London (CNSNews.com) - Officials at a U.N. conference on ageing have urged Europeans to reproduce faster to head off future social and economic problems.
Anna Diamantopoulou, social affairs commissioner for the European Union, told delegates to the U.N. Second World Assembly on Ageing in Madrid that a higher birth rate would be needed to counter an "alarming" rise in the proportion of elderly people.
"The first problem is that we are not replacing our populations, with low birth rates causing a growing distortion in our demographic structures," she said. "The second problem is that we are allowing, even encouraging, people to have shorter working lives, just at a time when they are fit and able to work even longer."
Diamantopoulou said European countries needed to bring populations "back into balance" if governments expected to be able provide pensions and health care to the elderly in the future.
"And we need to take a much more positive view on immigration if we are to deliver the improved quality of life that greater longevity should bring," she said.
She called for family-friendly policies in areas including childcare and work policies to kick-start European birth rates.
"Ultimately, we must create societies in which women and men will be able to have families without making massive personal and financial sacrifices," Diamantopoulou said.
EU statistics indicate that Europe's working population will begin to decrease dramatically in about 10 years.
On Monday, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan warned that the problems caused by ageing weren't strictly a "first world issue" and that developing countries would also struggle to support ageing populations.
"The world is undergoing an unprecedented demographic transformation," Annan said. "Over the next 50 years, the older population of the developing world is expected to multiply by four."
U.N. statistics indicate that one-fifth of the world's population will be over age 60 by the year 2050.
Population growth questioned
Conservative groups said statements made at the weeklong conference flew in the face of conventional wisdom on population growth, even though organizations such as UNFPA have taken the lead in trumpeting warnings about a future "population explosion."
Robert Sassone, an expert on population issues with the Virginia-based World Life League, said that recent fertility studies may soon force the U.N. to revise its future population forecasts downward.
"We know that Europe is losing population," he said. "In low-fertility countries, there are no areas where fertility is increasing. There are no ethnic and religious groups where fertility is increasing - it's declining everywhere."
The U.N. has revised its fertility projections twice since 1998, but has not used the new projections to compute future population curves, Sassone said, noting that the world's population could be decreasing by 2030 if current trends continue. The official U.N. figures predict that world population will rise for decades after that.
Sassone said he has questioned U.N. officials and other population experts on what might cause fertility levels to rise, but hasn't received satisfactory answers. He speculated that the UNFPA continues to cling to old population projections because otherwise "they'd lose hundreds of thousands of dollars each year."
Meanwhile, the United States is resisting language in a draft plan on ageing to be adopted at the conference because it apparently condemns Israel. U.S. officials are reportedly objecting to a proposal to include a reference to elderly people affected by "foreign occupation."
Last year, a U.N. racism conference in South Africa ended in acrimony after the U.S. and Israel walked out over similar declarations.
E-mail a news tip to Mike Wendling.
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