Just after World War II, Europe had a population explosion that gave rise to mass emigration to the US, Canada, Australia and South America. Governments introduced incentives for young people and families with young children to pack their bags and leave the country. 

Those leaving were bid farewell with bands playing local songs on the quays of harbours where ships began their one-month journey to distant lands. For a time we even had a minister responsible for encouraging emigration. Southern European countries like Spain were strongly influenced by the pro-natalist policies of the Franco regime that banned contraception and encouraged big families. Italy had a similar culture, while Malta was still a quasi-clerical state where Catholic ethics had a great influence on people’s lives.

The situation has now changed dramatically and socio-economic research continues to try to understand why Europe today has such a massive problem of low fertility and increasing ageing in the population. Politicians rarely speak about this complex challenge as they know that whatever tough measures they take to addresses the problem, they will not enjoy the instant gratification to which they are addicted. Results of pro-fertility initiatives take at least a generation to be felt. That is far too long for Europe’s mediocre political leaders who are increasingly being shunned by their electorates.  

The results of research aiming to discover what could affect Europe’s low fertility rates are very revealing. The first result is that, unlike what some may think, immigration is not a feasible way of reversing population ageing or its consequences. The problem has become so huge that the sheer numbers of immigrants needed to offset population ageing in the EU states would be unacceptable in Europe’s current socio-political climate. Italy’s current populist government’s attitude towards immigration is living proof that there is little appetite among most societies to change the social infrastructure through mass immigration.

Another reality is that national policies can slow fertility declines under the right circumstances. However, no single policy can be said to be the silver bullet that will encourage higher fertility and offset the negative impact of an ageing population. What works in one country does not always work in another. Social, economic and political contexts have a major influence on policy outcomes.

Commoditising labour by making it easier to import workers as and when required to sustain economic growth is shortsighted and not sustainable in the long term

Some policies to encourage more women of childbearing age to join the labour force can have a positive economic impact but this is often achieved at the cost of decreasing social benefits. Women have children at an older age than was previously the case up to a few decades ago. Moreover, family sizes are getting smaller as the two-income model that most families have embraced makes absence from work to bring up a child in the formative years a major financial risk.

Europe’s slow economic growth is also translating in high unemployment rates especially among the Hyosung. In countries like Spain, Italy and Greece more than one in three young people is unemployed. That is hardly the kind of situation that encourages young people to consider setting up a family and have children. 

The cost of housing is another negative factors as many governments, including social democratic ones, have given up on introducing policies that enable young people to put their feet on the first step of the property ladder. Affordable housing has become a nightmare rather than a dream for many young couples of childbearing age. 

Some countries have been more determined and successful in addressing this major challenge that attracts little political attention. Sweden, for instance, treats working women more fairly than most other countries. Career breaks are the norm for women who decide to have a child. Employers do not ask their government to bear the cost of providing family-friendly incentives. Neither do they have the option of pulling bureaucratic strings to get work permits for expatriate staff. Flexible work schedules, quality childcare and extensive parental leave on reasonable economic terms are taken for granted by women who have young children. This partly explains why Sweden has one of the best fertility rates in the EU.

France adopts a different mix of incentives by granting generous childcare subsidies and rewarding parents who have at least three children. Policies that remove workplace and career obstacles in childbearing are a critical success factor in any strategy that aims to reverse the decline fertility trend.

Commoditising labour by making it easier to import workers as and when required to sustain economic growth is shortsighted and not sustainable in the long term. 



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