Europe’s empty cradle

I love Europe.  I majored in its history.  Most of what the human race today finds admirable in every field of endeavor — what seems like platitudinous goodness, like science, democracy, or individual rights — was first conceived of and implanted on European soil.  Even in my young years, Europe’s artists, writers, and intellectuals were in a class of their own.

So if I seem a bit cranky and despairing about the old continent (see here, for example, and here), it isn’t with malice aforethought.  I very much wish for the Europe I knew to be there for my unborn grandchildren to visit some day.  But I doubt this will be the case.

The NYT Magazine’s articles are usually wordy from plain self-indulgence, but this one, analyzing the demographic catastrophe now engulfing Europe, needs every column inch to diagnose the dying patient accurately.

The piece, by Russell Shorto, states a number of well-known facts.  Europeans have stopped having babies.  Their reproduction rate is far below replacement levels.  Villages with thousand-year-old stories to tell are growing silent.  Some of the cities are beginning to hollow out as well.

The dimensions of the problem are probed with some acuity by Shorto.  Not all populations are disappearing at the same rate:  Northern European countries are in a gentle decline, German and Austrian fertility is sinking precipitously, while Eastern and Southern European populations are going extinct at an unprecedented rate — a new term, “lowest low” fertility, has been coined to describe their situation.  It’s irreversible, like falling off a cliff.  If present trends continue, in 45 years there will half as many Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, and Greeks as today.

The obvious question is:  why?  The answer:  nobody knows.  Europe’s condition is by no means unique.  Many East Asian countries — South Korea, Japan, Taiwan — suffer from lowest low fertility.  Despite the warnings of population control zealots, the entire human race seems to have entered a period of lowered fertility.  Europe may just be leading the parade into the aging, child-free future.

Shorto offers an interesting and counterintuitive explanation.  In Northern Europe, women work but enjoy social equality and are provided with a great many state-financed support institutions — long maternity leave with pay, free child care, etc.  In Southern Europe, nonworking women are more likely to be childless, while the support system is nonexistent.  Plus, in these countries “gender relations are asymmetric” — Greek and Italian men behave like little lordlings in their treatment of women.

Of course, this sets up the perfect liberal solution to Europe’s demographic catastrophe:  increase state support, make feminism triumph, and babies will follow aplenty.  Well, maybe so.  The great counterfactual is the United States, where people are far less interested in government support of mothers than, say, in Scandinavia — yet we reproduce at a far more vigorous rate than the Swedes and Norwegians.

Shorto maintains that the US makes up in the “flexibility” of women’s choices what it lacks in support.  But the parallel with Northern Europe is imperfect.  We replace ourselves.  They don’t.  However gentle the northern decline, it looks healthy only in comparison with the south.

Another counterfactual is history.  Presumably Spanish and Italian males have been macho pigs since the dawn of time, and Spanish and Italian females traditionally did not work.  Yet these countries have been renowned, in the past, for producing large noisy broods.  This wasn’t 100 years ago — it was true of every generation until the present one.  In Europe, the baby boomers went baby bust.

History also contradicts the economic factors favored by Shorto.  Yes, the cost of living is prohibitively high in Europe.  Yes, affordable housing is near impossible to find.  But Spain, Italy, and Greece just two generations ago were dirt-poor countries.  Proportionate to their needs, these populations are better off than ever.

What changed?  Clearly, expectations changed.  The moral climate changed:  that is, the sense and meaning of what the good life entails.  Europeans marry later and marry less, and abort in unprecedented numbers.  That would have been judged wretched or criminal by the grandparents of the present generation.

Europe’s transvaluation extends beyond the family.  Quite literally, few believe in God or country.  More worshippers attend mosques than churches in Britain, for example.  Patriotism is equated with nationalism — a bad word.  The future was supposed to be postnational.  The problem is that a competitive pride in one’s country fueled, in the last century, the Europeans’ drive to achieve greatness.  The postnational present, with its half-hearted genuflections to the EU and the UN, considers greatness with an ironic sneer.  It is impotent, and has no future.

Europeans today work fewer hours, and fewer years, than did their parents.  They are less likely to serve in the military.  Their military establishments — with one or two notable exceptions — are either unwilling or unable to fight.

No passion for family, religion, or country.  No willingness to work or fight.  Shorto’s piece, while interesting, informative, and worth reading in full, ellides past these curious moral facts.  Instead, he swipes rather cursorily at strawmen “conservative” family models, without quite specifying what he means, and then, also without much conviction, attempts to put a happy face on desolation:

Low birthrates and an aging population, according to Vladimir Spidla, director of employment, social affairs and equal opportunities for the European Commission, “is the inevitable consequence of developments that are fundamentally positive, in particular increased life expectancy and more choice over whether and when to have children.”

To buttress this line of thought, Shorto actually cites Paul Ehrlich, possibly the most wrongheaded “expert” in the history of the human race (in the 1970’s, as food prices plummeted, Ehrlich wrote, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over . . . hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.”)

I remember the Beatles’ song about an Italian-sounding, no doubt good Catholic mother, “Lady Madonna“:  “children at your feet, wonder how you manage to make ends meet.”  Here’s the Beatle solution for the harried mother:  “Listen to the music playing in your head.”

The Europeans have listened to their own private head music, rejecting old-fashioned family life as too costly and disruptive.  Without children at their feet, however, they literally won’t be able to afford the future.  When the present generation of aging singletons tries to cash in its generous welfare entitlements, the question will be thrown back at them, “Who pays?”

The lack of youth and beauty and vigor will make for a desolate social environment.  The few children born will lack siblings or cousins or neighbors their age — their best friends will be old and and slow and gray.

It’s horrible — I hope it doesn’t happen.  I hope Europe somehow avoids the demographic precipice.  Shorto ends his article with this grim statement from Carl Haub, of the Population Reference Bureau:  “You can’t have a country where everybody lives in a nursing home.”

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