Across Europe, we are having fewer babies. In many places, such as the deserted town of Hoyerswerda in east Germany, the falling birth rate is already taking its toll
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A block of high-density housing is demolished in Hoyerswerda, Germany, which has lost half its population in the last 20 years. Photograph: Alamy
Hoyerswerda, a town two hours beyond Dresden close to the Polish border, has lost half its population in the last 20 years. It is an ageing ghost town. The young and those with qualifications have left – young women especially. And those that remain have given up having babies. Hoyerswerda (known to its citizens as Hoy Woy) seems a town without a purpose, in a corner of Europe without a future.
On the windswept roof of the Lausitz Tower, the town's only landmark, I meet Felix Ringel. A young German anthropologist studying at Cambridge University, he has passed up chances taken by his friends to investigate the rituals of Amazon tribes or Mongolian peasants. As we survey the empty plots of fenced scrub below, he explains that the underbelly of his own country seemed weirder and far less studied than those exotic worlds.
In its heyday in the 60s, Hoyerswerda was a model community in communist East Germany, a brave new world attracting migrants from all over the country. They dug brown coal from huge open-cast mines on the plain around the town. There was good money and two free bottles of brandy a month. But the fall of the Berlin Wall changed all that. It was here in 1989, in the towns and cities of Saxony, that the people of the east started moving west to capitalism and freedom. At the head of the queue were the young, especially young women.
Under communism, East German women worked more, and were often better educated, than the more conservative western hausfrau. But when their jobs disappeared in the early 90s, hundreds of thousands of them, encouraged by their mothers, took their school diplomas and CVs and headed west to cities such as Heidelberg. The boys, however, seeing their fathers out of work, often just gave up. In adulthood, they form a rump of ill-educated, alienated, often unemployable men, most of them unattractive mates – a further factor in the departure of young women.
Reiner Klingholz, director of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, calls it a "male emergency" – but this is not just an emergency for men. The former people's republic is staring into a demographic abyss, because its citizens don't want babies any more.
"There has been nothing comparable in world peacetime history," says the French demographer Jean-Claude Chesnais. After the Berlin Wall came down, millions of East Germans who stayed behind decided against producing another generation. Their fertility more than halved. In 1988, 216,000 babies were born in East Germany; in 1994, just 88,000 were born. The fertility rate worked out at 0.8 children per woman. Since then it has struggled up to around 1.2, but that is still only just over half the rate needed to maintain the population. About a million homes have been abandoned, and the government is demolishing them as fast as it can. Left behind are "perforated cities", with huge random chunks of wasteland. Europe hasn't seen cityscapes like this since the bombing of the second world war.
And nowhere has emptied as much as Hoyerswerda. In the 80s, it had a population of 75,000 and the highest birth rate in East Germany. Today, the town's population has halved. It has gone from being Germany's fastest-growing town to its fastest-shrinking one. The biggest age groups are in their 60s and 70s, and the town's former birth clinic is an old people's home. Its population pyramid is upturned – more like a mushroom cloud.
In a school in a partly demolished suburb known simply as Area Nine, I meet Nancy, a tattooed and quietly spoken social worker. Forty years ago, her parents were among the newcomers: her mother was a midwife, her father a train driver. "There were modern flats and services here then. It was a prestige development. When you asked the kids what they wanted to do when they grew up, they had ambitions to drive buses or work in the power station. But now parents find it very difficult to encourage their children when they have no jobs or prospects themselves. My friends have all left. I'd like to stay, but I have a three-year-old daughter and the schools are no good any more. I'll probably go too."
Further out, in Area 10, I come across Marco. He is 27. "Only criminals live in this neighbourhood now," he says. The child of an alcoholic mother and a violent father, Marco spent five years in the town orphanage and now does odd jobs to pay off debts. "I've never experienced a family. I'd love to have my own. But this place is empty for me. I get so angry . . . I'd like to go to America when I am out of my debt; that's my dream." The dream of a doomed man in a dying town.
Across the rest of Germany, Hoyerswerda is regarded as a feral wasteland – complete with wolves. Slinking in from Poland and the Czech Republic, they are finding empty spaces where once there were apartment blocks and mines. And the wolves, at least, are staying. A few kilometres down the road, near the tiny town of Spreewitz, wolf enthusiast Ilka Reinhardt can't believe his luck: "We have more wolves than we have had in 200 years." The badlands of former East Germany are going "back to nature". And Europeans should be worried, for some fear that eastern Germany is, as it was back in the 1960s, a trailblazer for the demographic future of the continent.
Europe's population is, right now, peaking, after more than six centuries of continuous growth. With each generation reproducing only half its number, this looks like the start of a continent-wide collapse in numbers. Some predict wipeout by 2100.
Half a century ago, Europe was basking in a postwar baby boom, with 2.8 babies per woman in Britain, 2.9 in France, and 3.2 in the Netherlands. Then levels sank back. Demographers assumed that fertility would settle down at about the level required to maintain the population – slightly more than two babies per woman. The trouble is, nobody told Europe's women.
In the real world, the swinging 60s saw a great deal of sex and not a lot of procreation. By the mid-80s, alarm bells were ringing. "Europe is entering a demographic winter," declared demographer Gérard-François Dumont. Ron Lesthaeghe at the Free University of Brussels blamed "post-materialistic values, in which self-development becomes the primary aim".
A resolution at the European parliament in 1984 warned that Europe's share of the world's population was set to halve between 1950 and 2000, and was likely to halve again as soon as 2025. This trend, it said, "will have a decisive effect on the significance of the role Europe will play in the world in future decades".
The 20th century began with western Europe producing 10 million babies a year; by the end it couldn't manage 6 million – 2 million fewer than it needs to maintain the population in the long term. That baby famine is now heading into a second generation; it is no longer a blip. Demographically, Europe is living on borrowed time. It already badly needs foreign hands to keep its societies and economies functioning, and should stop pretending otherwise.
Thirty years ago, 23 European countries had fertility above replacement levels; now none does, with only France, Iceland, Albania, Britain and Ireland anywhere near. And last year's economic downturn threatens to depress fertility further. "There is a good bit of evidence that hard economic times cause people to delay having babies or not have one altogether," says Carl Haub, from the Population Reference Bureau in the US.
In Germany, where fertility has been low for more than a generation, demographers report a large decline in the desired family size. "Today, 48% of German men under 40 agree that you can have a happy life without children. When their fathers were asked the same question at the same age, only 15% agreed," says Europe's top demographer, Wolfgang Lutz of the Vienna Institute of Demography. Thirty per cent of German women today say they don't intend to have children at all.
Once a country has very low fertility for a generation, it begins to run out of young women able to gestate future generations. Germany is there already: it has only half as many children under 10 as adults in their 40s. Demographer Peter McDonald calculates that if Italy gets stuck with recent fertility levels, and fails to top up with foreign migrants, it will lose 86% of its population by the end of the century, falling to 8 million compared with today's 56 million. Spain will lose 85%, Germany 83% and Greece 74%.
Jesse Ausubel, a futurologist at Rockefeller University in New York, fears "the twilight of the west" as Europe's population thins and ages. "Civilisations have simply melted away because of poor reproductive rates of the dominant class . . . The question may now be whether, underneath the personal decision to procreate, lies a subliminal social mood influencing the process. The subliminal mood of Europe could now be for a blackout after 1,000 years on stage."
Far-fetched? Maybe. But population historian David Reher told the journal Science in 2006 that, "As population and tax revenues decline in Europe, urban areas could well be filled with empty buildings and crumbling infrastructure . . . surrounded by large areas which look more like what we might see in some science-fiction movies."
David, come and see Hoyerswerda. The future is already here – complete with wolves.
©Fred Pearce 2010. Extracted from Peoplequake: Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash by Fred Pearce