By Kenneth Howse and Timothy Heleniak

65 years and over: 17.9%

Life expectancy at birth: 79.7

Population in 2060: 516.9m

In a handful of European countries fertility fell low enough during the Seventies and Eighties to cause concern.

At the time, most demographers thought that the drop in total fertility rate to around 1.5 children per woman, was a temporary phenomenon caused by people delaying marriage and childbearing. In other words, Europeans were not choosing to have fewer children; the explanation was to do with changes in the timing of fertility.

The data would eventually show that women were having more or less the same number of children, only at older ages. And this is precisely what happened in The Netherlands and Denmark. Total fertility increased, and although it did not return to the replacement level of about 2.1 children per woman, it was enough to dispel the threat of an imminent fertility shock. This is how matters stand in most western and northern European countries.

What happened in other parts of Europe was different, however. Low fertility persisted in Germany and Austria; and in southern and eastern Europe, where the decline had started somewhat later, fertility rates fell even lower, and they have stayed low.

National governments, as well as the European Union, have voiced concern about low fertility as a major demographic challenge. If it stays at these low levels, the population quickly moves from growth to decline, which is already happening in Germany, despite immigration. Most commentators, and certainly all governments, would say that fertility at these levels is not just low; it is too low.

The question demographers asked at this point was how fertility levels could stay so very low. This is where the idea of a low fertility trap becomes important. It explains how choices about the timing of fertility can have an effect on personal fertility intentions.

Most Europeans still say that they want to have children, and moreover, that they plan to have more than one. The fertility that would result from them fulfilling their intentions is not far below replacement level fertility rate. If it does not reach this level, however, policymakers have the task of identifying and removing obstacles that prevent people from realizing their fertility intentions. A society that thinks it is in this position is not yet in a low fertility trap, however. What closes the trap is the possibility of a lasting shift in fertility intentions so that the untrammelled exercise of fertility choices fails to produce enough babies to replace the population.

How might this happen? The essential idea is that a combination of factors could cause total fertility to fall very low -- say below 1.5 children per woman -- and then stay there for an extended time. For various reasons there is a continuing postponement of childbearing. As a result total fertility continues to fall, completed family size begins to fall quite noticeably, and then attitudes, values and preferences start to reflect the new social reality. It becomes the norm to have fewer children.

This is what seems to be happening in Germany and Austria, where repeated surveys have shown that views on desired family size have changed. To increase fertility now, it is no longer enough to remove obstacles to childbearing and lower the costs. Attitudes and values have to be changed, and this is much harder.

In most of the other low fertility European countries, around the Mediterranean and in the east, the position looks different. If people in these countries could realize their fertility intentions, the number of children born would start to get closer to replacement levels. However, continuing postponement of childbearing means that they end up with fewer children than they want. Although it should be easier to reverse fertility decline in these countries than in Germany and Austria, eventually the trap will close here also.

Kenneth Howse is a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, University of Oxford.

Timothy Heleniak is the Director of Research at the American Geographical Society and a Research Associate at the University of Maryland


© Tribune Media Services, Inc., "European Union: Caught in the Fertility Trap"





Available at

Helmsman Ruler: China's Pragmatic Version of Plato's Ideal Political Succession System in the Republic

Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe

The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and Its Arabs"


European Union: Caught in the Fertility Trap | News of the World

© iHaveNet