The Blog

Population Wars

Why Europe's demography is more complicated than you may think.

12:00 AM, Sep 28, 2007 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

IS EUROPE DOOMED? Many Americans seem to think so, and the chief reason is demography: European countries have had low fertility rates for decades, and now they face spiraling population decline. By 2050, the European Union's share of the global population is projected to plummet below 10 percent. (It's now just over 20 percent.) The overall EU population is expected to fall by several million. Depending on their politics, certain Americans may mention this with a vague air of triumphalism (if not outright glee), boasting that the United States has superior birth rates and thus will avoid Europe's demographic dilemma.

Not so fast, says Oxford University professor David Coleman, a leading demography expert. "Demographically speaking," he argues, "there really isn't any such thing as 'Europe.'" For example, while post-Communist Eastern Europe is plagued by the triple whammy of low birth rates, high death rates, and massive out-migration, the populations of Northwest Europe--including those of Scandinavia, Great Britain, Ireland, France, and Holland--are actually trending upward, at least until mid-century. American demography is "exceptional," Coleman admits, "but not that exceptional."

Speaking earlier this week at the Hudson Institute, he emphasized the variations among individual European countries. Some populations are clearly shrinking. In Russia, male life expectancy has fallen to the level of a Third World country. The Italian total fertility rate (TFR) is "chronically low." While higher than Italy's, Germany's TFR is also well below the so-called "replacement level" of 2.1 children per woman. Even "very substantial immigration," Coleman believes, won't prevent the German population from dropping significantly by 2050.

On the other hand, he says, a recent spike in immigration to Spain may actually be reversing its downward population trend. "Spain shows just how potent immigration can be," and also reminds us that "projections can change." Indeed, immigration is the "most powerful and unpredictable variable" in current and future demographic transformations. Over the next century, immigrants and foreign-born residents will account for an increasingly large percentage of the national population in many Northwest European countries. The same is true of America.

The big difference, of course, lies in the nature of immigration. Many Americans reckon that, because of culture and religion, it is inherently easier to assimilate Hispanic immigrants in the U.S. than it is to assimilate Muslim immigrants in Europe. That may or may not be true. But a prominent Washington journalist once told me that, while he considered himself pro-immigration, if the United States shared a 2,000-mile border with Algeria instead of Mexico, he'd make Pat Buchanan look like a wimp.

To be sure, not all of Northwest Europe's newcomers are Muslims. Since the May 2004 EU expansion, hundreds of thousands of Eastern Europeans have flooded Britain to register as foreign workers. Large numbers of Poles, Lithuanians, and others are also pouring into Sweden and Ireland.

Evidence suggests that the longer immigrant groups with high fertility rates live in advanced Western democracies, the fewer children they tend to have. In Britain, for example, the birth rates among ethnic Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have been declining for years. Both groups still have a markedly higher TFR than native-born Britons, but the trend is unmistakable.

As for America's "exceptional" demography, Coleman cites a number of factors--including geography, population density, culture, and religion--but also points out that the TFR of non-Hispanic whites is below 2.1. Thanks to the higher birth rates among Hispanics, America's overall TFR is around replacement level. But just as demography varies among individual European countries and regions, it also varies among individual U.S. states (as many pundits observed following the 2004 election). The difference between America and Europe, then, "isn't actually as great as it seems."

Coleman stresses that demography is a perilous business: Projections often prove incorrect, and dependable metrics are tricky to come by. Immigration may be the "primary variable" in Western demographic change, as he indicates, but there is a closely related variable that must also be considered: the out-migration of native-born Europeans.