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The Baby Bust: A Special Report

Population Implosion Worries a Graying Europe
by Michael Specter

Mia Hulton is a true woman of the late 20th century. Soft-spoken, well-educated and thoughtful, she sings Renaissance music in a choral group, lives quietly with the man she loves and works like a demon seven days a week.

At 33, she is in full pursuit of an academic career. And despite the fact that she lives in Sweden — which provides more support for women who want families than any other country — Ms. Hulton doesn't see how she can possibly make room in her life for babies. Someday maybe, but certainly not soon.

"There are times when I think perhaps I will be missing something important if I don't have a child," she said slowly, trying to put her complicated desires into simple words. ''But today women finally have so many chances to have the life they want. To travel and work and learn. It's exciting and demanding. I just find it hard to see where the children would fit in.''

Ms. Hulton would never consider herself a radical, but she has become a cadre in one of the fundamental social revolutions of the century.

Driven largely by prosperity and freedom, millions of women– here and throughout the developed world — are having fewer children than ever before. They stay in school longer, put more emphasis on work and marry later. As a result, birth rates in many countries are now in a rapid, sustained decline. Never before– except in times of plague, war and deep economic depression– have birth rates fallen so low, for so long.

What was once regarded universally as a cherished goal — incredibly low birth rates — have in the industrial world at least suddenly become a cause for alarm. With life expectancy rising at the same time that fertility drops, most developed countries may soon find themselves with lopsided societies that will be nearly impossible to sustain: a large number of elderly and not enough young people working to support them. The change will affect every program — from health care and education to pension plans and military spending — that requires public funds.

There is no longer a single country in Europe where people are having enough children to replace themselves when they die. Italy recently became the first nation in history where there are more people over the age of 60 than there are under the age of 20. This year Germany, Greece and Spain will probably all cross the same eerie divide.

''You can look at this in a philosophical way,'' said Jean-Claude Chesnais, director of research at France's National Institute for the Study of Demography. No country has worried more, or more publicly, about the implications of a low birth rate (which is the rate not for individual mothers but of whole societies). Like so many other European nations, uneasy officials in France see in current trends a world where populations of color — in Africa, India, Asia — are still growing, while their own is struggling to keep from shrinking.

''Europe is old and rigid,'' Mr. Chesnais said. ''So it is fading. You can see that as the natural cycle of civilization, perhaps something inevitable. And in many ways low population growth is wonderful. Certainly to control fertility in China, Bangladesh, much of Africa — that is an absolute triumph. Yet we must look beyond simple numbers. And here I think Europe may be in the vanguard of a very profound trend. Because you cannot have a successful world without children in it.''

The Outlook: Worldwide Drop Confounds Experts

The effects of the shift will resonate far beyond Europe. Last year Japan's fertility rate — the number of children born on average to a woman — fell to 1.39, the lowest level it has ever reached. In the United States, where a large pool of new immigrants help keep the fertility rate higher than in any other prosperous country, the figure is still slightly below an average of 2.1 children per woman — the magic number needed to keep the population from starting to shrink.

Even in the developing world, where overcrowding remains a major cause of desperation and disease, the pace of growth has slowed almost everywhere. Since 1965, according to United Nations population data, the fertility rate in the third world has been cut in half — from 6 children per woman to 3. In the last decade alone, for example, the figure in Bangladesh has fallen from 6.2 children per woman to 3.4. That's a bigger drop than in the previous two centuries.

Little more than 25 years have passed since a famous set of computer studies sponsored by the Club of Rome, the global think tank, showed that population pressures would devastate the world by the mid-1990's.

Nothing of the kind has come to pass. The authors of that dire forecast could not have foreseen 30 years ago that women in countries like Italy would by now be producing an average of fewer than 1.2 children, the lowest figure ever recorded among humans. Or that the Berlin wall would disappear, creating economic uncertainties that have frozen the birth rate from the Black Forest to Vladivostok. In a world where women work more than ever before and contraception remains readily available, it is hard to find somebody who believes that someday soon large families will make a comeback.

''I'm thinking of having children in the future, perhaps two,'' said Roberta Lenzi, 27, who is single and studies political science in Bologna, Italy, the city with the lowest fertility rate in the world.

''I'm an only child and if I could, I'd have more than one child. But most couples I know wait until their 30's to have children. People want to have their own life, they want to have a successful career. When you see life in these terms, children are an impediment. At most you'll have one, more are rare.''

There has long been an assumption that low birth rates were better than high birth rates. Fewer people put less strain on the resources of the planet. And anyway, as a country becomes richer its people always have fewer children. If more people are needed immigration can be a solution — and in many places, specialists now think it's the only one left. But Europe, unlike the United States, has been resistant to immigration.

''What is happening now has simply never happened before in the history of the world,'' said Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer based at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. ''This is terra incognita. If these trends continue, in a generation or two there may be countries where most people's only blood relatives will be their parents.''

''Would it be a lonelier and sadder world?'' he continued. ''Yes, I think it would. But that might simply be the limits of my own imagination. Frankly, it's just impossible to really conceive of what this world will be like in 50 years. But when you come to the end of one era it's almost always impossible to see your way into the next.''

The Watershed: Birth Incentives No Longer Work Perhaps no country has tried harder to change the future than Sweden.

Decades ago, with its birth rate dwindling, Sweden decided to support family life with a public generosity found nowhere else. Couples who both work and have small children enjoy cash payments, tax incentives and job leaves combined with incredible flexibility to work part time for as many as eight years after a child's birth.

Sweden spends 10 times as much as Italy or Spain on programs intended to support families. It spends nearly three times as much per person on such programs as the United States. So there should be no surprise that Sweden, despite its wealth, had the highest birth rate in Europe by 1991.

With 10 million mostly middle-class people, this country may have little in common with any other. But the experience here clearly suggested that if countries wanted more babies they would have to pay for them, through tax incentives, parental leave programs and family support. At least that's what nearly all the experts thought it showed.

''We were a model for the world,'' said Marten Lagergren, Under Secretary in the Ministry of Social Health and Welfare, and the man responsible for figuring out what is happening with Sweden's birth rate. ''They all came to examine us. People thought we had some secret. Unfortunately, it seems that we do not.''

Sometime after 1990 the bottom dropped out of Sweden's baby boom. Between then and 1995, the fertility rate fell sharply, from 2.12 to 1.6. Most people blamed the economy, which had turned sour and forced politicians to trim — ever so slightly — the country's benefit program. It is normal for people to put off having children when the future looks doubtful, so the change made sense.

But then the economy got better and the fertility rate fell faster and farther than ever. By March of this year the figure for Sweden was the almost same as that in Japan — 1.42. And though it's too soon to say, officials here think it might be falling still.

''Nobody on earth can tell you what is going on here,'' said Mac Murray, a philosopher trained in statistics who is in charge of strategic planning for the nation's school system. ''Sometimes I think it must be just a blip — we've had them before — and everything will turn out the way we expect it to. But I guess I don't really believe that. I believe we are seeing a fundamental shift in human behavior. We have lived for 200 years on the idea of progress. That the future will be better than the past. It's a universal belief — not just in our little country.

''But I think those days have ended now. I have no data to support my views. But young people now seem to have a sense that living for today is about the best they can do.''

It is Mr. Murray's job to plan for the material implications of these changes. But it's not going to be easy. Sweden has 6,000 schools serving children from the ages of 6 to 18. This year there are more than 130,000 8-year-olds in the system — 1990 was a boom year for births. They need classrooms and teachers and all the support that goes with them.

But in just three years the 8-year-old population will shrink drast ically, to 75,000. ''So what are we doing?'' Mr. Murray asked rhetorically. ''We are recruiting more teachers now than ever before and giving them raises that nobody else can hope to have. Have you ever tried to tell a politician to plan for something that's 20 years away?'' It is a problem felt across Europe as the elderly supplant the young.

There used to be many more young people than old people in the world. Right now there are roughly equal numbers. But by 2050, according to data supplied by the European Union, there will be nearly twice as many old people as young people. Yet most governments programs still encourage people to retire early.

''The whole system is backward,'' said Massimo Livi-Bacci, a professor of demography at the University of Florence. ''In Italy we are paying people to retire at an earlier age than ever before even though we know they are now going to live longer than ever before. We have the best pension system in Europe and the worst system for family support. Rich old people supported by the labor of poor young people. No wonder nobody wants to have a family.''

The Perception: The Good Life Is Top Priority

Ask dozens of people, and few of them even realize that the birth rate is dropping all across Europe. When they do think about it, most people see it as somebody else's problem.

''I am supposed to have an extra child to help the system?'' said Jan Delaror, a recently married marketing expert. Mr. Delaror says he has no children but expects to ''if and when it makes sense, not because the Government thinks it's a good idea.''

Mr. Delaror was standing in the middle of the Sture Gallery, one of Stockholm's many exclusive malls. He was trying to decide whether to buy a box of Havana cigars, for several hundred dollars, or to wait until he traveled to London in a few weeks.

''It's not as easy to have children these days as it once was,'' he said, voicing a commonly held belief. ''The sacrifices are not always acceptable.''

In surveys young couples almost always report that they want two children — but many also mention the future and their concerns for maintaining a good life. It doesn't seem to matter that materially at least — people in the developed world live better now than they ever have. There is a perception — shared even in vastly different countries like Sweden and Italy — that what was possible for previous generations is not possible for this one.

''I'd like to have a child but my work situation is unstable,'' said Francesca Casotti, 29, a lawyer in Rome who has been married nine months. ''I'm at the office all day and it is difficult to think about having a child. People my age want their freedom. They see children as a burden, as an inconvenience. I'd like to have a stable job and I'd like to have more than one child. But there is the economic question.''

''Children cost more than they used to,'' she continued. ''Today you have to bring them to the pool and you need to get a nanny, and they have to learn a foreign language. Children have more needs. Parents just didn't think of all these things before.''

Not everyone agrees, of course, that the need for pool memberships or foreign language tuition is responsible for such a remarkable drop in birth rates.

''We have become so selfish, so greedy,'' said Ninni Lundblad, 31, a biologist who works in Stockholm. Ms. Lundblad has no children but hopes that will soon change.

''Did your parents sit down with a spreadsheet and figure out whether they could afford to have two or three children?'' she said, her bright eyes widening at the absurdity of her own statement. ''No, of course not. Did this ever happen before anywhere? No, of course not. We live in the richest place and at the best time, and everyone is worrying whether they can afford to take their next vacation or buy a boat. It's kind of sickening.'' The Epicenter: A Shift in Focus From Young to Old

If there is a ground zero in the epidemic of low fertility it would have to be in the northern Italian city of Bologna, where women give birth to an average of fewer than one child (in 1997, the number was 0.8). The city has more highly educated women than any other in the country. Produce is cheap, food is wonderful and living is generally easy.

The local population has dropped steadily for two decades, but 1,500 people turn 75 every year. Fewer children and more elderly mean a greater need for health care programs and specialized housing and transportation. But that does nothing to encourage young couples to have families. This year the budgets for retirees and children are roughly the same in Bologna, a city of 375,000. Next year 5 percent will be shifted from the young to the old. And that will happen every year for the next decade as the city becomes filled with elderly and starved for children.

How did Italy, a largely Catholic country that has always been seen as the stereotypical land of big, close-knit families, attain the world's lowest level of fertility?

''Prosperity has strangled us,'' said Pierpaolo Donati, professor of sociology at the University of Bologna and a leading Catholic intellectual. ''Comfort is now the only thing anybody believes in,'' he said. ''The ethic of sacrifice for a family — one of the basic ideas of human societies — has become a historical notion. It is astonishing.''

Where Dr. Donati sees selfishness, however, others see women who have been placed under monumental stress. To some minds, the women of Italy — have the worst of both worlds. They now work for a living in record numbers, but tremendous obstacles remain for balancing work and family life.

Far more than in places like Sweden, France, or even the United States, the Italian man still seeks a wife who will make his dinner every night and who takes complete charge of the family. Women have responded by realizing that with only 24 hours in each day something has to give. Children seem to have become that something.

Whatever the reasons, the changes, and what they will mean, are difficult to ignore. In 20 years, at present birth rates, for every child under the age of 5 in Bologna there will be 25 people over the age of 50 — and 10 of them will be older than 80.

''It is impossible to have a human society built like this,'' Dr. Donati said. ''Something simply has to change.''

Walter Vitali agrees. The Mayor of the longtime leftish town– its nickname Red Bologna still stands — Mr. Vitali is a former Communist who likes to invoke the name of the city's Cardinal when talking about population figures.

''The Cardinal says our lack of interest in families symbolizes our loss of faith in ourselves,'' he said. ''It's sort of hard to disagree with that. Let's face it, something is going on here that is very troubling.''

But exactly how troubling is it, and for whom? The birth rate is dropping but there are still plenty of people on the earth. As a result, the world's population is still growing rapidly, and that will not stop for at least another generation — when more than two thirds of all countries are at or below the replacement level. The fertility rate of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, has soared to 8.8 children per woman. The 45 nations of East, West and Middle Africa average more than six births per woman.

Right now the populations of Europe (including Russia) and Africa are about the same. If trends continue, by 2050 Africans will outnumber Europeans three to one. And in that same year, half of all residents of Italy will be over the age of 50. Half of the residents of Iraq will be under 25.

''The truth is there doesn't have to be a demographic catastrophe,'' said Lalla Golfarelli, the head of family planning in Bologna. ''Look at a map. Look at Europe on that map. We are all only two to four hours away by boat or plane away from many countries with many people. Open the gates. Immigration can solve this problem. If people would just open their minds they would realize there are enough people on this earth to go around.''

Jan Hoem, head of the demographics faculty at the University of Stockholm, warned against alarmism. ''The world is hardly about to disappear. It's just becoming a very different place.''

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