Kaltern – We’ve all heard the catch-cry of overpopulation. An issue that could threaten to overrun the environment and leave the Earth barren. The world population sits at a record 8 billion people as we sit right now. Undoubtedly, some countries are overpopulated (India sits atop the chart with over 1.5 billion people at an average of nearly 500 people per square kilometre).
But several European countries and even some of the more modern Asian ones, unfortunately, have almost the exact opposite problem. Indeed many countries in Europe are experiencing a decline in the birth rate that could cause many issues going forward, and it remains an unsolved problem.
China is in trouble
We begin in China, where in May 2021 the Chinese government finally recognised an ever-growing issue and attempted to address it by changing legislation by announcing that they were allowing parents in China to have up to three children. This came only five years after the incredible reversal of the one-child policy that the government had implemented in the 80s. China is in trouble.
According to a census released just before the announcement in May, China suffered a loss of nearly 400 000 people annually. To clarify, that doesn’t mean that 400 000 people are dying each year in China; it means that the population is declining by that amount and will continue to do so if nothing is done.
“Wait, excuse me,” I hear you say, “China is overpopulated; everyone knows that. Isn’t this a good thing?” No, it’s not; while overpopulation is never a good thing, right now, China has an age imbalance, but more on that later because they aren’t the only ones.
Governments spend billions of dollars
Staying in Asia, we can look no further than neighbouring Japan and South Korea. Both Countries have come along in leaps and miles in the last fifty or so years and are considered the most advanced industrially in the region. Both, however, are suffering declining birth-rates, so alarmed that both governments have spent billions of dollars on campaigns to improve it but to little avail. Some may think this is somehow Covid related and, indeed, for some countries, Covid was a flash point for examining population growth and related issues. Still, in South Korea, for example, it has been building and building for a long time. Yet, despite the government spending billions over the last 16 years, the birth rate dropped nearly five percent again in 2022; nothing seems to be working.
“Well,” you might say, “that’s in Asia; here in Italy, we are grand.” You would be wrong again. Last year Italy recorded more than twelve deaths for every seven births, and the official resident population fell by around 179 000. Italy had the lowest number of births last year since the country’s unification in 1861.
Reasons why can vary. After closing gaps between the working and the middle class, we have experienced a massive migration shift over the last eighty years. More people moved to urban areas from the country than ever before. With that come new challenges, including buying a family house in a much more competitive market and raising a large family in a much smaller environment.
The Western cultural shift that followed in the seventies can also be attributed to some of the decline. Women slowly began to find more and more opportunities, and the preposition of having a career became much more tantalising. Even though they struggled to fight for an equal wage and still do, more women than ever before were going to university and putting off having a family at the same time. What is the result of these two changes? Families have become smaller.
Isn’t this a good thing?
Again one can be forgiven for wondering whether this is such a bad thing. At face value, smaller families and an eventual population decline could be a good thing, especially considering the strain that our current population is putting on the environment right now.
But as mentioned before, we find ourselves in a population imbalance. We have too many of the older generation and need more of the younger generation to replace them. In simple terms, we need more workers. That may sound a little capitalist of me, but in some way, it is, but in reality, our culture is pretty capitalist-driven, and it’s hard to go back after we’ve come so far. We won’t feel this yet; of course, the decline didn’t begin so long ago, but if current projections are accurate, roughly a third of Europeans will be over 65 by the 2050s. As a result, the number of people dependent on working-age people will become lopsided and eventually affect economic growth, public finances, pensions, and the health system.
A possible solution
I always like to believe there’s a solution to some of these problems, and this situation isn’t any different. Except to a certain extent, it is, European countries will continue to feel the pinch of unbalanced age groups until their economy starts to get negatively affected, and I have no idea how to make people have more children; at the end of the day, many working-class parents would struggle to have more than two or maybe three children in this current tight economy.
But there is a solution for the workforce, both skilled and unskilled—migrant workers. The EU must take a more relaxed stance on migrant workers from non-EU countries and extend the working holiday visa for more than a year.
Admittedly it isn’t the ideal solution, but attracting skilled and talented workers from non-EU countries should be high on the EU’s priority list, and they know as much; it would slow the stem of the current worker shortage and maybe help the EU avoid a more catastrophic shortage in years to come.
While population decline is fantastic for the environment, our declining birth-rate will only hinder us going forward, we could try a leaf out of Japan and South Korea’s book and attempt to invest billions into campaigns to encourage citizens to have bigger families, or we could attempt a more modern approach and encourage those who don’t come from here that here is the place to be.
THE AUTHOR is an Australian who has lived in South Tyrol for several years, he is a teacher by profession. Lindsay writes for the SWZ at irregular intervals about his experiences, opinions on politics, and the economy as well as the occasional interview.
catch-cry: Schlagwort, Slogan, Schrei
avail: Nutzen, Gewinn
grand: grandios, großartig
tantalising: verlockend, spannend
strain: Belastung, Strapaze, Spannung
lopsided: schief, einseitig