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Taken from "Family Observer,"
European Commission, 1999.

Will Europe be Short of Children? Wolfgang Lutz
The mean age of the European population is higher than that of any other region in the world, and it gets older year by year. In exact figures, the population of the European Union ages by 2.5 months each year or by two years each decade. The proportion of the population below age 20 is likely to decline further. It will decrease from more than 23 percent to 19 percent, while the proportion of those above 60 will increase from 21 percent to 34 percent. Simultaneously, the mean age of the European population, which presently is around 39 years, is likely to reach 45 years by 2030.

Who Really Cares How Old We'll Get?
Why should one be interested in age? At the individual level, this sounds like a silly question. Whether you are one year old, 10 years old, 40 years old or 80 years the most important determinant of how you feel and live, is what you do and what you still expect from life. It is directly related to the process of socialisation, development of skills, body strengthen, maturing and, last not least, the remaining average life expectancy. On the level of society, this question is less obvious. Does it make any difference whether half of the population is below age 15, as we see it in some developing countries, or whether half of the population is above age 40, as is already the case in several European countries? It is clear that it makes a difference regarding the demand for schools and homes for the elderly. It is also evident that it significantly affects the balance of payments in a 'pay-as-you-go' pension system in which those who are gainfully employed today pay for those who are entitled to retirement benefits. It is also expected to have significant implications for the labour market, and some fear that an older labour force will affect productivity in a negative way. And one may even go beyond economics and speculate about changing cultural preferences and changes in political power due to the changing age composition of those who have the right to vote come election time.

Independent Women
One recent trend that has often been singled out as a dominating feature of societal change is women's increasing economic independence. Over recent decades, female labour-force participation has steadily increased in virtually all industrialised countries. The increase has been strongest in Scandinavia, where labour-force participation is almost universal among adult women below age 50. Female activity rates in North America are not much lower. In Italy, female labour-force participation increased by more than one third in the 1980s. This fundamental change in women's economic activity is obviously connected to changing reproductive patterns. Increasing economic independence of women also tends to result in a postponement of marriage, which typically is associated with lower fertility.

One must, however, be cautious in pointing out female economic activity as a major determinant of declining fertility. It may also be that the lower number of desired children motivates women not to stay at home but rather to enter the labour force, or there may be another driving force behind both trends. The latter possibility is supported by evidence from several countries experiencing improvements in fertility rates despite very high and still increasing female labour-force participation. The key question in this multifaceted issue seems to be: How can women (and men) in the future combine parenthood with participation in the labour market?

Flexible Partnerships
Marital stability has declined in al industrialised countries. Part of the reason for this phenomenon clearly lies in women's increasing economic independence. Women are no longer economically forced to stay in an unsatisfactory union if they earn an independent income. Whatever the social and psychological reasons may be, the chances of a young couple staying together for 20 years - the minimum time required to raise a child - are slimmer than they were in the past.

Children 'Endanger' Consumption and Leisure Commentators often mention the increasing consumerism as an underlying cause for the recent decline in fertility. The argument is that people would rather invest in pleasures for themselves than in children: They would rather buy a new car than have another child; they would rather spend their time watching TV than changing nappies. Children are considered work and not fun. In earlier times, couples had to work harder and longer to earn a living and still found the time to have many children. The extra leisure time couples have today is not being spent on having children. Having children is defined as work. Whether childbearing, and especially child rearing, will become favoured leisure-time activities of women and men will depend on the trade-offs between fun and burden. Some European cities already have more dogs than children. In these areas, the work-fun balance obviously is more favourable for pets, which require less commitment and in the worst case can always be given away. This argument clearly suggests that unless the burden of having children is diminished or the rewards of having children are enhanced, the balance for childbearing will continue to be negative.

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