In the last decade or so, news coverage of European demography has been distinctly gloomy. Ranging from dire predictions about the rise of Eurabia to perhaps more reasonable economic concerns expressed on this blog and elsewhere about the increasing cost of aging and shrinking populations. However, recently there has actually been a slate of more positive news. An article in the Wilson Quarterly noted with a distinctive sense of relief that European birth rates are increasing while those of the rest of the world, and the Muslim world in particular is falling. Indeed, the most widely cited indicator, the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) increased last year to 1.95 in England and Wales, 1.96 in Norway, 1.9 in Sweden and 2.02 in France. Even Germany has experienced a small uptick to around 1.4. Is European fertility rebounding? Well, that depends on how you measure it.
The problem with TFR is that it seems easier to understand than it really is. If the TFR is below the magic rate of 2.1, it seems logical that the population is not replacing itself. Well, that is not necessarily true. (Edward Hugh has of course mentioned this on this blog before but it bears repeating) does not of course measure actual fertility –it is a synthetic measure that essentially sums up all the age-specific rates to get a sense of how many children each woman will have on average if that fertility pattern continues. The problem is that when the fertility pattern is changing –as has been the case in the last few decades in Europe – it does not accurately measure fertility. In particular, when the average age at birth is increasing, TFR will tend to underestimate completed fertility.
To see why that may be the case, I’ll pick my own country, Norway, as an example. In Norway, the TFR dipped below replacement rate in the mid-70’s and hit a low of 1.68 in the early 80’s before rebounding to the 1.8-1.9 range where it stayed until last year when it hit the highest level in 35 years. Yet Norwegian women born in 1960, who lived their entire fertile life in an apparently sub-replacement regime had on average 2.1 children at age 45. In fact, the average cohort fertility –which measures the number of children ever born to women at age 45 has been remarkably stable in Norway for the generations born after the war at around replacement rate. –But you can’t tell by looking at the TFR because the average age at birth has indeed been rising.What’s been happening over the last few years is not that European women have more children but that the fertility pattern or the average age at birth has stabilized which means that the TFR is now becoming much more accurate in predicting completed fertility. This means that the European countries with a comparatively healthy fertility –a European Fertile Crescent from France through the British Isles to the Nordic countries will have their TFR increase to around replacement rate whereas the rest of Western Europe will have slightly better, but still much too low TFR’s. Incidentally, I predict that much of the difference in TFR between the US and the European Fertile Crescent will prove to be caused by the fact that unlike in Europe, the US average age at birth has remained stable for a very long time –this difference will lead to a differently shaped population pyramid but will not affect the overall size of the population in the long run. The interesting question is why these countries differ from the rest of Europe – a subject which I hope to take a stab at in another posting.