European countries are desperately trying to raise their fertility rates. But nothing seems to be working

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At the end of last month a three-day workshop was held in the Vatican on the sombre topic of “Biological Extinction”. The event was jointly sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, and reflected Pope Francis’s curious personal penchant for environmental alarmism.

Among the participants was the notorious population control enthusiast Paul Ehrlich, who had predicted in 1968 that hundreds of millions would starve to death in the 1970s and that England might well not make it to the millennium. Ehrlich has not been much chastened by the failure of his prophecies. Nor is he a friend of the Catholic Church. In a book published as recently as 2014, he describes “the Pope [he may have been referring to Benedict XVI] and many of the bishops” as “one of the truly evil, regressive forces on the planet”. Ehrlich is also well known for his support over the years for mass sterilisation, contraception and abortion.

But the presence of an advocate for abortion in the precincts of the Vatican was not the only striking incongruity. Anxiety about population growth could not have been discussed in a more unsuitable venue. Just across the invisible line, in Italy, it is not overpopulation, but a shrinking population that is causing acute concern.

Last September, the Italian government scheduled a national Fertility Day to encourage citizens to breed, having noted that the previous year had seen the smallest number of live births since the 1860s.

A massive advertising blitz had been planned for the occasion. One poster, responding to the fact that the average age for an Italian mother to have her first child had risen to 31, showed a woman with an egg-timer and the slogan “Beauty has no age, but fertility does”; while another exhorted “Get a move on. Don’t wait for the stork.” Male responsibility for the baby shortage was duly acknowledged in adverts featuring a flaccid banana and a man with a cigarette alongside the caption “Don’t let your sperm go up in smoke.”

But despite this even-handedness between the sexes, Italy’s feminists erupted in fury. Women’s wombs, some argued, should not be treated as if they were national assets; while others implied that emancipation from childbirth was one of the most important and hard-won social gains women had achieved during the last hundred years. The adverts and website were pulled, the government minister responsible mumbled apologies, Fertility Day flopped.

A baby shortage exists right across Europe. It’s there in Catholic countries and non-Catholic ones. It is a feature of southern Europe as well as the north. To keep population levels steady from generation to generation in advanced Western countries you either need a fertility rate of 2.1, known as the replacement rate; or you need to top-up the numbers through immigration. According to the OECD, the fertility rate across the European Union has declined from 2.6 in 1960 to 1.5 in 2014.

But though the underlying decline in fertility is Europe-wide, the consequences manifest themselves differently in different countries. In Eastern Europe, for example, the problem has been exacerbated by emigration, as young people head west to seek jobs and higher living standards in Germany or Britain, leaving many villages with barely any inhabitants under the age of 40.

By contrast, the UK, despite having seen a decline in the fertility rate from 2.7 in 1960 to 1.8 in 2014, has had the fastest growing population in Europe, with most of the growth over the past decade accounted for by high levels of immigration. Whether this can survive Brexit must surely be in doubt.

One aspect of the demographic shift is the so-called “greying of Europe” as the proportion of older citizens in the population increases alarmingly. Italy, for instance, has moved from having 10 adults of working age to support each old-age pensioner to only three within just 70 years. Even with productivity increases and the benefits of automation that economists are predicting, will the pensions and social benefits Europeans enjoy today remain sustainable for long?

The drop in fertility rates across the continent has prompted a range of anxieties – cultural as well as economic – evidenced by headlines warning of a coming “population disaster” or worse, a “demographic death spiral”. After receiving the Templeton Prize last year, Lord Sacks gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph that was reported in apocalyptic terms. Under the headline “Falling birth rates could spell the end of the West”, the paper said that the former Chief Rabbi had warned readers that “Western civilisation is on the brink of collapse … because the modern generation doesn’t want the responsibility of bringing up children.”

It is that idea of “Western civilisation” that greatly complicates the demographic panic. Without it, the answer would be simple: Europe has no need to worry about finding young people to support its elderly in their declining years. There are plenty of young migrants banging at the gates, trying to climb the razor wire or setting sail on flimsy boats to reach our shores. All we need to do is let them in.

That is probably why Angela Merkel, knowing that Germany faces one of the steepest population declines in the medium term, with a projected loss of 12 million in the coming half century, felt she could admit a million refugees in a single year. Besides, there can be economic advantages to doing it this way. Bringing in a fully trained Syrian doctor to work in your hospital saves a lot of investment in secondary education and medical school.

But things have not worked out well during the migration crisis during the past two or three years in terms of solving the demographic problem. Germany and the Scandinavian countries fear that their gender balance is being skewed because too high a proportion of recent migrants are young males. The challenge of integrating so many refugees from an Islamic background has proved much harder than governments thought, prompting the growth of groups such as Germany’s far-right Pegida movement. Voters across Europe have begun to resist any suggestion that further immigration is a workable solution to the population problem. Even if the current crop of populist hopefuls come unstuck, few mainstream politicians will dare to propose making immigration easier in the future.

One of the most vivid illustrations of this was the palpable shock caused among Europe’s political elites at last month’s Chatham House poll showing that a clear majority of Europeans support a total halt to further migration from Muslim countries. Previously, this had been thought to be a position held only by Donald Trump and the more inbred of his supporters.

Where religious people see culture as a product of religion, the secular-minded tend to see religion just as a quaint expression of culture. Whether religion is upstream of culture or the other way round is of more than passing philosophical interest. People almost always experience cultural change as a loss.

Politicians and media have paid little or no attention to the fact that in some corners of Europe national identities have been in large part shaped by a history of resisting Islamic incursion. Where such a mindset is a fact of life, where people still use the word “Christendom” with a straight face, of course there will be a greater than usual reluctance to accept large numbers of Muslims. And people in London or Paris pointing the finger at Hungarians, Austrians or people in some of the Balkan countries, and calling them racist and condemning any religious discrimination out of hand, just makes things worse.

The gradual closing off of the immigration option will leave European governments flailing about looking for all sorts of different ways to boost conception. Some have already tried appealing to civic-mindedness – like the Danes with their “Do it for Denmark” campaign. The Poles have tried direct financial incentives, as the Russians have been doing for years without much success. The Germans have gone for a more holistic approach: combining more money, more benefits, and longer and better maternity leave.

And yet in most countries fertility rates seem to stay stubbornly low despite the state pledging generous subsidies for childbearing. Almost everything that could be imagined has been attempted, though Europeans have so far resisted Singapore’s wheeze of closing offices early for special “family evenings”.

Some of the most interesting new research looks hard at the patterns of reluctance to couples having a second or third child. One previously under-explored factor has been a woman’s anticipation that the burden of childcare will be unevenly distributed. If a woman thinks that she will have to do all the work – not just maintaining the household, but the child-rearing too – and that this will limit her economic opportunities, then she will avoid having more children, one US/German collaborative research project argues.

Even if some policy wonks do eventually come up with a perfect formula combining tax credits, baby bounties and family-friendly work contracts, and there is a profound change in men’s commitment to doing their fair share around the house, there will still be some huge obstacles in the way of a shift to a big-family society.

In most European cities the built environment is structured for singleton or small-family living: one or two-bedroom flats. We will need to start again from the ground up if we are to find living space for all these third or fourth children.

There will probably never be any neat policy solution. But facing up to the problem of declining fertility need not be a total waste of time. There may be something to be gained by asking afresh what we are here on Earth for, what is the importance and value of the institution of the family, what is worth preserving in our common European cultural inheritance and how best we can muddle through without behaving uncharitably to strangers.

Besides, the worst probably will not happen anyway. Paul Ehrlich’s population bomb spluttered out, a damp squib. All those charts and projections, all that compelling “scientific evidence”, turned out over the longue durée to be plain wrong.

And it is not always easy to tell what is academically respectable from what is pure hokum. This week the Times reported a new study published in the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science saying that secularism is itself in decline. Why so? Because secular-minded people have fewer children than religious people. By 2050, the proportion of the “religiously unaffiliated” (atheists, agnostics and those saying they have no particular religion) is expected to be down to a mere 13 per cent of global population. Believe it, or not.

This article first appeared in the March 17 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here