2017-04-18 20:40:00 UTC
After Economic Crisis, Low Birthrates Challenge Southern Europe
By LIZ ALDERMAN, APRIL 16, 2017, NY Times
ATHENS As a longtime fertility doctor, Minas Mastrominas has
helped couples in Greece give birth to 1000s of bouncing babies.
But recently, disturbing trends have escalated at his clinic.
Couples insisting on only one child. Women tearfully renouncing
plans to conceive. And a surge in single-child parents asking
him to destroy all of their remaining embryos.
People are saying they cant afford more than one child, or
any at all, Dr. Mastrominas, a director at Embryogenesis, a
large in vitro fertilization center, said as videos of gurgling
toddlers played in the waiting room. After eight years of
economic stagnation, theyre giving up on their dreams.
Like women in the U.S. & other mature economies, women across
Europe have been having fewer children for decades. But
demographers are warning of a new hot spot for childlessness
on the Mediterranean rim, where Europes economic crisis hit
hardest. As couples grapple with a longer-than-expected stretch
of low growth, high unemployment, precarious jobs and financial
strain, they are increasingly deciding to have just one child
Approximately a fifth of women born in the 1970s are likely to
remain childless in Greece, Spain and Italy, a level not seen
since WWI, according to the Wittgenstein Center for Demography &
Global Human Capital, based in Vienna. And hundreds of thousands
of fertile young people have left for Germany, Britain and the
prosperous north, with little intent of returning unless the
Birthrates in the region have slid back almost to where they
were before the crisis emerged in 2008. Women in Spain had been
averaging 1.47 children per household, up from 1.24 in 2000.
But those gains have all but evaporated. In Italy, Portugal and
Greece, birthrates have reverted to about 1.3.
It adds to the growing concern about a demographic disaster in
the region. The current birthrates are well under the 2.1 rate
needed to keep a population steady, according to Eurostat.
Maria Karaklioumi, 43, a political pollster in Athens, decided
to forgo children after concluding she would not be able to offer
them the stable future her parents had afforded. Her sister has
a child, and Ms. Karaklioumi is painfully aware that her grand-
mother already had five grandchildren at her age.
Although she has a good job & masters degrees in politics and
economics, theres too much insecurity, Ms. Karaklioumi said.
Unemployment among women stands at 27%, compared with 20% for men.
I dont know if Ill have this job in two months or a year,
Ms. Karaklioumi added. If you dont see a light at the end of
the tunnel, how can you plan for the future?
Whether the demographic decline slows ultimately depends on the
financial fortunes in the south, where most countries suffered
double-dip recessions. Without significant improvement, the
region is trending toward some of the lowest birthrates in the
world, which will accelerate stress on pension and welfare
systems and crimp growth as a shrinking work force competes with
the rest of Europe and the world.
While dwindling populations threaten all of Europe, the really
serious problem is that some of the weakest countries are the
ones with the least favorable demographics, said Simon Tilford,
the deputy director of the Center for European Reform in London.
Lower birthrates in the south will mean weaker growth and
productivity, holding the birthrate down and producing more
fiscal problems. Over time, he added, it suggests that the
already divergent economic performance between Northern and
Southern Europe may become structural rather than cyclical.
The lower birthrates have been aggravated by fiscal pressures
that constrained countries from offering robust family support
programs. Whereas France offers a monthly family benefit of
130 euros (about $138) per child after the second child, Greece
provides just 40 euros.
Countries have recognized the problem & recently snapped into
action. Spain appointed a so-called sex czar in February to
forge a national fertility action plan and address population
declines in rural areas. Italy increased bonuses for having
babies & backed labor laws granting more flexible parental leave.
Greece, as the weakest economic link, does not have the same
options. Struggling to manage a recovery after nearly 8 years
of recession, the government cannot make the fertility drop a
top priority. Child tax breaks and subsidies for large families
were weakened under Greeces austerity-linked international
financial bailouts. State-financed child care became means-tested
and is hard to get for women seeking work. Greece now has the
lowest budget in the European Union for family & child benefits.
Grandparents have traditionally been the primary source of child
care in the south, but Greek austerity policies have reduced
pensions so much that the family safety net is unraveling, said
Dimitrios Karellas, the general secretary of the Labor & Social
Welfare Ministry in Greece. We need to allocate more money to
create the services needed for families & children, Mr. Karellas
said. But its hard to do amid the crisis.
Demographic challenges are not confined to Southern Europe.
Germany has battled a population drop since the 70s, when higher
education & new career opportunities for women lowered fertility
rates. After Communism, birthrates in Central and Eastern Europe
also fell. In the new millennium, an economic expansion helped
reverse those dynamics. But the financial crisis hit Europe
when birthrates in many countries had just started to rise
again, said Michaela Kreyenfeld of the Max Planck Institute for
Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany.
The impact is evident in communities across the European south,
where smaller towns are increasingly hollowed out and schools
emptied. In Tempi, a verdant region in central Greece, many
primary schools and kindergartens have closed since 2012 as
parents had fewer children and young Greeks left the country,
said Xanthi Zisaki, a municipal councilor. Kindergarten enroll-
ment has also slumped elsewhere in Greece & around Spain & Italy.
While migration from small towns is nothing new, the financial
crisis is clearly the problem, Mrs. Zisaki said. There are
simply fewer children every year.
The economic issues also amplified existing trends. Working women
were already postponing childbirth. As the recession dragged on,
they delayed even more for fear of jeopardizing work opportunities,
a situation that has exacerbated fertility problems.
Progress on gender equality eroded in Greece during the crisis,
according to the European Parliament. Women reported being
regularly rejected for jobs if they were of childbearing age, or
having contracts that were involuntarily converted to part time
if they became pregnant.
As the crisis persisted, Anastasia Economopoulou, 42, pushed back
her dream of having several children. She was fearful of losing
her job as a saleswoman at a retail branding company after
managers said they did not want women who would get pregnant.
Eventually, she turned to in vitro fertilization treatments at
Dr. Mastrominass clinic. But her salary slumped by 30% as
company sales fell, & her husbands by more, cutting the number
of treatments she can afford. I asked them not to put in many
embryos because we can only manage one, she said.
For a country like Greece, some see the shifting demographic
trends as a blessing in disguise. As long as Greece has high
unemployment, it may be good luck that theres not a baby boom,
said Byron Kotzamanis, a demography professor at the University
of Thessaly. If there was, he added, we might have more
problems right now.
But such optimism will not make up for the frightening conse-
quences for countries struggling to replenish people. If we
dont fix this, in 20 years well be a country of old people,
said Mr. Karellas, the welfare official. The fact is, its a