European demographics in the NY Times

Middle-long, middle-brow article on European demographics in this weeks NY Times Magazine. (If it asks you for a login, try bugmenot.)

If you’re already interested in this topic, 80% of it will be familiar stuff. There were a couple of interesting new points, though:

First, there’s some interesting discussion of why birthrates are varying so much across Europe — lowest in the post-Communist East and the Mediterranean countries, much higher (though still low by world standards) in France and Scandinavia. One demographer gives this plausible-sounding answer:

[There] would seem to be two models for achieving higher fertility: the neosocialist Scandinavian system and the laissez-faire American one. Aassve put it to me this way: “You might say that in order to promote fertility, your society needs to be generous or flexible. The U.S. isn’t very generous, but it is flexible. Italy is not generous in terms of social services and it’s not flexible. There is also a social stigma in countries like Italy, where it is seen as less socially accepted for women with children to work. In the U.S., that is very accepted.”

By this logic, the worst sort of system is one that partly buys into the modern world — expanding educational and employment opportunities for women — but keeps its traditional mind-set. This would seem to define the demographic crisis that Italy, Spain and Greece find themselves in — and, perhaps, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other parts of the world.

By “traditional mind-set”, he’s talking about things like men helping with housework, dependence on an extended family for child care, and the social status of women generally. The article unfortunately lacks a comments section, but they do make some interesting points.

Second, there’s a fascinating discussion of how some East German cities are thinking about handling population decline. The East has been hit by a triple whammy — low birthrates, little immigration, and significant emigration to the West — which in some regions has reduced population by 20% or more in the last 15 years, with still more shrinkage soon to come. One novel response:

One day in March, I was standing on a platform at the top of a smokestack attached to a defunct sausage factory in the German city of Dessau, looking out on a ragged urban landscape: derelict factory buildings, brick homes and shops, a railroad track snaking through a swath of grass and dirt. Even the brilliant spring weather didn’t improve the view. But the bearish middle-aged man beside me was full of enthusiasm. He waved an arm expansively, indicating a distant tree line. “From here you see that the city is embedded in a protected nature area,” he said through an interpreter. “We will bring that into the city.” Listening to Karl Gröger, director of the city’s department of building, is disorienting; where local politicians are supposed to cheer development, he was standing in the midst of his city’s industrial infrastructure and saying, in effect, “Someday all of this will be wilderness.”

They’re going about it methodically, and the first steps have already been taken:

“We said to the government of Saxony-Anhalt, ‘Shrinkage is a completely new phenomenon,’ ” Akbar told me. “We have to look for new ways to deal with it.” According to some, a declining population presents certain opportunities: to increase efficiency and livability, to change lifestyle and environment for the better. The plan that Akbar’s team came up with was for 18 cities in the region (two cities now share one government) to submit to an exhaustive process of review and soul-searching under the direction of Bauhaus planners and, by the year 2010, to come up with long-term redevelopment strategies appropriate to each — to find a way for each city to shrink constructively.

Dessau itself, Akbar said, had two distinctive features. One, as Karl Gröger indicated from the sausage-factory lookout, is that it is surrounded by protected national forest. The other is that it has no historic town center (80 percent of the city was destroyed in World War II) and thus no core. The plan, therefore, calls for demolishing underused sections of the city and weaving the nature on the periphery into the center: to create “urban islands set in a landscaped zone,” as Sonja Beeck, a Bauhaus planner, told me. “That will make the remaining urban areas denser and more alive.” The city has lost 25 percent of its population in recent years. “That means it is 25 percent too big,” Gröger said. “So far we have erased 2,500 flats from the map, and we have 8,000 more to go.” Beeck and Gröger walked with me through an area where a whole street had been turned into a grassy sward. Many residents were dubious at first, they told me, but as we walked, a woman recognized the government official and marched up to chat about when promised trees and flowers would be planted in front of her building.

Erasing streets and flats to make parks, meadows and trees: there’s an interesting image.

In theory, something like this ought to be happening all across Eastern Europe, Spain, Italy and Greece. Most of these countries are going to lose 20% or more of their population in the next 30 years. And the loss won’t be spread evenly; some regions within these countries will continue to grow, while others will lose 50% or more. Someone should be thinking about this.

Brief googling doesn’t provide more information on the German program, though, and not a thing anywhere in Eastern Europe.

Readers: anybody know anything?

18 thoughts on “European demographics in the NY Times

  1. One issue is that Europe’s attitude towards immigrants is far different from the USA’s. European countries have tended to be far more hostile to new immigrants than America (even including the recent anti-immigration rhetoric in certain quarters). It is the relatively high percentage of immigrants that accounts for America’s relatively high birthrate as compared to the rest of the world – if you look at the birthrates of people who are second or third generation Americans, you’ll find that their birthrates are quite low.

  2. “According to some, a declining population presents certain opportunities: to increase efficiency and livability, to change lifestyle and environment for the better.”

    I really do believe in this theory. Environmental well-being could very well turn out to be an economic and social asset in the long run.

    Create more space and more contact with (landscaped) nature. Spread out urbanization and connect the dots to the larger world with highspeed internet connections.

    Erase all derelict building with no architectural value and recycle any building materials that are still good to use. Turn sites of industrial archeological interest (some 19th or early 20th centuries factories, for instance) into living communities.

    Attract people who can work at home with their internet connection (location independent) to live there.

    This definitely smells like a niche. (I am dreaming already)

  3. How long until the “landscaped nature” will turn to brambles for lack of manpower to maintain it ?

    Germans have a funny way of “lanscaping” nature … for example the bears: I hear there are none, and when one crossed the border it got it’s own TV show, got a name and a fanclub, but when it got close to a town it was shot, stuffed and displayed in a museum.

    How about letting the vanishing cities and towns vanish, and letting people go where they can get what they need: face to face interaction with other humans … telecommuting works for a very limited number of tasks, since there are still no devices to emulate direct human contact (whether it’s for a team meeting, confessional or sex). Let those that want to live in wilderness play for their own fancy.

    Demographics change … 10 years Rumania looked like it was going to lose a quarter of the population in 50 years. Now it’s hovering around the replacement level.

  4. Dave, the context was high fertility in a developed, “First World” country.

    Guy, maybe, but I suspect it won’t be that simple. In Europe, quality of life does not seem to correlate inversely with population density. (Where would you rather live, the Netherlands or Russia?)

    Emil, do you have a cite for Romania “hovering around the replacement level”? According to the PRB, Romania’s TFR has hardly budged — it’s been between 1.23 and 1.34 for the last 12 years, and is currently sitting right in the middle of that range.

    TFR is not the full story, because Romania has also seen major population flows — the departure of the Jews and Germans in the 1990s, for instance, and then a huge slosh of guest-workers out. (Some of whom may now be sloshing back again.) Still, the number of Romanians is declining and will continue to decline; even a big surge in the birthrate will not change this any time soon.

    Letting the vanishing cities and towns vanish: I don’t think it’s going to be that simple. Most things in life go better with some advance planning. This was certainly true for growth; one strongly suspects it will be true for shrinkage as well.

    Doug M.

  5. Official data for 2006-2008:

    hovering indeed, a little more pronounced on the lower side, but quite improved comparing with the 1990s.

    I don’t know from where do the folks get their data, but I suspect they got it from nowhere: the numbers from the last two years seem to be only estimates.

    The “huge slosh” is more like a tide, you know … sloshing back and forth.

    Even more funnier, it seems that’s for fresh university graduates it’s easier to find a job in Rumania than in the south of Italy: I met a couple of Italian University graduates that came to Rumania to get a first job on their CV, worked a couple of month as translators/proofreaders, then headed home to get some more education …

    Planning for shrinkage ? Sure, but landscaping abandoned cities ?? I know Germany still has the money, the bulldozers and the guestarbeiters, but it’s a bit crazy … I think that guy is just desperate to save his job.

  6. Emil, I’m not seeing much improvement from the 1990s. “Sporul natural (numărul născuÅ£ilor-vii minus numărul decedaÅ£ilor), a fost negativ ÅŸi a crescut de la -4,5 mii persoane în luna martie la -4,6 mii persoane în luna aprilie.”

    And “rata sporului natural a fost egală (-2,6 persoane la 1000 locuitori)” — in other words, negative natural population growth over the last year, at a rate of 0.26%.

    I guess you could say “negative 0.26%, that’s hardly anything — very close to replacement!”

    The problem is, that’s not true. Or rather, it’s true now, but it won’t be much longer.

    If you look at Romania’s age distribution? You have a lot of people in their 50s and 60s — the postwar baby boom — fewer people in their 20s and 30s, and very few indeed under the age of 18 (because nobody wanted to have kids in the 1990s). What this means is that the death rate is going to rise rapidly over the next decade as that older generation departs. Meanwhile the birth rate is going to fall as the “empty cohorts” born in the 1990s move into the peak child-bearing years.

    So, the growth rate is almost certain to fall. But it’s already negative now! So, the fall will take it much more deeply into negative territory.

    If Romania had a flat age distribution, then that -0.26% figure might stay constant for many years. But because Romania has a lot of older people, and fewer younger ones, that negative growth is a flashing danger sign. Unless the birth rate increases very quickly — which it probably won’t — that number is going to get bigger, and soon.

    Doug M.

  7. @Douglas Muir

    More farmers = more babies.
    We should force the Italians to leave their cities and go “back to the land”.

    Some tactical nukes on selected Italian cities (after warning the populace to flee) would result in more babies after 9 months. Neutron bombs would be best as they would leave the beautiful structures standing.

    It is either that, or the Italians are going to have to welcome their cousins from Ethiopia.

  8. Douglas: I looked at the picture. I saw, in that pretty picture in the first page of the doc I linked above, that for the first time in in more than 10 years, in 2006 there was a month or two when there were more births than deaths. That event was properly celebrated in the media, then everybody forgot about it.

    “Meanwhile the birth rate is going to fall as the “empty cohorts” born in the 1990s move into the peak child-bearing years.” — the “empty cohorts” will have to wait their turn, since my own age cohort has not yet started started to breed … even those born in the 80’s did their duty before us, but we, the 1974-1975 gang, we’re likely to wait until we get that house, that car, and the bank account to send the kids to a US school.

    “More farmers = more babies.” — Not exactly true. I did a bit of inexpert and probably irrelevant number juggling and found out that whenever and wherever the number of economic regulations (whether municipal, national or EU) rises, the natality goes down during the next year.

  9. Emil, the 1974 cohort is already past peak childbearing years. If a woman still is childless at age 34, it’s quite likely she’ll never have children… and if she does, then it’s unlikely she’ll have more than one. (There are many exceptions, of course — I’m married to a woman who had three children after age 34 — but we’re talking general statistics here.)

    Also, in Romania, the most common pattern is to have few but early children. In other words, women tend to marry young by European standards — mean age of first marriage for women is under 24 — and then to have a child or two pretty quickly. This is a different pattern from, for instance, France, where women tend to marry and have children in their late 20s or 30s.

    But then, having had one or two children, Romanian women tend to /stop/. The number of births to women over 35 is very small, less than 10% of all births. Again, this is a different pattern from some other countries; German women, for instance, have a lot more children after 35.

    So, while you may not be done with childbearing, your female classmates from high school almost are. The 1974 cohort of Romanian women has already had 80%-90% of all the children they will ever have.

    Doug M.

  10. Reduced fertility also means too many pensioners. There won’t be that much money for controlled destruction. So it seems likely that big cities will profit when all the subsidies for traffic and rural communities are cut.

  11. I think women hesitate when the costs of having children outweights the benefits. Not just economical, but also social, individual, etc. Which makes comparing countries hard, since they may well differ in those area’s. I hear (anecdata) regularly from women who don’t want a third child because they couldn’t combine it with work and childcare and schools.

    Another factor might be how easy it is to prevent pregnancies. I was shocked when I learned that in the US 49% of the pregnancies unplanned was. Combined with often difficult acces to means to terminate an unwanted pregnancies that might have an impact too.

    @DougM: You might like the OECD family database.

  12. Doug:

    according to my numbers, the 25-29 and 30-34 age groups rule 😛 , and the 30-34 is set to get the crown in 5-6 years … of course, by then I’ll be out and scoring for the 40+ group …

    as of 2005, official numbers,

    Male marriages

    -20 1773
    20-24 29764
    25-29 56000
    30-24 25464
    34-39 12532

    Fem. marriages

    -20 19336
    20-24 48526
    25-29 40106
    30-24 15905
    34-39 8538

    Live-born children/age of the mother
    527 under 15
    28356 15-19
    57908 20-24
    72990 25-29
    42606 30-34
    16298 35-39
    2205 40-44
    129 45-49

    average age of mother at first birth: 26,3

    average age of mother for all births:
    1997 – 25,7
    1998 – 25,9
    1999 – 26,0
    2000 – 26,3
    2001 – 26,6
    2002 – 26,9
    2003 – 27,1
    2004 – 27,3
    2005 – 27,6

    seems that it’s not so much that Rumanians stopped having children, as they delay a lot having children, and in the meantime the ratio deaths/births soared. I think it is almost the same situation in the rest of the Central and Eastern Europe … Having only one child … not much likely, since the (very strong) local custom is to have at least two: improved security for each of them after the parents die.

  13. Your question:

    “Brief googling doesn’t provide more information on the German [urban shrinkage, HR] program, though, and not a thing anywhere in Eastern Europe.
    Readers: anybody know anything?”

    My reply: In the Eastern part of Germany the “Stadtumbau-Ost” programme was started soon after the German reunification. It tackles the urban “shrinking” (Schrumpfungs) problems systematically. Mostly, indeed, by “greening” derelict industrial areas, while instensifying activities in old and new urban centres. It is considered successfull. Some five years ago, it has been adapted, notably in Nordrhein-Westphalia, to post-industrial shrinking problems in the Western part of the Country (Stadtumbau West).
    More information about ongoing Stadtumbau “shrinking” operations in the Land Nordrhein Westphalen (in German):

  14. Here’s my take from the U.S. on the story.

    First, Shorto fudges facts over here. The U.S. does NOT have a relatively high birth rate if you cut out immigrants. Native-born Americans are below replacement rate, though not as much as, say southern Europe. But, native-born Americans are around 1.9 or so, about where the UK is at.

    Second, comparing immigration in the U.S. vs. Europe is definitely apples and oranges.

  15. Gadfly, I’d like to see a cite for that figure of 1.9 for native-born Americans. The number is probably right around there, but it’s not clear to me whether it’s “just below replacement” or “just barely at”.

    I note in passing that, even after correcting for immigration and ethnicity, there are large regional differences in American fertility rates. That is, native born whites (for instance) in Texas have much higher TFRs than their cousins in Massachussetts.

    Doug M.

  16. The East-German economy is finally starting to grow, so the situation may not end so bad as some foresee.

    If you read the website of Westumbau you will see that the main target are cities whose main employers were the army.

    Recently there was some discussion in the Dutch media about fertility rates. One of the things that came out is that if you ask women how many children they want you come at around the fertility rate. It is the practical problems that make them settle for less. I think that is the reason why France and Scandinavia do so well with their child care and all-days schools policies.

    Part of the reason why the US does better on fertitility may be religion. In Holland conservative religious regions have a higher birth rate too.

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