January 9th, 2009 | Posted in Population Basics
by Bill Butz, president and CEO
In the Vienna Institute of Demography’s conference proceedings on the question “Can policies enhance fertility in Europe?,” I argue a little-heard view: Fertility in Europe is as likely to rise over the next ten years as it is to stay low or fall further. Most other experts expect European fertility rates—everywhere below population replacement levels for the last two or three decades, and in most countries way below—to stay low or decline still further.
My argument rests on three legs: recent European fertility trends, an historical parallel, and the state of population science.
Recent European fertility trends. Of the 39 European countries that have published total fertility rates for 2007, 17 record higher rates in 2007 than in 2000. In some of the countries, the increase is slight and in several, much of the increase is due to the higher fertility of immigrants. Now, these increases may only be “tempo effects,”—couples making up for earlier delayed fertility—that will leave completed fertility low. However, following several decades of declining fertility to historic lows, these recent increases are worthy of serious notice. Something more fundamental than birth timing may be going on.
An historical parallel. By the late 1930s, prominent population researchers in Europe and the United States were projecting a future of declining population growth. And why not? After more than a century of decreasing fertility rates in most industrialized countries, there was no reason to expect a sea change. Most prominent was Joseph Spengler, president-to-be of the Population Association of America, writing in 1938: “Within the next quarter century true depopulation—a persistent long-run excess of deaths over births—will manifest itself in nearly all the countries of Europe and in those non-European countries to which Western civilisation has spread” (France Faces Depopulation, 1938). Less than a decade after Spengler and others were raising the alarm came the “baby boom” in these same countries—totally unanticipated by demographers and others, as nearly as I can tell.
The state of population science. One objective of population science is to provide useful theories–conceptual constructs yielding predictions that are refutable by evidence. Most of the theories that have yielded such predictions, in the case of fertility in developed countries, have not fared well: What they predict doesn’t happen (that is, without recalibrating and otherwise jimmying the theories). In my view, there is not yet a theory sufficiently tested successfully against experience to trust with the demographic future of Europe.
Do no harm. In the face of a fertility leveling or increase across Europe, with history’s cautionary example, and without well-tested theory to guide our expectations, I believe population researchers cannot know with any confidence the near-term course of European fertility. This does not imply that governments leave fertility rates alone or that researchers turn their attention elsewhere. The consequences of continuing very low fertility are serious.
What my agnostic forecast does imply, however, is that governments should consider only those pro-birth policies that do no harm to couples or society, if it turns out that fertility is increasing of its own accord or that the policies are ineffectual. Policies that provide child day care or otherwise reduce the conflicts between parents’ employment and child care are examples; by common reckoning, such policies would be desirable on grounds other than fertility enhancement. To the contrary, appeals to national interest that persuade some couples to have more children than they otherwise want or can afford are inappropriate; such policies may impose unnecessary and unacceptable costs to couples or society. First, do no harm.