Magazine article The Spectator

Where Have All the Babies Gone?

Magazine article The Spectator

Where Have All the Babies Gone?

Article excerpt

The last European will die on 6 August 2960. This, if you extend demographic trends far enough, is the grim official prognosis for our continent. We are rich enough and clever enough to have separated sex from childbearing and too busy for large families. The birth rate dropped below population replacement levels years ago, and our population increase is being driven by immigrants and older age. But even this won't last.

Soon we will start a long but comfortable slide to extinction.

The world population clock ticked over 6.5 billion last Saturday, but its hands are slowing -- and in several countries have slipped into reverse already. Depopulation has already hit Scotland, Latvia and Slovakia. The United Nations predicts that the world stock of Frenchmen will peak in just over a decade's time. Within five decades Ukraine's population will have halved and Russia's will be down by a fifth.

Britain is in better shape than most, but has only another 40 years to worry about housing shortages. Sooner or later, political debate will catch up with the demographic reality -- which is that Europe will soon start to empty and is already becoming the granny flat of the world.

The alarm bells are ringing in Brussels.

The European Commission has produced a report looking at population trends to 2050 and is warning that the head-count will peak within three decades. But the gentle population fall, it says, will mask a pernicious drop in working-age population that will cause 'severe financing problems for social welfare systems'. Today, four workers support each pensioner; this ratio will soon halve. The elderly may be drafted in to man the factories, and soon the immigrants will go native and stop breeding. Take some UN forecasts to their extreme and they suggest that the last Frenchman dies in 2107, the last Italian in 2180 and the last Briton in 2780. The Irish hang on to the last.

All this marks a staggering contrast to the Malthusian hysteria in the 1970s where the opposite type of apocalypse was predicted.

Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb was on the bestseller lists, warning that world population was rising faster than the world's ability to feed it. In 1977 World Bank president Robert McNamara sternly warned that the number of people was growing faster than the planet's ability to feed them and overpopulation was the 'gravest' threat next to a nuclear winter. No one had grasped the real implications of the sexual revolution in the 1960s.

The Pill may have transformed women's sex lives, but the new era of cheap and reliable contraception had its biggest effect in the bedrooms of the happily married. Once couples could afford effective family planning they used it, and this was what slammed the brake on Europe's childbearing record.

The natural population replacement -- 2.1 children per woman -- is now achieved by no European country. England stands at a respectable 1.75, Scotland at 1.6 and Italy at a dismal 1.2. But in the developed world, there is one glaring exception to this rule.

Women in the United States are today having babies at a rate not seen in Britain since the end of the second world war. The trend is by no means universal -- pet dogs now outnumber children in San Francisco, and Washington DC has fertility rates almost as bad as Italy's. But in Hispanic and Bible Belt areas, people are breeding as if the 1960s had never happened. This baby rate is the object of much envy in Brussels, which points out that the Americans have an unfair advantage because of the Hispanics, who average more than three kids per woman. …

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