April 8, 2015 by Bill Johnson
COPENHAGEN — Twenty-five Danish 13- and 14-year-olds gathered in a circle to talk about sex. This was going to be awkward.
One student surveyed her red nails while a classmate checked his cellphone. When the discussion turned to masturbation, a girl pointed across the room toward a boy who was already chortling, and then she started to cover her own giggles by cupping a hand over her mouth.
“It’s O.K. to laugh,” said the instructor, 29-year-old Andreas Beck Kronborg, who looked young enough to be an older brother. “We’re going to talk about stuff that’s embarrassing.”
Recently, Sex and Society, a nonprofit group that provides much of Denmark’s sex education, adjusted its curriculum. The group no longer has a sole emphasis on how to prevent getting pregnant but now also talks about pregnancy and sex in a more positive light.
It is all part of a not-so-subtle push in Europe to encourage people to have more babies. Denmark, like a number of European countries, is growing increasingly anxious about low birthrates. Those concerns have only been intensified by the region’s financial and economic crisis, with high unemployment rates among the young viewed as discouraging potential parents.
The Italian health minister described Italy as a “dying country” in February. Germany has spent heavily on family subsidies but has little to show for it. Greece’s depression has further stalled its birthrate. And in Denmark, the birthrate has been below the so-called replacement rate needed to keep a population from declining — just over two children per woman — since the early 1970s.
“For many, many years, we only talked about safe sex, how to prevent getting pregnant,” said Marianne Lomholt, the national director of Sex and Society. “Suddenly we just thought, maybe we should actually also tell them about how to get pregnant.”
The demographic shift is more pressing in Europe than almost any other major region, save Japan. There are an estimated 28 Europeans 65 or older for every 100 residents ages 20 to 64, almost twice the world average, according to the United Nations, and compared with 24.7 for the United States. By the end of the century, the United Nations expects the European figure to double.
Such trends will transform societies, potentially reducing economic growth and increasing stress on public pension systems and requiring more elder care. Japan already faces existential questions in a country where adult diaper sales are beginning to eclipse those of baby diapers.
But there is not a consensus about the impact of demographics. Some see a natural maturing of developed societies. Others see disaster ahead, because with fewer workers and more retirees, the active work force faces an increased burden to sustain social programs.
Productivity gains over time, though, can make up for such population stresses. Declining birthrates can also lead to labor shortages, and Germany has faced a gap in skilled labor. But that is hardly an issue now for much of Europe, which is mired in high unemployment.
“The policy agenda is much more complicated than people often think,” said Hans Timmer, chief economist for Europe and Central Asia at the World Bank. “There is this opportunity for higher per capita income, even if overall income is not growing as fast as in other countries.”
Recent efforts to increase birthrates around the world have been creative, if not necessarily effective. President Vladimir V. Putin declared 2008 the Year of the Family in Russia, and his political party employed touches like a curving park bench designed to get couples to slide closer together. There was a double-entendre-laden Mentos commercial in Singapore featuring a rapper urging residents to do their civic duty with lines like, “I’m a patriotic husband, you my patriotic wife. Lemme book into ya camp and manufacture a life.”
Read more: Sex Education in Europe Turns to Urging More Births