Birth rates are abysmally low in Europe due to COVID, war, and digital technology
I just finished editing a new documentary, “Childless in Europe” (you can watch it it here), but almost all of its footage was filmed before COVID and of course before the current war. Now the situation is even worse, as the lockdowns and other measures have further decreased birth rates in Europe, and inflation and the incoming economic crisis (partly but not wholly caused by the war sanctions) will probably further reduce them.
I actually started to think about this issue because of the war in the Ukraine. See, the Ukraine has 48.5 million people in the year 2000, in its first census realized since its independence. Since then, because of outmigration, lower birth rate and a high number of abortions, it started a depopulation spiral. (In the early 2000s, it seems to have become the place to go to buy stem cells from aborted fetuses, used by the pharmaceutical industry.)
Twenty years later, in 2019, even before the war, the population had decreased to 37.3 million. Now, with the still ongoing war with Russia, it may have lost at least an additional 10 million. Worse, most of the refugees that left are young women and children, while many young men are being killed in the war. All this will of course further reduce the population in the future. This war is a tragedy for the Ukraine, and that’s why NATO policies to keep the war going are incomprehensible in this context.
But of course, the rest of Europe is not in a much better shape in that regard. Countries such as Germany, Italy and Spain are also in depopulation spirals, and, while it is not so extreme as in the Ukraine, it is also a bad sign for the future. In Italy and Spain, whole villages are disappearing or becoming “ghost towns”, as people move to big cities or to other EU countries.
The COVID lockdowns in particular seem to have been a disaster for Europe. In 2020, Italy’s fertility rate decreased from the already low 1.3 children per woman in childbearing age, to 1.2, a historically low record. It has not recovered yet. And of course, current inflation and economic problems are making it even harder for young people to think about having children. How can they think about having children, if many don’t even know if they can support themselves?
Economic worries, however, are just on of the problems, and probably not the most serious one. In fact, poor people usually have more children than rich people. There is something else about the modern age that reduces population growth. And I think perhaps the problem is not so much one of birth rates, but of relationships. People are not marrying, or marrying late, or marrying and separating shortly, which is not good for stability or for children. It has become very difficult, as of recent, in particular for young men, to establish long-term relationships with women leading to a family and children. Dating apps and modern technology, in that regard, have been a disaster for young men. They may lead to short-term hookups (only for the most attractive ones), but rarely to long-term relations.
Another problem is urbanization. Right now, 72% of the European population lives in big cities or suburbs. Only 28% live in small villages or in the countryside, and most that live there are old. As I mentioned before, many villages in Italy and Spain are disappearing, but the phenomenon can also be seen in some regions of Germany and France. Living in cities is more expensive and, probably because of psychological reasons due to the perception of lack of space, leads to a further decrease in birth rates. (Historically, people living in the country had more children, simply because children could help with farm work, but I don’t think that’s the case with machine-based modern agriculture).
The incoming of a large number of immigrants and refugees from other countries to Western Europe, instead of solving things, seems to further exacerbates the problem, creating more competition and lower wages. And of course, even if the birth rates rebound, many will be from a different population than the native one, which creates a whole new set of problems and conflicts, as we can see in countries such as France.
Some also blame secularization and the decrease in religious attendance for the lower birth rates — perhaps people had more children when it was something “ordained by God”. After all, raising children is hard. In Germany, most people have one, two or at most three children. The only couple I met who had more was a very religious Catholic couple — they had 10 children. No one else I met came even close. They said people looked at them as odd or even as irresponsible. “Who has 10 children in this day and age, with climate change and so on?”
The problem is global, not just European. The situation in East Asian countries is even worse. And even the United States, supposedly a still more religious or more “birth-friendly” country, is going in the same direction.
What are the solutions? No one knows for sure. Some countries have tried offering incentives and benefits or directly paying couples to have more children, but it doesn’t seem to have helped much.
It is not wrong for individuals to choose not to have no children — and actually, in many or even most cases, it is not even a choice, but just a result of current bad circumstances. Many people would probably prefer to have children (or to have had them, for those to whom it became too late). It’s just that, for a large number, it’s become impossible. Biological, economic, familial or relational issues just make it very hard to consider the prospect of having children, let alone a large number of them.
Not everyone has to have children. For centuries, many European men and women who chose a religious life as priests or nuns did not have children, but the rest of the population more than made up for that. The problem happens when it becomes a massive collective issue affecting all of society, and even threatening its future.
It is not as if European people will disappear from one day to the next, but in a context when at some point the number of those who will be old and retired may outnumber the younger ones, it can become a huge social problem (as it already is in places with even lower birth rates such as Korea and Japan). As the economy worsens, and if destructive policies such as the “lockdowns”, “digital passports” and other attempts of political control and social engineering keep being mandated by governments, things will keep worsening.
My documentary ends on a hopeful note, observing that History in general is made of cycles of death and rebirth.
Perhaps it is still not too late.