The southern European states have seen significant shifts in demographic factors over the last few decades. Their mortality had been far higher than the average for Europe until the 1970s, but today, especially for women, their residents have among the longest life expectancies in the world. However, between World War II and the crises of the 1970s, these regions saw large numbers of migrants migrating to wealthier European nations. For decades, the region had been the source of significant outmigration flows, primarily to the New World.
In 1975, this changed, and Southern Europe gradually evolved into an attraction: migration flows were reversed, former migrants went home, and growing numbers of non-European migrants began to alter the human landscape of these civilizations from previously a very homogeneous ethnic composition. Southern Europe is now under the focus of demographers; due to the sharp decline in fertility that started during the 1970s and has since persisted.
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There has never been such a long period of low fertility in a large region with such a large population. In the study of what some researchers call “lowest-low fertility,” southern Europe retains the distinction of being the archetypal case. Some explanations for the dramatic fertility decline in Southern Europe are:
- The liberation of women and their involvement in the workforce.
- Economic factors like the price of daycare and tuition.
- The couple’s desire to improve their lifestyles and their increased options for travel and leisure.
- In southern Europe, cohabitation and extramarital births are less common than in other parts of Europe, so there is a trend towards delaying the child’s birth rather than giving up reproduction.
The number of children women have and the timing of their first delivery have changed for the reasons above, with parenthood now ranking lower on couples’ lists of priorities. Additionally, there is an indication that involuntary childlessness is on the rise. There is evidence that as postponement of parenthood has pushed births towards the end of a woman’s reproductive years, where fecundability is reduced, sterility is higher, and the risk of miscarriage is increasing, more and more women are reporting problems conceiving.
The levels and trends in infertility are difficult to ascertain due to measurement and definitional issues. In most Central and Eastern European nations, less than 10% of women reach the age of 50 without having children, while in South Europe, the percentage is typically higher than 10% and has been rising. According to some estimates, in countries like Austria, Germany (especially its western regions), England, and Wales, the percentage of childless women born after 1970 may be as high as 25%. Surprisingly, many observers believe childlessness is becoming the preferred lifestyle in various European countries.
Several European policymakers are debating whether to affect European birth rates by adopting pro-natalist policies. France has historically maintained a pro-natalist policy and had the lowest fertility rate in the world before the Second World War. Parental leave, comparatively large family allowances, tax exemptions, and other incentives are all part of France’s pro-natalist policies. Many claim that this program is to thank France for now having one of Europe’s highest fertility rates. There is ongoing discussion over the usefulness and efficiency of such measures. The fundamental query is how much control pro-natalist policies can have over the populace while remaining ethical.
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Nationalist and ethnocentric beliefs significantly contribute to the concern about low fertility in Eastern Europe, and voices favoring efforts to boost birth rates at the expense of reproductive health and women’s rights are frequently heard. This brings to mind the communist governments in Central and Eastern Europe, which also had a legacy of pro-natalism. They employed fiscal and other incentives, limits on abortion, and other methods at various times to boost birth rates. This reflects the reality that under these regimes, individuals were considerably more likely to find policy interference in people’s private lives acceptable and tolerable. Some of these measures consequently led to significant issues in reproductive health.
Even though pro-natalist policies may be the only way to return South Europe’s fertility rate to normal, these policies will undoubtedly jeopardize the progress made in gender equality because higher fertility rates may restrict women’s career opportunities, forcing them into traditional family roles. Even though there is still much dispute on the subject, developing comprehensive population strategies that address both low fertility and the root causes of low fertility would be among the most effective and efficient methods to respond to the significant demographic shifts in South Europe.