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 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.”
In some countries, the issue can have a broad effect on policy debates.
Zsolt Darvas, a senior fellow at Bruegel, a research organization based in Brussels, said the shrinking population issue had contributed to an aversion in Germany to public spending, particularly at a time of economic uncertainty. The link between the two topics has been made more than once by Jens Weidmann, president of Germany’s Bundesbank.
“If you listen to the German argument — why Germany doesn’t want to have a larger budget deficit now to stimulate the economy — the argument they are always saying is that Germany has a very bad demographic outlook so they don’t want to burden future generations,” Mr. Darvas said.
Anxiety in Danish society has spawned no shortage of creativity. One priest made headlines for his enthusiastic writings on sex and eroticism. An entrepreneur created a pro-procreation dating site.
Spies, a Danish travel company, began a “Do It for Denmark!” promotional campaign last year aimed at increasing getaway bookings to European capitals. A racy commercial featured a young Danish couple going to a hotel in Paris to do their part to lift the nation’s birthrate. “Can sex save Denmark’s future?” the campaign asked, claiming that Danes had 46 percent more sex on holidays.
“The reaction was very positive,” said Eva Lundgren, head of marketing at Spies, which is part of the Thomas Cook group. She added that the frequent Danish media coverage of the issue made it a natural topic to work with. “There has been for some years now some anxiousness about how we are going to support the growing elderly mass of people,” she said.
Christine Antorini, the Danish education minister, said in a statement that the government was now seeking “a stronger focus on a broad and positive approach to health and sexuality, where sexual health covers both joys and risks associated with sexual behavior.”
Perhaps all of the attention is starting to bear fruit. New statistics show about a thousand more births last year than the year before, the first increase in the Danish birthrate in four years.
“I cannot say it is because of us,” Ms. Lomholt of Sex and Society said, laughing. “We have just started having a focus on it.”
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