The Fortunate Decline

How does the future of the V4 look from a demographer’s perspective?

Krzysztof Iszkowski
17 May 2017

The good thing about demography is that it knows the future. All the people who are going to constitute the labour force in 2035 have been already born. The number of new retirees in, say, 2057 is also almost certain. A “black swan” like a war, pandemic or massive migration can obviously render those estimations incorrect, but the overall risk of being wrong – if you are a demographer – is much lower than that suffered by economists, political scientists, climatologists, engineers and science fiction writers. How does the future of the V4 look from a demographer’s perspective?

The answer is simple: we will be fewer than we are. A sudden decrease in number of births was the most consequential result of the economic transition and social reshuffle in the last decade of the 20th century. The explanations for this differ. For apologists of free-market reforms, the Central Europeans of the day took advantage of the new possibilities: they pursued dreams of higher education, embarked on rewarding careers, leisurely travelled around the world and – thanks to cultural changes and medical progress – gained control over their fertility. The critics say that people simply became too poor and anxious to procreate. Since those explanations seem to refer to various social strata, both sides might have a point. In any case, the total fertility rate (TFR, the average number of children per woman) dropped between 1990 and 2000 in all four Visegrad countries. From 1.90 to 1.15 in Czechia, 1.87 to 1.32 in Hungary, 2.06 to 1.37 in Poland and from 2.09 to 1.30 in Slovakia. The impact of those changes cannot be undone: couples who decided to have just one child in the 1990s, should not expect to have four grandchildren (a statistical norm in a stable population) in the 2020s.

Over the past decade, the V4 governments have tried to reverse this demographic trend through a number of policies encouraging people to bear more children. Most took the form of financial incentives while improving access to childcare played a lesser role than in Western Europe. Until 2015, the natalist policies brought a moderate success in Czechia and Hungary. At the moment of writing, the Polish government is eagerly looking forward to the newest TFR data which should reflect the impact of a generous benefit paid since 2016 to all families with two or more children. The program, criticized by economists because of its high cost to the state budget, makes sense from a demographer’s perspective: since in developed countries many couples decide to have just one child, it is completely valid to use financial incentives to make them think twice about that decision. However, even if the scheme succeeds, it will not put Poland back on the path of demographic expansion. The reason is simple: there are too few prospective mothers. This can be seen by a simple comparison of the number of women who are about to leave the childbearing age (45-49 years) with that of women entering it (15-19 years). In 2016, the younger group was smaller than the older one by 16%. With regards to the other Visegrad countries , the differences were even more pronounced: 20% in Slovakia, 29% in Hungary and staggering 34% in Czechia.

The demographic decline is not necessarily a bad thing. The fourth industrial revolution, already underway, will destroy many jobs, including those occupied by clerical and skilled workers. Societies with a shrinking labour force, such as the V4, will cope with the resulting unemployment better than those where the working-age population is growing. Secondly, the fact that generations born after 1990 are smaller than their predecessors helps intergenerational accumulation of wealth and thus provides Central Europeans with a safety net in the upcoming era of low demand for labour. Last but not least, with no or few siblings competing for support during student years, young people in the region are relatively well-educated, which increases their chances of joining the small and well remunerated creative class, while the majority of graduates are likely to constitute the new middle class – the European service sector.

Krzysztof Iszkowski holds MA in International Economics and PhD in Sociology. From 2012 to 2014 he was the director of “Plan Zmian”, a think-tank for progressive policies affiliated with a Polish socioliberal party Twój Ruch. He has also served as socio-economic analyst for the European Commission. The article expresses personal views.

The article expresses personal views.