Monday, February 22, 2010

The Population Crash in Germany

This article in the UK's The Guardian, "The Population Crash" is the first I have read that attempts to put flesh and blood people and particular places in the place of the many abstract numbers that characterized stories about Europe's impending demographic winter. I have written on this blog before about how Europe's native European population is in decline and how Europe is committing demographic suicide. But most people find it hard to relate to statistics and projections. This article makes it real.
"Hoyerswerda, a town two hours beyond Dresden close to the Polish ­border, has lost half its population in the last 20 years. It is an ­ageing ghost town. The young and those with qualifications have left – young women especially. And those that remain have given up having babies. Hoyerswerda (known to its citizens as Hoy Woy) seems a town without a purpose, in a corner of Europe without a future. . .

In its heyday in the 60s, Hoyerswerda was a model community in communist East Germany, a brave new world attracting migrants from all over the country. They dug brown coal from huge open-cast mines on the plain around the town. There was good money and two free bottles of brandy a month. But the fall of the Berlin Wall changed all that. It was here in 1989, in the towns and cities of Saxony, that the people of the east started moving west to ­capitalism and freedom. At the head of the queue were the young, ­especially young women.

Under communism, East ­German women worked more, and were ­often better educated, than the more conservative western hausfrau. But when their jobs disappeared in the early 90s, hundreds of thousands of them, encouraged by their ­mothers, took their school diplomas and CVs and headed west to cities such as ­Heidelberg. The boys, however, seeing their fathers out of work, often just gave up. In adulthood, they form a rump of ill-educated, alienated, ­often unemployable men, most of them ­unattractive mates – a further factor in the departure of young women.

Reiner Klingholz, director of the Berlin Institute for Population and ­Development, calls it a "male ­emergency" – but this is not just an emergency for men. The former ­people's republic is staring into a ­demographic abyss, because its ­citizens don't want babies any more.

"There has been nothing ­comparable in world peacetime ­history," says the French demographer Jean-Claude Chesnais. After the Berlin Wall came down, millions of East Germans who stayed behind decided against producing another generation. Their fertility more than halved. In 1988, 216,000 ­babies were born in East Germany; in 1994, just 88,000 were born. The fertility rate worked out at 0.8 children per woman. Since then it has struggled up to around 1.2, but that is still only just over half the rate needed to maintain the population. About a million homes have been abandoned, and the ­government is demolishing them as fast as it can. Left ­behind are "perforated ­cities", with huge random chunks of ­wasteland. Europe hasn't seen ­cityscapes like this since the bombing of the second world war.

And nowhere has emptied as much as Hoyerswerda. In the 80s, it had a population of 75,000 and the highest birth rate in East Germany. Today, the town's population has halved. It has gone from being ­Germany's fastest-growing town to its fastest-shrinking one. The biggest age groups are in their 60s and 70s, and the town's former birth clinic is an old people's home. Its population pyramid is ­upturned – more like a mushroom cloud. . .

Across the rest of Germany, Hoyerswerda is regarded as a feral wasteland – complete with wolves. Slinking in from Poland and the Czech Republic, they are finding empty spaces where once there were apartment blocks and mines. And the wolves, at least, are staying. . . The badlands of former East Germany are going "back to nature". And Europeans should be worried, for some fear that eastern Germany is, as it was back in the 1960s, a trailblazer for the demographic future of the continent.

Europe's population is, right now, peaking, after more than six centuries of continuous growth. With each generation reproducing only half its number, this looks like the start of a ­continent-wide collapse in numbers. Some predict wipeout by 2100.

Half a century ago, Europe was basking in a postwar baby boom, with 2.8 babies per woman in Britain, 2.9 in France, and 3.2 in the Netherlands. Then levels sank back. Demographers assumed that fertility would settle down at about the level required to maintain the population – slightly more than two babies per woman. The trouble is, nobody told Europe's women.

In the real world, the swinging 60s saw a great deal of sex and not a lot of procreation. By the mid-80s, alarm bells were ringing. "Europe is entering a demographic winter," ­declared ­demographer Gérard-François ­Dumont. Ron Lesthaeghe at the Free University of Brussels blamed "post-materialistic values, in which self-­development ­becomes the primary aim". . .

The 20th century began with western Europe producing 10 million babies a year; by the end it couldn't manage 6 million – 2 million fewer than it needs to maintain the population in the long term. That baby famine is now heading into a second generation; it is no longer a blip. Demographically, Europe is living on borrowed time. . . .

Thirty years ago, 23 European countries had fertility above replacement levels; now none does, with only France, Iceland, Albania, Britain and Ireland anywhere near. . .

Thirty per cent of German women today say they don't intend to have children at all.

Once a country has very low fertility for a generation, it begins to run out of young women able to gestate future generations. Germany is there already: it has only half as many children under 10 as adults in their 40s. Demographer Peter McDonald calculates that if Italy gets stuck with recent fertility levels, and fails to top up with foreign migrants, it will lose 86% of its population by the end of the century, falling to 8 million compared with today's 56 million. Spain will lose 85%, Germany 83% and Greece 74%.

Jesse Ausubel, a futurologist at Rockefeller University in New York, fears "the twilight of the west" as Europe's population thins and ages. "Civilisations have simply melted away because of poor reproductive rates of the dominant class . . . The question may now be whether, underneath the personal decision to procreate, lies a subliminal social mood influencing the process. The subliminal mood of ­Europe could now be for a blackout ­after 1,000 years on stage."

Far-fetched? Maybe. But ­population historian David Reher told ­the journal Science in 2006 that, "As population and tax revenues decline in Europe, urban areas could well be filled with empty buildings and ­crumbling infrastructure . . . surrounded by large areas which look more like what we might see in some science-fiction movies."

David, come and see Hoyerswerda. The future is already here – complete with wolves."

Read it all here. What a striking picture of the effects of the falling birth rate on a society: crumbling urban infrastructure and wolves!

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