The absence of concern over low birth rates in Europe
Weighing baby.

I was born in a country that favored rapid population growth - Nazi Germany.

My interest in this subject is based on a very simple observation. To achieve a stable population, every woman needs to have 2 children on average.

Actually the required number is higher to compensate for child mortality. In the industrialized West, the fertility rate needs to be roughly 2.1. However, the fertility rate in Sweden seems to hover around 1.6. This suggests that the current generation in Sweden is only achieving a 75 percent replacement ratio.

In just over two generations the under-30 population may be reduced by 50 percent!

This scenario seems rather alarming, if true. So why is so little concern being expressed by politicians and in the public discourse?

Admittedly, my question may seem a little naive. Statistics is a discipline notorious for its many pitfalls, and demography is a politically charged subject. And there is a lively debate going on over "the greying of Europe" which concerns some of the effects of reduced birth rates. But it mostly bears on what I would call the mid-term problems surrounding the retirement from the labor market of my own "baby boom" generation: those born in the 1940s. In the next two decades, there will be dramatic increases in the pensions to be paid and in the medical care to be provided, and there will be relatively few taxpayers to foot the bills.

There is a Swedish joke that goes like this: It used to be that two adults could live on one salary. This is still the case. The difference is that nowadays you do not know who the other person is. - This may yet prove to be an optimistic view. Before long, there may be two "other persons" to support.

Before discussing the wider implications of reduced birth rates, let us look at some numbers:

Fertility rates

Sweden is blessed with excellent population statistics for the last 250 years. (The headings are: Year, Population, Births, Deaths, Immigrants, Emigrants, Marriages, Divorces). It is easy to follow the numbers year by year. It is slightly more complicated to deduce the fertility rates from the raw numbers, as the number of births has to be correlated with the number of women of child-bearing age.

In recent years, the rates have been (Statistics Sweden):

1980 1985 1990 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002
1.68   1.74   2.13   1.73 1.60 1.53 1.51 1.50 1.54 1.57 1.65

And now for the good news! Statistics Sweden offers a prognosis for the size of the Swedish population up to the year 2050. It is presented in a very interesting and useful way and lets us study the evolution of the population "pyramid" from 1850 to 2050. The prediction is that our population will not decrease, at least not dramatically, but it draws attention to the changing age distribution. The median age of the population will continue to rise. However, the prognosis is based on a fertility rate of 1.80 - 1.85, which is higher than we have been experiencing for the last 30 years, except for a narrow peak around 1990.

While looking up the numbers, I discovered an interesting very recent paper as well as a recent article in The Economist on European population trends. There is also an interesting Statistics Sweden table comparing Europe's 2002 numbers.

It appears that Sweden actually is doing quite well compared to most European countries. The authors of the paper propose a critical threshold of 1.3 for the "lowest low" fertility rate and point out that in 2002 there were 17 countries in Southern, Central and Eastern Europe with an aggregate population of 278 million below that level (Russia at 1.32 and Germany at 1.31 are not included). In the opinion of the authors, the phenomenon of "lowest low fertility" is likely to persist for decades. Furthermore: "Immigration to Europe - even if its level increases in future decades - is unlikely to prevent the population decline and rapid population aging".

Immigration

In the late 19th century, Sweden was hit by massive emigration, mostly to the United States. Just in the period 1880-1910, close to a million Swedes, or more than 20 percent of the population at that time, left the country never to return.

Incidentally, I wonder if this has not had a noticeable impact on the national psyche? Is it totally unreasonable to speculate that the entrepreneurs and risktakers, the people who had a hard time taking orders, those who questioned authority, left the country to a disproportionate degree, while the docile, the meek, those with an aversion to taking risks, stayed behind and founded the social welfare state? Wink, wink ;-)

The migration patterns have reversed since World War II. Sweden's rapid economic expansion during the 1950s and 1960s attracted many "guest workers" from Finland, Italy and other European countries. Since the 1970s, there has been a large influx of refugees from countries such as Chile, Iran, the former Yugoslavia, Somalia etc, but generally speaking the immigrants come from every corner of the world.

The immigration numbers, and especially the net immigration, have fluctuated a lot over the years. The net immigration was 51 000 in 1994, but only 6 000 in 1996 and 1997. On average, the annual net immigration has been about 25 000 persons over the past 20 years. - By comparison, the annual number of births in Sweden is about 100 000. Thus, immigration is clearly a very significant factor in our society.

Abortions

Since the Swedish abortion laws were liberalized in the 1970s, the annual number of abortions has been quite steady at around 33 000. Thus, every fourth pregnancy is terminated through an abortion.

Personally, even though I do not consider myself a religious person, I find this number quite disturbing. Over a generation, it adds up to a million human lives deliberately terminated.


So it appears that even if Europe's population as a whole is destined to decline, Sweden may be able to maintain its current population level of 9 million thanks to our relatively high (for a European country) fertility rate plus immigration. What will change - dramatically - is the age distribution of the population and its genetic makeup.

Of course, this process is already well underway. When I visit Brazil, the age pyramid is very much in evidence. Children and young people everywhere - relatively few old people. By contrast in Sweden: plenty of senior citizens to be seen on the streets, relatively few children. Even more noticeable: When I was a child, Sweden was ethnically a very homogeneous society. At an international athletic competition in my home town of Enköping in the early 1950s (probably related to the Helsinki olympics in 1952), even many adults were seeing black men for the first time in their lives. "Han är säker på att springa!" (He sure knows how to run!) Today, there is hardly a school class in Sweden that does not include a child born outside Europe. And the first generation of Swedish children born outside Europe are in turn raising families.

One might conclude that all of Hitler's worst nightmares for Europe have come true: multi-ethnicity, miscegenation, declining populations, cosmopolitan culture. But it is all too easy to forget that racism and xenophobia by no means were the exclusive province of the nazis. A century ago, there was widespread fear of "the yellow peril". An institute for racial biology was established in Sweden in 1921 following broad acceptance in Parliament. In the 1930s, the celebrated couple Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, both social democrats and both later Nobel prize winners, wrote a treatise on "Crisis in the population question", lamenting low fertility rates in Sweden, but also advocating widespread sterilization in order to improve the gene pool.

Considering the speed at which our society has been transformed through immigration in the last two generations, I find it quite surprising that there has hardly been any backlash in Sweden. Except for some insignificant neo-nazi groups, there is no outcry against Sweden's immigration policies. - I offer the following possible explanations for the broad acceptance of the direction we are going:

  • Hitler has given racism a bad name and has forced all of us to stand up for human rights and tolerance.
  • Television has completely changed our world view. We now all live in a "global village".
  • People actually find themselves enjoying the cultural diversity that has resulted from immigration: a wider choice of food, music, restaurants, etc.
  • The unions have managed to avoid erosion of their traditional role in the labor market, and the government has managed to keep the open unemployment at acceptable levels (currently around 5 percent).
  • Most Swedes realize that immigrants are needed if basic social services are to be maintained (old age care, hospitals, but also transportation, sanitation etc).
  • Anyone hostile to immigration is automatically branded as being hostile to immigrants, i. e. to a sizeable part of the Swedish population.
Ethnic diversity.
Ethnic diversity. My daughter is second from right. She is herself only 25 percent Swedish, genetically speaking.

Perhaps I should also reconsider my own impression of what "rapid change" means. At my age, a few decades may seem like a brief period, but to a young adult it represents a whole lifetime. Only a fraction of the population has memories from the 1960s and earlier.

Personally, I feel quite comfortable with the transformation that is taking place. It is not just a necessity, considering the demographics; I think that Sweden will be a richer country as a result. Just as the emigrants who left Sweden in the 19th century were absorbed into the United States, our immigrants and their descendants will think of themselves - and be - a hundred percent Swedish before long.

The main dangers ahead appear to me to be that unemployment may remain disproportionately high among immigrants, leading to social stratification, or alternatively, that they will be seen by native Swedes as unwelcome competitors in the labor market. However, the "greying" of the population should in time create ample opportunities for all.

While most Swedes probably do not care one bit about whether we make up 1 ½ or 1 thousandth of the Earth's population, things may look different at the European level. If Europe's share of the global population continues to decrease at the present rate, Europe is bound to become a weaker "player" on the geopolitical scene, but again, this probably would not cause very many Swedes any loss of sleep. Amazingly, in a recent poll something like 10 or 15 percent of Swedish youths thought that we should adopt English as our national language! Try that in France! - By the way, here is a fun exercise for non-native speakers of English. (Scroll down a bit to see text and audio controls.)

There is also an ethical dimension to the question of population size. According to religious teachings, we should multiply and populate the Earth abundantly. But although most people would agree that there is an intrinsic value to each human life, few would advocate unlimited population growth until we reach Malthusian limits. Those limits are being redefined as what is environmentally sustainable, with views diverging sharply on what that might mean.

Some Swedes seem to think that we should freeze or reduce our own population until the whole world can enjoy our present standard of living. Some people feel that it is unethical to breed children in an evil world on the path to global disaster. In Sweden it already seems to be an established truth that: "It is not in the best interest of an unwanted child to be born". - I do not subscribe to any of those views.

In conclusion, I have no strong opinions on the subject of population decline in Europe. My whole point is that I am surprised that so few people seem to do.

  Last edited or checked July 31, 2011.

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