Europe needs more family-friendly policies and possibly more immigration as the number of working-age Europeans continues to shrink, a new report says.
The EU calls for more family-oriented policies to boost birth rates
The European Commission document says the EU's population would already be in decline were it not for immigration.
Falling birth rates and growing numbers of elderly threaten to have a dramatic impact across the EU, it says.
By 2030 the EU is likely to have 35 million people over 80 - double today's figure - but 18 million fewer children.
"It is time to act now," said EU social affairs commissioner Vladimir Spidla.
The report - aimed at kick-starting the debate on demographic change across the EU - says immigration from outside the EU could help mitigate the ageing problem between now and 2025.
It warns that immigration alone is not enough, but "ever larger migrant flows may be needed" to meet labour demands and help ensure prosperity.
To offset the loss of working-age people, the report says the EU will need an average employment rate of over 70%.
It says the changes have major implications for prosperity, living standards and relations between the generations.
"This development will affect almost every aspect of our lives, for example the way businesses operate and work is being organised, our urban planning, the design of flats, public transport, voting behaviour and the infrastructure of shopping possibilities in our cities," said Mr Spidla.
"All age groups will be affected as people live longer and enjoy better health, the birth rate falls and our workforce shrinks."
The choices available to prospective parents are a key factor in determining birth rates, the report says, highlighting late access to employment, job instability and expensive housing.
Incentives such as family benefits, parental leave, child care, equal pay can have a positive impact on the birth rate and increase employment, especially among women.
"Politics alone cannot solve the problem", said Mr Spidla. "They have to go hand-in-hand with a picture in society that does not stamp women who re-enter the labour market after maternity leave as 'bad mothers' and men that take care of children as 'softies'."
The report also indicates that:
- The EU's fertility rate fell to 1.48 children per woman in 2003, below the 2.1 level needed to replace the population
- The EU population will fall from 469.5 million in 2025 to 468.7 million in 2030
- The US population, by contrast, will increase by 25.6% between 2000 and 2025
- The ratio of dependent young and old people to people of working age will increase from 49% in 2005 to 66% in 2030.
The European Commission says it wants to open up the debate on the issues, leading to a conference in Brussels in July bringing together demographic experts, government ministers and policymakers.