The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, known less formally as Prince William and Princess Kate, announced over Labor Day weekend that they are expecting their third child.
Congratulations are in order, and not merely for the customary reasons. The royal couple is clearly doing its fair share to address Europe’s looming population nightmare, which in recent years has been described alternately a “crisis,” a “disaster,” and “the end of the West.”
Are Europe’s demographics truly this apocalyptic?
A third child would put William and Kate at double the average birthrate in the European Union, which stood at 1.55 in 2013. Government statistics show that in the United Kingdom, one of the most fertile nations in Europe, just 14 percent of families have three or more children.
In Germany, 40 percent of women with college degrees are childless, according to a recent study by the Gatestone Institute. In Portugal, the population has been steadily decreasing since 2010, prompting the nation’s then-prime minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, to publicly acknowledge, “We've got really serious problems” with demographics. In many provinces in Spain, two people die for every child born. “And the ratio is moving closer to one-to-three,” a Spanish business consultant told the Guardian in 2015.
But declining birth rates are only half the story. Europeans might have stopped procreating, but they have not stopped engaging in perhaps the one thing more natural than having children: aging. The U.S. Census Bureau’s International Database shows that today nearly 20 percent of people in Western Europe are over the age of 65. By 2030, that figure is projected to increase to one in four.
These dual trends – a birth dearth and a rapidly aging population – could wreak havoc on Europe’s welfare state, economists say.
Historically, social spending in Europe has been robust. In recent years, social expenditures in Europe’s top nations have accounted for about a quarter of their GDP, compared to 15 percent in the United States. As a nation’s population ages, it requires an ever-greater amount of resources to sustain government programs intended for the non-working population.
Meg Tuszynski, an economist and researcher at the O’Neil Center at Southern Methodist University who specializes in aging populations, said there is a term for this in economic circles: “greying the budget” (or, as it is sometimes called, the “grey peril”).
It is generally understood that a generous welfare state cannot be sustained without a population reproducing at replacement level and adequate economic growth. Europe has neither.
“Without sufficient economic growth to make up for the declining tax revenues, spending on these programs will necessarily shrink,” Tuszynski told Religion & Liberty Transatlantic.
This combination of factors – lower productivity, unsustainable pension programs, a shrinking tax base, and greater strains on government programs – is combustible. Faced with these daunting challenges, Europe opted for the simplest solution: it opened its borders to non-European immigration. This short-term solution – for that is precisely what it is – makes sense, at least on some level, when one considers Europe’s stubborn refusal to engage in childbearing.