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Demographic challenges for Europe

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Francesco C. Billari
Full Professor of Demography
Department of Decision Sciences
Director of Carlo F. Dondena Center for Research on Social Dynamics
Bocconi University
Via Sarfatti 25, 20136 Milan, Italy

Bocconi University

While the emphasis on the role of demographic change for economic and social dynamics has been increasing during the last years, some of the current scientific debate suffers from some problems. First of all, the issue is often tackled within the boundaries of a specific discipline (e.g., demography, economics, social policy), often without the interdisciplinary approach that is crucial when analysing the causes and consequences of demographic change. Second, the interaction between science and policy-makers on the one side shapes perhaps too much the research agenda, on the other side has not been aimed at producing sufficient evidence on the impact of policies in this field. This problem can be turned into a challenge not only for policy-makers but for researchers, as Europe gives great possibilities for analyses given its cultural, economic and institutional variation┐offering an advantage as a field, for instance, compared to the U.S. More specifically, we signal four main research question attached to a key theme on ┐Demographic Challenges for Europe┐.

1. What are the causes of demographic change in Europe?
Although this question has already been asked several times, there is no clear answer to the question. In our opinion, a big part of the problem is that separate disciplines have insisted on a specific explanation, while the answer involves several factors. The innovative aspect here should be a focus on the assessment of the relative importance of each potential explanatory factor (e.g., cultural change, economic dynamics, institutional settings, social policies) on each type of demographic outcome (family and fertility, migration, health and mortality).

2. What are the consequences of demographic change in Europe?
Most of the debate has focused on macro-level consequences of demographic change. For instance, consequences on the demographic composition per se, on the economy and markets and on government spending. Even in this field, a greater use of interdisciplinarity would be an advantage. Nevertheless, the micro-level consequences of demographic change (e.g., at the level of individuals, couples, households) have only rarely been investigated so far. Examples of questions include the following. What will the consequences on individual well-being be? What the consequences on children?

3. What are the effects of policies on the causes and consequences of demographic change?
The literature in at least four disciplines (demography, economics, social policy, sociology) has tried to help illuminating the link between policies and demographic change (i.e. whether policies have an effect on demographic change) and, to a lesser extent, the link between policies and the consequences of demographic change (i.e. whether policies can mitigate adverse effects of demographic change). So far, we lack analyses that are based on solid methodology to assess the causal impact of policies. While the methodological literature on impact evaluation is now well developed, analyses based on this approach are almost absent when we speak about developed countries. It is high time to adopt an approach based on the latest methodologies for impact evaluation (e.g. social experiments, natural experiments, matching) to assess the causal effect of policies related to demographic change.

4. To what extent is migration the solution to the demographic challenges of Europe?
There has been a debate, in the demographic literature, concerning the possibility of ┐replacement migration┐, i.e. whether migrants can solve the population problems potentially induced by low fertility. So far, there has been a negative answer, but recent signs cast doubts on this: it seems that migration is heavily contributing to demographic equilibrium exactly in countries with low fertility. The second order question is whether this demographic change has adverse effects on economy and society. Here, again, answers are mixed and often suffer from a narrow disciplinary perspective. There is wide scope for research on this topic, and given the fast variation in time and space that migration exhibits, Europe provides a natural field of investigation.

Relevance to future of European societies
The importance of demographic change and of the challenges attached to it is undisputed at the European level. General discussions on the potential decline of Europe often focus on demographic change. Several communications by the European Commission (in different DGs) are focused on this issue, and ┐Demography and the social situation┐ is one of the key topics for the DG Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities.

The Treaty witnesses the relevance of this topic for the future of Europe, insofar as it states in Article 143 that "the Commission shall draw up a report each year on progress in achieving the objectives of Article 136, including the demographic situation in the Community." FP7 has targeted demographic change.
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