AN UNTAPPED ASSET
Over the past generation, western Europe has fallen behind in its long-term economic competition with the United States. Since 1980, the United States' total GDP growth has outpaced that of the EU-15 (the 15 states that belonged to the European Union then) by an average of 0.8 percent per year. Social and economic policies are, of course, partly responsible for western Europe's economic deceleration. But demographic trends have also had a major influence. As is widely recognized and commonly bemoaned, the population of western Europe is steadily aging, and the region's birthrate, looking ever more anemic, is well below the replacement level. The specter haunting western Europe today is the prospect of inexorable demographic decline.
But whatever the demographic challenges, the economic implications of western Europe's population outlook are by no means unremittingly bleak. Western Europe's aging population is exceptionally healthy. As a result, western Europeans are more capable of remaining productive into their advanced years now than they used to be, and perhaps even more so than their American counterparts.
Western Europe could reap economic benefits from the healthy aging of its population. But to capitalize on these incipient opportunities, western Europeans will have to change the way they choose to live and work today. If they hope to remain economically competitive in the years ahead -- and wish to enjoy continuing improvements in living standards -- western Europeans must face the continent's new demographic realities squarely. Otherwise, they will in fact be resigning themselves to slow growth, stagnation, or even long-term relative decline.
In 2005, the population of western Europe was larger than that of the United States by nearly 100 million people; by 2030, it is expected to be greater by just 35 million. Whereas the U.S. population is anticipated to grow by over 65 million during that period (implying a robust rate of increase of about 0.8 percent per year), western Europe's population is expected to remain virtually stagnant (growing by less than one percent over the entire 25-year period).
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