Friday, 4 February 2011
The grim reality of European demographics
There are many grim comparisons to be made between Italy and Afghanistan. Once we get over the oppression of women, heroin cultivation, and the Taliban, demographics is up there as one of the starkest.
Afghanistan is a land of children and teenagers. Just over half the population is under 18. This is also the median age of an Afghan woman. In her average Afghan life, this median woman has around 5.5 children.
In Italy, the median age is over 45. In the absence of some really serious gynecological interventions, at least half of all Italian women can no longer have children. The average fertility rate is 1.3; way below the 2.1 needed to maintain population equilibrium.
From a demographic perspective, these are terminal numbers for Italy. Countries can not survive for long with these rates of infertility and population ageing. It is simple arithmetic. Due to the advanced age of Italian woman, it may no longer be possible for Italy to reverse its average fertility rate. Absent a massive wave of migration, the Italian population is doomed to age and then decline. This is what is exactly what is happening. The majority of Italians are now middle aged, while large numbers of migrants are now moving to Italy.
Italy is by no means unique. Virtually every country in Europe has a sub-replacement female fertility rate. In a very real sense, Europe will begin to die off within 20 or 30 years. As Italy demonstrates, population ageing and low fertility rates can reach a point of no return.
At this point, some people get really nervous. The prospects of a huge wave of migration makes many Europeans uncomfortable. The islamisation of Europe suddenly begins to look like a real possibility, especially when one considers the extraordinary population growth rate in Afghanistan.
Personally, the growth of Islam is not what worries me. For me, the real fear is that the migrants won't come. Worse still, economic growth in developing countries may start to attract some of our current migrants home. Ageing Europe, with its massive debt burdens, has poor long term growth prospects. As Europe stagnates, those migrants will look elsewhere. If they can move once, they can move again.
Imagine that scenario for a moment; a sudden drain of young people out of Europe just as the population ageing problems becomes most acute. It would be a fiscal catastrophe; an economic nightmare. Once the migrant drain begins, it will likely accelerate. The implications for European standards of living are just too appalling to contemplate.
However, we should have thought about this forty years ago, when it became apparent that European fertility rates had declined below replacement rates. Unfortunately, Europe forgot something quite elementary. The production of children serves a vital purpose. Those little brats grow up. They start to produce output, part of which can be taxed and used to finance pensions.