Across the European continent, countries are failing to produce enough children to keep their population size constant over time. But France is the exception.
The country recorded the highest number of births (799,700) in 2015 and the highest fertility rate (1.96) (the average number of lifetime births per women) in the European Union, according to recent data released by Eurostat. France’s fertility rate was the closest to the magical number 2.1— the average number of live births per woman needed in a modern society to replace the population.
The average fertility rate across the EU was a dismal 1.58 in 2015 (a slight increase from 1.46 in 2001). Poland, Cyprus, and Portugal languished at the bottom of the list with a fertility rate of 1.32, 1.32, and 1.31, respectively. From 2001 to 2015, Cyprus, Macedonia, and, Luxembourg saw their fertility rates shrink the most.
While Latvia, Czech Republic, and Lithuania, saw the biggest jump in fertility rates between 2001 to 2015.
Richard Jackson, president of non-profit think tank the Global Aging Institute, says a fertility rate between 1.8 and 2.0, along with a bit of net migration is the “sweet spot” (i.e. no runaway population growth and no population in decline).
“There are two very different Europes demographically,” Jackson explains, and those with low fertility rates face grave economic and social repercussions. France and some Northern European countries are pretty close to 2.0, while another group has fertility rates of 1.5 or lower.
For example, Germany, which has a fertility rate of 1.5, is projected lose between 8 and 13 million residents from today’s level by 2060. The country’s share of working-age Germans (aged 20 and 64) is expected to shrink from around 60% today to 50% in 2060. Not even an influx of a million refugees will reverse the trend.
France’s leg up is partly due to women’s role in the workforce, according to Jackson. He argues that a “work-family balance is at the heart of it.” Countries that are able to facilitate balancing women’s desire to work and have a family have higher fertility rates. Countries that restrict a woman’s ability to have children and work end up with less of both.
France’s numerous pro-natal policies include paid maternity leave, job guarantees, so a mother can return to the job she temporarily left, and subsidized daycare. Other countries that want to boost fertility rates need their cultures “to come along too,” Jackson says. “Attitudes in the broader society and within families need to change as well.”
Pro-natal policies in Europe have a “very rocky history,” Jackson says. Their popularity waned after fascist regimes in Italy, Spain, and Germany all promoted large families. As this link between fascism and pro-natal policies dissipates, calls for pro-natal policies are back in vogue, some more aggressive than others.