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European Population Shrinking

SCIENCE
Notebook

Monday, March 31, 2003; Page A06

If Europeans don't watch out -- actually, do more than just watch out -- there will be a lot fewer of them by the end of this century.

A team of Vienna-based researchers reported in the journal Science last week that the continent reached a demographic watershed in 2000. After decades of delayed childbearing and smaller families, Europe is now in "negative population momentum."

If the current fertility rate persists until 2020, there will be 88 million fewer people in the 15 countries of the European Union at the end of the century than there are today.

"Low fertility leads to smaller numbers of children than parents, locking in future decreases in the number of parents and a tendency toward population decline," wrote Wolfgang Lutz of the Vienna Institute of Demography of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

If the average age of childbearing stops rising, fertility would actually rise from 1.5 to 1.8 births per woman, the researchers found. That, in turn, would lead to a smaller population drop of 49 million by century's end.

Even if that happens, however, the "support ratio" -- the number of working-age people per each person older than 65 -- will fall to somewhat below 3 to 1. If the average age of childbearing continues to rise, the ratio will be close to 2 to 1. Either number would mean a severe economic burden on the young, the researchers said.

"Over the coming decades," they added, the trend "will challenge social security and health systems, may hinder productivity gains, and could affect global competitiveness and economic growth."

Immigration may increase these ratios, but increases in longevity would lower them, the researchers noted.
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