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Europe Ponders Ways to Counter Population Drop


Europe is facing a profound demographic shift because of low birth rates and an aging population. European Union statisticians warn that Europe's workforce could start shrinking by the end of this decade, prompting calls for an urgent public policy debate over how to tackle the demographic crunch. Nina-Maria Potts reports.

The old are getting older, and the young are not having enough children, put off by financial pressures and inflexible employers -- the EU estimates 30 per cent of adults will be over 65 by 2050.

Policy makers are looking for new ways to tackle an aging society supported by fewer taxpaying workers. Recent EU reports warn that a shrinking workforce will make state pension funds unsustainable. They call on governments to discourage early retirement and give older people greater workplace flexibility.

Jos Berghman is professor of social policy at Belgium's University of Leuven. He says, "If all those on the labor force would be able to work and do their working life up to 65 years it wouldn't be that [big] a problem."

Another solution is immigration. The EU estimates 56 million migrant workers are needed over the next 40 years to counter falling population levels. The European Commission has proposed an EU work permit, a so-called Blue Card to lure skilled workers to Europe.

Philip Bushill-Matthews sits on the European Parliament's Employment Committee. He says immigration is not a long-term solution. "It doesn't help the underlying problem, that some old people want the facility to work, and some younger people want the opportunity to have more children."

But not everyone agrees that asking people to have more children is the business of governments. Corinne Maier is a French author and mother of two. Her book, "No Kid: Forty Reasons Not to Have Children," caused a controversy in France, for challenging what she calls baby propaganda.

"I am not sure that we have to pay more taxes in order for young women to have more children,” says the author. “If we need more people to work, I think we should think about opening the doors and saying to people from other countries, 'Come to us, and come to work in Europe.'"

EU plans to attract skilled workers coincide with a crackdown on illegal immigrants. But even if the birth rate rises, Bushill-Matthews says it will still take two generations to make up the demographic shortfall. And the European Parliament is set to debate whether attracting more migrants is inevitable.

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