Timing is everything, even in apocalyptic doom-mongering. When my book America Alone came out in 2006, the conventional wisdom was that its argument about Europe’s demographic death spiral was “alarmist” (The Economist). Seven years on, it’s so non-alarmist that even the Washington Post is running stories about the Continent’s “plummeting” birth rates. The Post’s focus was on a small corner of the Portuguese interior, wherein their reporter met Maria Jesus Rodrigues, 87, who recently moved into the old folks’ home from her nearby village. The youngest resident is 57. Not in the old folks’ home, but in the village. That’s to say, the entire parish qualifies for membership in the AARP, which regards you as a potentially “retired person” from the age of 50.
“Retirement” is an invention of the 20th century, and will not long outlive it. When everyone’s a senior, nobody is — because, if there are no young people around to pave the roads, police the streets, weed your garden, fix your roof, give you a bed bath, and change your feeding tube, you’re going to have to do it yourself. In The Children of Men, P. D. James’s dystopian novel of a world turned mysteriously barren, the roads are potholed and broken, and the buildings crumbling, for want of a sufficiently able-bodied population to maintain them. By 2021, the year Lady James’s story is set in, much of inland Portugal will be approaching the same condition — not through biological affliction, but through a kind of silent mass consensus that this is no longer a world worth bringing children into. “A country without children is a nation without a future,” warned Aníbal Cavaco Silva, Portugal’s president, in 2007, since when the fertility rate has nosedived. Why would you have a kid in Portugal? The country’s youth-unemployment rate is over 40 percent. In Spain it’s 57 percent, and in Greece just shy of 63 percent.