By Jeffrey Stinson, USA TODAY
LONDON — Europe is in the midst of a baby boomlet after fretting for two decades that European women weren't having enough children to replenish graying populations and sustain economic growth.
At least 16 countries, stretching from Iceland to Italy, saw modest upticks in their birthrates from 2004 to 2006.
Roughly half the continent has reversed declining fertility rates or halted their slide, says William Butz, president of the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau (PRB), which tracks worldwide population trends.
The increases are small, but the trend bucks a 20-year decline that had politicians, economists and church leaders sounding alarms about a shortfall of workers to pay the pensions of the post-World War II baby boomers starting to reach retirement age.
The European Commission warned last year that falling rates had the potential to cut European Union economic growth as far out as 2050. Stagnant or declining rates could shrink the number of working-age Europeans by 20 million a year over the next 15 years, the commission predicted. The result: Europe would go from four working-age residents to two for each retiree by 2050.
Pope Benedict XVI warned in March that low birthrates "cause enormous difficulties for social cohesion."
The slightest increases have been enough to pop champagne corks:
• When Germany reported a miniscule uptick of 600 births in the first quarter, Ursula von der Leyen, federal minister for Family Affairs, said the numbers "filled me with delight."
•The Scotsman newspaper heralded "a new baby boom" after first-quarter data showed 646 more babies were born in Scotland than in the same period in 2006.
•France's health minister declared government financial incentives for new parents a success in January, when statistics showed that women there gave birth to more children in 2006 than in any single year since 1981. France pays a working parent about $1,000 a month for a year to stay at home to raise a third child.
Demographers such as Butz are reluctant to celebrate. "Something is going on," he says. "The uptick is real, but we don't know what is causing it or whether it will last."
The boomlets aren't taking place everywhere. Fertility rates in Spain and Portugal are relatively flat. Rates in the Netherlands, Norway and Austria have slipped.
The USA's fertility rate in 2005 was higher than any country in Europe except Iceland, according to PRB tracking.
Birthrates in Scandinavian nations are among Europe's highest. Those countries give up to 18 months of parental leave and free or subsidized childcare, in addition to paying working mothers to take time off.
Nations with low rates have increasingly turned to more generous payouts. Last month, Spain approved payments of $3,400 for every new child. This year, Germany began Elterngeld — "parents' money" payments. New parents can get 67% of their salaries for a year to stay home with newborns.
To leave the list, send your request by email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.