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  INTERVIEW  -  Social cohesion and demographic challenges

The birth rate is falling and the population is ageing. This imbalance between the generations is threatening to render social systems unworkable. Are incentives to have larger families the answer? Or should we count on immigration to rejuvenate Europe’s population? Then again, perhaps it is all down to economics. Charlotte Höhn, Director of the Federal Institute for Population Research, in Wiesbaden (DE), believes it is high time all the interested parties engaged in meaningful dialogue. Politicians, researchers, and representatives of government organisations should “first of all discuss the facts relating to demographic change and then think about what can be done to at least alleviate the effects”.

Charlotte Höhn
Charlotte Höhn
What do you regard as being the most worrying aspect of the demographic change we are now seeing in Europe?  
Charlotte Höhn:The population is withering at the roots as the number of births falls and life expectancy rises. The main cause of population ageing is a fertility rate that is below the level needed to replace generations. Thus, over the years we are seeing a fall in the number of babies, then children, adolescents, young adults, etc. Ageing is an erosion of youth. 

Are all the European countries facing the same situation in this respect? 
They are all facing this problem. Europe first became interested in demographic change when it noted a sharp fall in fertility in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. Most of the Council of Europe countries then saw their fertility rate fall below the replacement rate. The phenomenon came later to central and eastern Europe and, since the 1980s, they have seen birth rates fall sharply. 

But the situation is not identical everywhere. The birth rate remains relatively stable in Scandinavia, despite the fact that neither the church nor marriage are major factors in these countries. This prompts us to ask questions about the causes. For many years now, Scandinavian countries have implemented an active policy to promote gender equality. There are well-developed childcare facilities, which makes a decision to have children that much easier. By contrast, when you look at a Catholic country such as Poland, you see that the birth rate has been falling over the last decade or so – since crèches, whether public or private, have closed for economic reasons. In these transitional countries that are facing high unemployment and relative economic precariousness, material concerns count for more than family values, despite the fact that the latter are still very strongly rooted. 

I believe life must be made easier for parents, in particular by helping them to combine family and working life. But when all is said and done, each couple is motivated by their own reasons and own constraints when it comes to choosing to have a child or not. It is neither society nor government that decides fertility. That is why changes in family structure seem to be resistant to any policy.

So material concerns do not explain everything…
Certainly not. Current trends are also reinforced by less interest in family values among a growing number of young people, less importance attached to the stability of a loving relationship and a reduced desire to start a home and family. A growing percentage of people also delay the decision to be ‘tied down’ by children. This falling birth rate is not purely due to the emancipation of women, as some imagine. It is also due to the desire to pursue a career, the importance of status and recognition outside the family and the attraction of material well-being – all elements found among men as well as women.  

We must resign ourselves to a change in our system of values but, at the same time, be careful not to generalise. The family spirit remains among certain couples who want to start a family at a relatively young age. They often have at least two children and are not much inclined to divorce or to separate once they become parents. 

How can we solve the simple equation that more and more elderly people are dependent financially on a shrinking young population? In other words, how can we save social security systems from bankruptcy? 
Again, it is this imbalance in the age pyramid that presents social policies in all the European countries with a tremendous challenge. The increase in life expectancy, which is the second factor at work in population ageing, brings an increase in the very elderly, with obvious consequences for social policy. One must expect pension systems, the health sector and long-term care systems to experience the effects of this ageing and corresponding fall in the number of people of working age.   

At the same time, owing to pressure to improve the unemployment figures, we have been too quick to encourage people to take early retirement. And now we have the boomerang effect. The pensions bill is absorbing too much money, money that is lacking in other sectors, including the development of care facilities for children. We have also got people used to the idea of taking early retirement and it will take time to change mentalities. That said, an improvement in the employment situation, which will enable people of a certain age to find their place in the labour market, remains an important precondition for extending working life.  

So the first scourge which needs to be banished is unemployment…
Yes. We must make progress on that front. The number of jobs must increase. It is also important to activate ‘dormant’ reserves – I am thinking here of women who would like to work, for whom we must create the right conditions so that they can reintegrate into professional life. A lot more remains to be done, for men as well as women, to make family and professional obligations more reconcilable. 

Some observers believe that immigration can solve this looming demographic deficit. Do you share that view?  
This is not correct – at least, not unless it were on a scale far beyond the integration capacity of societies. But it all depends on what you mean by ‘demographic deficit’. If it is primarily a question of a low fertility rate, then immigrants will never replace babies. Although most immigrants have an average fertility rate above that of the population they join, so that could provide a slight increase in fertility, they would have to be in the majority before this would be able to compensate for a country’s low birth rate. In addition, the fertility rate of immigrants tends to fall the longer they remain in a country. 

If by demographic deficit one means an ageing population, then again immigration is not the solution. Immigrants age also and acquire social security rights. Recruiting the number of immigrants needed to stop demographic ageing would mean immigration on a scale that would be difficult to manage. A United Nations study on ‘replacement migration’ drew attention to this fact.  

On the other hand, if the notion of deficit is in reference to a labour shortage, this same study shows that immigration can provide a solution. However, as long as most European countries are facing unemployment, with pockets of particularly high rates among immigrants, the labour market does not offer any promising prospects for newcomers. Migrants must find employment if their tax and social contributions are going to help stabilise social security. 

Personally, I find it hard to conceive of immigrants as demographic tools. Those who enter our countries do not come to help us make up for a shortage of people but for economic or political reasons, to find a job or escape persecution. As long as third countries are subject to poverty and/or political instability, there will always be people who want to emigrate. I also believe that most Europeans accept immigration in a context of integration.


   
  Charlotte Höhn is Director of the Federal Institute for Population Research (Bundesinstitut für Bevölkingserungs-forschung – BIB) in Wiesbaden (DE), where she is also Director of publications.

She represents Germany at the United Nations Commission on Population and Development and was the last President of the Council of Europe’s Population Committee, which was dissolved at the end of last year.