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.