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Data Points to Fewer Births?

5/7/2006 - 7:00 AM PST

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Pope Cites a Problem That Few Would Argue With

ROME, MAY 7, 2006 (Zenit) - Benedict XVI cited an "urgent need" for reflection in the area of demography, in a message he sent April 28 to participants in a meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.

Experts agree that an increase in life expectancies is being met with a drop in birthrates, the Pope noted. Societies are aging and "many nations or groups of nations lack a sufficient number of young people to renew their population," he wrote.

Attention has increasingly focused on the social and economic consequences of too few babies. Last Sunday the New York Times commented on the case of Ogama, a village in rural Japan that has declined to only eight elderly residents. Town members have decided to pack everything up and sell the site to a company that will turn it into a landfill.

Sixty years ago the village had around 30 households, each with eight to nine people. Ogama belongs to the municipality of Monzen, which has 140 villages, 40% of which have fewer than 10 households, mostly composed of elderly people, the article observed.

On Tuesday, Reuters reported that the Japanese government is considering allowing TV ads for matchmaking agencies, in the hope of encouraging marriage, and more children. Data from Japan's Health Ministry show that the average age of women on their first marriage is now 27.8, compared with 25.8 in 1988.

On Wednesday the Guardian newspaper of Britain reported on the plunging birthrate in Europe. The report came the day after the German government decided to increase financial incentives for couples to have more children. Measures include tax breaks, more nursery places and government funds for men to take time off after a baby's birth.

But more money may not be sufficient to solve the problem, the article commented. Germany already spends 3.1% of its gross domestic product on families and children, well above the 2.1% average for countries in the European Union.

All downhill

The increased funds came after opinion was shocked by official figures published in March. Those figures showed that last year between 680,000 and 690,000 babies were born in Germany. This was less than in the final year of World War II, commented Rolf Wenkel in an opinion article published March 16 by Deutsche Welle.

"[W]e've completely failed to react to the fact that Germany's birthrate has been galloping downhill for the last 30 years," contended Wenkel.

On Tuesday the Guardian published the results of a poll carried out in Britain showing that people feel forced to delay family life by career pressures and the growing difficulty of finding a partner. Around 20% of British women reaching the end of their fertile life are childless, according to the British Office of National Statistics. This compares with 10% in the 1940s. And in 2004 the fertility rate in the United Kingdom was 1.77 children per woman, well down from the 1960s peak of 2.95 children.

Commenting on the poll, Libby Brooks noted that another key reason cited for the low birthrate is that couples do not stay together in the same way as in the past. The "modern absolutes of autonomy and independence" may well be hindering the formation of stable marriages and childbearing, according to Brooks.

By contrast, France is doing relatively well. Reuters on April 26 reported that France's average of 1.9 children per woman is the second-highest rate in the European Union (after Ireland's level of 1.99). Even so, none of the 25 countries in the European Union meet the 2.1 level needed to maintain current population levels.

The French government wants a further increase in numbers of children. Last September Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said the birthrate was insufficient to ensure a stable population and announced new incentives for having babies.

Long-term projections

Not surprisingly, population is forecast to decline in Europe. Details recently appeared in the bulletin Statistics in Focus (3/2006), a publication of Eurostat, the EU statistical agency.

The bulletin contains a diversity of forecasts, depending on how fertility levels evolve and how many immigrants are allowed into EU countries. Nevertheless, "in all variants deaths will outnumber births and positive net migration will postpone the population decrease only temporarily," the publication states.

The population will be notably older. In 2004 there was one elderly non-working person for every four persons of working age. By 2050 there would be about one inactive person for every two of working age. And the number of persons aged 80 and over is expected to nearly triple, rising from 18 million in 2004 to about 50 million in 2051.

Even relatively high levels of immigration will not solve the problem. Assuming ...

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