sar­i­ly the case if peo­ple live longer). The loss of bio­di­ver­si­ty and the flood­ing and ero­sion prob­lems caused by too few trees and too many paved sur­faces might be eased by a shrink­ing pop­u­la­tion in any case, even if a population’s life-style and resource con­sump­tion has a much greater effect on the envi­ron­ment than its raw size.



Demo­graph­ic change is already well under way. In the short to medi­um-term strate­gies will cer­tain­ly be need­ed to make the most of the pos­i­tive aspects and to min­imise the neg­a­tive ones as much as possible.

It will prob­a­bly make sense to de-cen­tralise pub­lic util­i­ties and ameneties as much as pos­si­ble, set­ting them up to serve a small­er num­ber of peo­ple who may be spread over a wider area. Con­struct­ed wet­lands could deal with sewage and waste water of rel­a­tive­ly small set­tle­ments in a clean, green and pleas­ant way, munic­i­pal taxis could make more sense than big busses and emty gyms could serve as show­rooms. Shrink­age is not nec­es­sar­i­ly bad.

Demog­ra­phers point out that lag-effects (“pop­u­la­tion momen­tum”) mean that shrink­ing pop­u­la­tions are unavoid­able in the devel­oped nations of the world, at least in the near term. Mea­sures tak­en now could only start arrest­ing the decline after around 2050. Her­wig Birg has cal­cu­lat­ed that the pop­u­la­tion of Ger­many would only stop shrink­ing by around 2080 if the fer­til­i­ty rate reached the replace­ment rate (the rate at which the pop­u­la­tion size remains sta­ble) by 2030. Even if 150,000 young peo­ple migrat­ed into Ger­many every year the pop­u­la­tion would car­ry on shrink­ing until 2068. Pop­u­la­tions are like tanker-ships: they take a long time to steer.

If Ger­many is to be, say, around 70 mil­lion strong then the birth rate needs to rise as soon as pos­si­ble and not just when the pop­u­la­tion has shrunk to this size. That would be about 30 years after mid­night, so to speak.

Deaths have exceed­ed births in Ger­many since 1972. Only immi­gra­tion has pre­vent­ed the pop­u­la­tion shrink­ing in the mean­time. Since it is hoped that immi­gra­tion will help plug the gap in the com­ing decades it makes sense to devel­op poli­cies which pro­mote man­aged immi­gra­tion and integration.