Even if one were inclined to see the post–WW II path of Western European as an undisputed success story and assumed that recent economic problems could be addressed fairly rapidly by suitable reforms, there is one inescapable factor that will determine the future of Europe’s most affl uent western and central parts and poorer eastern regions: a shrinking and aging population. After many generations of very slow demographic transition (Gillis, Tilly, and Levine 1992), Western Europe’s total fertility rates slid below replacement level (2.1 children per mother) by the mid- 1970s. A generation later, by the mid-1990s, the total fertility level of EU-12 was below 1.5; the new members did nothing to lift it: by 2005 the average fertility of EU-25 was 1.5 (Eurostat 2005b). Europe’s population implosion (Douglass 2005) now appears unstoppable.
Naturally, the reliability of long-term population projections declines as the projection’s fi nal date advances, and a new trend of increased fertility cannot be categorically excluded. However, it is unlikely that it would last very long. The last notable regional rebound lifted the Nordic countries from an average of about 1.7 in 1985 to almost 2.0 by 1990, but by the end of the decade fertility was back to the mid-1980s level. More important, it is unlikely that a meaningful rebound can even begin once the rate had slipped below 1.5. That is the main argument advanced by Lutz, Skirbekk, and Testa (2005).
Once the total fertility rate reaches very low levels, three self-reinforcing mechanisms can take over and result in a downward spiral of future births that may be impossible to reverse. First, delayed childbirths and decades of low fertility shrink the base of the population pyramid and produce sequentially fewer and fewer children.