A good/bad time to stop having babies

Here follows a bit of demographic speculation. It’s guesswork right now, but we’ll know in a year or two if I’m right.

Interesting Fact #1: birthrates tend to drop during recessions, and the drop tends to correlate with both the severity of the recession and the speed of its onset. The current recession is looking to be a bad one, and it happened pretty quickly, so we can reasonably expect a sharp drop in birth rates. I say “expect” because it hasn’t happened yet — human biology being what it is, we won’t see the first effects until nine months after most people became aware of the recession. This summer, more or less.

— Makes sense, right? Babies are expensive; more to the point, babies limit your options. They make it harder to move to a different city, change careers, stop working for a while. When times are hard and uncertain, babies become a luxury. For individuals and families, a recession is a good time to put childbearing on hold.


Interesting Fact #2: all across Communist Eastern Europe, birth rates declined slowly through the 1970s and ’80s… and then crashed after 1990, dropping to very low levels and staying there through most of the decade. In some countries they bounced back a bit, in others not, but in almost all cases there’s a big “birth gap” from about 1991 until at least 1997, and often later. This is in contrast to, say, Germany or Italy or Greece, where birthrates declined more smoothly.

Put these two facts together, and there’s a problem.
See, a country’s total birthrate depends on two things. One is the fertility of its women — especially its women in peak childbearing years, 18-35. The other is the total number of women in those childbearing years. If your country has very few young women, then the country as a whole can’t have a high birth rate, even if every young woman is having lots of kids.

Still with me? Well, consider: Eastern Europe saw birthrates crash after 1990. That means that, all across the region, the number of fertile women is starting to decline sharply. In Russia and Ukraine, Bulgaria and Serbia and Hungary, there just aren’t many 18 year olds relative to the total population. And year by year, as the “empty” birth cohorts of the 1990s move into their peak child-bearing years, the number of fertile women will continue to decline.

Okay, this isn’t news. Demographic projections have taken it into account for years. But now there’s a new factor: the recession.

What’s likely to happen is that the countries of Eastern Europe will be hit with a double punch: few childbearing women, and those women having few children. Demographically, the recession is coming at the very worst possible time: roughly one generation after birthrates crashed across the region. This suggests that over the next couple of years, countries like Russia and Ukraine are going to see record low birthrates in both absolute and relative terms. This, in turn, suggests that starting next year, long-term demographic projections for those countries are going to start nosing downwards.

Now, there is one glimmer of hope here. Across most of Eastern Europe, women still tend to start having children sooner than their Western sisters. The average age of birthing mothers in Germany is 29.5; in Sweden, it’s over 30; in Bulgaria, it’s about 25. So there is some slack, demographically speaking. If the recession is short, young women can simply pick up where they would have, only a year or two later. The babies not born in 2010 might just be born in 2012 instead. In this respect, the East is better off than the West; countries where the average birthing mother is already over 30 don’t have this margin.

But if the hard times drag on… well, some of the demographic projections for Eastern Europe were pretty drastic already. By the 2030s, Romania’s population is supposed to shrink by about 10%, Bulgaria’s by over 15%, Ukraine’s by roughly 20%. The recession is likely to make those numbers even more alarming.

So: a good time for individual women and families to stop having babies. But for their countries, maybe not so much.

41 thoughts on “A good/bad time to stop having babies

  1. The only weak point of this article is that in most of the Eastern European countries family planning was banned before 1990. So that is why the no of childbirth was much higher, you couldn’t buy pills, not to mention abortion.

  2. I don’t know about other countries, but in Hungary family planning was not banned… I’ve just read that from the end of the 50’s abortions were more or less freely available which then partly lead to Hungary producing the lowest birth rate in the world in 1962. Then in 1967 child support payments became available which pushed the birth rate up to close to 2.5 in 1975. It’s been downhill ever since.

  3. There are exceptions to that Interesting Fact #1. During the last depression in Finland, there were two notable fertility peaks. The fertility managed to hit 1,85 both in 1992 and 1994, at the darkest moments of the recession. Back in the 1980s, the figure had, on average, remained somewhere around 1,5.

    And no, even that first peak in 1992 cannot be explained by any nine-months hiatus resulting from pregnancies during the last boom year. The Finnish economy was in dire straits as early as in 1990, and the unemployment had skyrocketed already in 1990-1991. So, both fertility peaks, particulary the one in 1994, stand in total, absolute contrast to the proposed conventional wisdom that birthrates drop during recessions.

    Obviously, as soon as the Finnish economy started to recover in 1995, the birth rate started a downward slide and eventually crashed completely. The age cohort of 2000 – which was, economically speaking, arguably a Very Good Year – was the smallest since the Great Famine of 1868.

    The weird demographic twist has obviously generated interest among Finnish researchers, but no one has managed to come up with suitable explanation. The rough-and-ready explanation, proposed even by some supposedly serious demographic analysts is that well, when people are out of work, they obviously have more time to have sex. So far, however, no one has explained to me why unemployed people should also be more likely to forget contraception.

    A bit more plausible explanation is that the fertility peaks were specifically the result of the rising _female_ unemployment; i.e., those women who were out of work, but whose spouses still managed to make a living, decided to make use of their involuntary spare time and have children. Personally, I could believe this explanation.

    Then there are the politically-motivated slurs of welfare mothers, but we can forget those for the moment. But anyway; right now, history seems to be repeating itself, because the Finnish newspapers have reported a sudden rise in pregnancies once again.

    So, I wouldn’t get all that pessimistic about the East European fertility rates just yet. I’d imagine that a lot depends on exactly what kind of an impact the recession has on the social mores in various East European countries.

    Besides, it’s an equally recognized fact that those countries which are socially backward and economic basket-cases usually have the highest fertility rate of all.

    Tunde: I’m not sure what you’re talking about. Getting a legal abortion was not really all that difficult in the USSR after 1955; and getting an illegal abortion was even easier, to the extent that abortion was used as a method of family planning _instead_ of contraceptives, which were not readily available. And, needless to say, in Poland, getting an abortion was also relatively easier in the communist times than in the 1990s.


    J. J.

  4. “Besides, it’s an equally recognized fact that those countries which are socially backward and economic basket-cases usually have the highest fertility rate of all.”

    The Nordic countries haven’t usually been described as social backward and economic basket-cases, at least not in a European context.

    There’s an interesting split in Estonia that I’ve been meaning to blog about for a year, wherein ethnic Estonian women bear children on the Nordic pattern (high cohort fertility rate, relatively, frequently at relatively old age, as often outside of marriage as inside) but Russophones follow the general post-Communist pattern of low completed fertility combined with traditional ages of first childbearing and marriage patterns.

  5. Randy, since I specifically said “the highest fertility rate _of all_”, I think it should have been pretty obvious that I was making a reference to countries such as Mali, Uganda or Afghanistan.

    I don’t think that a fertility rate of seven children per woman can be regarded as a measure of social progress or economic success. I know that there are people in the various Laestadian congregations who would vehemently disagree with me, though.

    But if we want to use relative comparisons on the European regional level, fine. I’ll just note that both Norway and Iceland – those two Nordic countries with an exceptionally high fertility rate – are actually considered socially backward by Scandinavian standards; and these days, Iceland also happens to be an economic basket-case. It’s one of those small countries that’s staying afloat only because we’re giving them money.

    The Swedish fertility rate has declined and risen only recently, just like in Finland. And the Swedish figure is rather obviously skewed by immigration; considering that foreign-born women in Sweden have a rate of 2.2 against 1.6 of native Swedish ladies, I think that it’s pretty clear who’s tipping the scales. I’d imagine that the Danish statistics are more or less similar.

    Bottom line: as I said, I wouldn’t rush with any demographic predictions. Assuming that the recession would have a negative impact on the fertility rates of East European countries just may be assuming too much.

    There were serious demographic analysts back in the 1930s, who predicted that due to the bad effects of the Depression and the impending urbanization, the Finnish population could never rise above four million. It took less than a decade to prove them wrong.


    J. J.

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  7. Jussi, interesting information about the Finnish exceptions! I did not know about this.

    That said, I strongly suspect that Eastern Europeans in post-Communist countries will respond rather differently. The “female unemployment” model seems plausible to me; but if it’s correct, then it’s very unlikely to produce similar results in contemporary Ukraine or Bulgaria.

    The nice thing about this is, it’s testable. In three years we’ll know. So.

    Doug M.

  8. Make sure your women aren’t brainwashed by Feminism and your Birthrate will do just fine.

    Feminism = Population Control.

  9. “Feminism = Population Control.”

    There’s some twisted truth there, but I think you will find, based on my anecdotal experiences that the xUSSR isn’t all that feminist. I’ve not had much face time in Sweden and Iceland, but I would think they are relatively feminist compared to the xUSSR.


  10. Jussi,
    Norway and Iceland are considered socially backward in Scandinavia? How so?

  11. Virgil, I was being deliberately provocative. Norwegians themselves occasionally joke about it; I think it was Lise Myhre who said “there are still two countries in the world ruled by priests; Iran and Norway”.

    But if memory serves, a few years ago the Norwegians finally dropped the old legal requirement that at least 50% of the cabinet ministers should be baptized, active members of the Lutheran Church.

    Regarding the topic of fertility and abortions, there’s still some weirdness between the Nordic countries. For example, in Norway, abortion can be performed on demand during the first twelve weeks, whereas in Sweden, the limit is eighteen weeks (in Finland, it’s also twelve; assuming there are specific circumstances, the limit can be pushed further, up to twenty to twenty-four weeks, but this usually requires at least a statement from one or two treating physician).

    Still with me? All right, in Norway, there’s also a specific ban on identifying the gender of the baby before the twelfth week of the pregnancy. There are no such restrictions in Sweden, where, as noted, abortion can also be performed on demand still during the first weeks of the second trimester.

    An unintended consequence of this gap has been a peculiar kind of abortion tourism; that is, certain women from certain immigrant groups who are living in Norway have traveled to Sweden to perform gender-based abortions during their second trimester.


    J. J.

  12. Will, it all depends on just how you define “feminism”, which is a pretty goddamn broad tent in itself, especially when we’re talking in an international context. For example, radical German left-wing feminists have regarded prostitution as a legitimate career choice for independent women; their Swedish ideological sisters regard it as an abominable degradation of women.

    Also, at the risk of being branded a male chauvinist for bringing up a very ridiculous example; Swedish feminists have campaigned for introducing a visibly feminine “walk”-icon for pedestrian street lights, because, you know, that old male icon is apparently a symbol of gender discrimination. Finnish feminists have basically rolled their eyes at this proposal, wondering why their Swedish sisters bother to waste time and energy on such trivial matters.

    But anyway. Yes, I’ve had my fair share of experiences with feminist East European women, mostly Poles and Ukrainians. I wasn’t scarred for life, but it sure as hell came close.

    But I’m pretty sure that most of it was due to cultural and national barriers rather than gender barriers. To put it short, these women insisted that even as a man, I was supposed to have a _very strong opinion_ on some issues – in spite of the fact that in the country that I live in, those issues have already ceased to be issues, and a man isn’t actually required to have an opinion on them any more, because those issues now concern women’s rights and choices.

    (Did you know that in East Europe, a bachelor is, by the local feminist definition, either a misogynist or a homosexual? Well, now you know.)

    I don’t know what I should say. On balance, I’d imagine that the former communist countries are probably just as “feminist” as the Scandinavian countries – but their brand of feminism is just of a different kind. Considerably more backward in some respects, more radical in others, and totally on a different track in several.

    (Of course, a stereotypic male-chauvinist-definition would be simply that East European feminists dress better than their Scandinavian sisters.)


    J. J.

  13. OK here’s a London professional viewpoint.

    Birth rate goes up in a recession. All those career-minded women who either have lost their jobs, or think they are at risk of losing their jobs, try to get pregnant.

    Their payout for redundancy will be substantially increased should they be made redundant whilst on maternity leave or approaching. Because their employers (and their lawyers) know that this is legally a very dangerous area– it can count as discrimination under disability or gender and there is no limit on the penalty for either in employment law.

    In addition the recession lowers the opportunity cost of children in terms of lost bonus and lowered career expectations. Work just isn’t that lucrative in a recession.

    The ‘City Girl’ column in the London Paper evening freesheet made precisely these points.

    Finally if a woman is made redundant, then the cost of childcare is vastly lowered for the family. This is also, strangely, true if her husband or partner is made redundant now that ‘real men change nappies’.

    So at least in the early stages, recession is good for birth rates.

  14. I don’t think these factors will apply in Romania or Ukraine.

    Doug M.

  15. I agree with Douglas. Western Europe has extensive social benefits which job-less parents can use. Most (or even all) of Eastern Europe does not.

    Statistics Latvia just reported a 25% year-on-year drop in births in January 2009 (from 2310 in Jan 2008 to 1860 in Jan 2009).

    Caveat: Latvia is a small country and there is a lot of random fluctuations in monthly data. The data from previous months show some apparently random fluctuations of 10-15%. But there had not been random fluctuations of 25%.

  16. Hello Latvian Abroad, nice to see you over here.

    Doug, thanks a million for putting this up, I think it is all so important.

    “Now, there is one glimmer of hope here. Across most of Eastern Europe, women still tend to start having children sooner than their Western sisters.”

    Well, I’m not sure this is such a glimmer, since I think it really means we have more postponement in the pipeline, as they “converge”.

    However, I have a better idea. It is called Quantitative Easing. Basically, I have put forward a series of three proposals to address the crisis. Let me run through them again:

    a) EU Bonds
    b) Euro membership for the East
    c) Quantitative Easing from the ECB

    There are two more proposals to come:

    d) A very tight pact for reform across the whole Union
    e) That we address our demographic deficits at the same time as we fix the banking system. I cannot imagine that doing one without the other will work in the longer run. The imbalances will just appear again.


    The argument for QE (remember) is that we are enetering serious deflation (if we aren’t there is no justification). Given this the ECB will need to PRINT money. This of course is inflationary, but then this is what we want (inflation).

    So, the mechanism is for the ECB to buy those nice spanking new EU bonds. This means the Union then has helicopter money to throw around, and what I am going to suggest is that all of this is not thrown at those “horrid” (sorry bad) banks, but that some of it is invested in our future, by giving substantial financial support to those women who WANT to have children.

    More than that, I would really throw “loads of money” into the labour market to once and for all smash the “glass ceiling” to smithereens by making it really, really financially attractive to have women who have children in top positions. Just how many of those bankers at the moment actually are women?

    Let’s go for it. Save our futures, give us all pensions, and break the present deflation all at once. I am so happy, I feel optimistic for Europe for the first time since this whole blasted crisis broke out. There is a way forward.

    Of course, up in Brussels and over in Frankfurt they are not ready to here this yet, but just give them time. This is going to get a lot worse before it gets any better, and as the pain threshold mounts they will start to get into the mood for some reasonable solutions to get us out of all this.

  17. “I agree with Douglas. Western Europe has extensive social benefits which job-less parents can use. Most (or even all) of Eastern Europe does not.”

    Yep, but the point about EU bonds is that we are about (de facto) to become one country (ouch, ouch I can here them say, but just watch how the pain factor brings people round, the alternatives, ie staying with petty nationalism, are really pretty horrible and dire from an economic point of view). So we can start to even up the balance, at least as far as the East’s demographic deficit goes.

  18. Well Market sentiment seem to be going with the more sex fewer babies during recessions side of the argument. Bloomberg just put this up:

    SSL International Plc Chief Executive Officer Garry Watts is taking the manufacturer of Durex condoms to eastern Europe just as the region’s economic meltdown turns investors away.

    The U.K. maker of Durex and Contex brands plans to raise its stake in a unit that distributes contraceptives in Russia and nine other eastern European countries to 50 percent by April and expects to take full ownership by 2010, Watts said. The 200 million-pound ($283 million) takeover will raise SSL’s sales in the region by 100 million pounds a year starting from April.

    “Russian people aren’t going to stop having sex any more than British people are,” Watts, 52, said in an interview in London. “We’re not immune from the downturn, but it’s a bit like Pizza Hut: If you’re not going out, then you might be willing to drop a five-pound vibrator ring into your trolley.”

  19. Actually, Poland had a baby boom in the early eighties with well above replacement level TFR’s. Also, no legal bans on contraception or abortion back in post Stalinist communist times.

  20. According to the Polish government’s statistics site, there was a modest baby bump around 1980, but the birthrate continued to decline thereafter following the usual Communist – postCommunist pattern.

    (Something I noticed poking around that site: the illegitimacy rate was steady around 5% throughout the 1980s, but then rose slowly and steadily to its current level around 20%. Illegitimacy rates rose all across the region after Communism, but that seems like a pretty striking increase. Huh.)

    Doug M.

  21. I’m from a country devoid of any demographic problem for the generation to come 🙂 and live in Germany since many years now. The discussion about east european demographics is however intriguing.

    I can say out of experience that educated/ graduated women in eastern europe start earlier with children because they finish universities 4-5 years earlier than their peers in western europe. Normally, a russian woman graduates from university with 21 or 22 and is planning to marry in some 3 years (just as most women in the balkan). I don’t really know however how it is in the rest of eastern europe.

    Also in some/many of the countries in eastern europe there is no such thing as the child vs. career dilemma. At least not until the 90-ties. Earlier graduation combined with strong family ties (don’t need babysitters as long as grandparents live) provide the support for bearing children early. I don’t have any demogragraphic data to back anything but I bet that among women with academic background fertility in eastern europe surpasses that of most countries in western europe.

    Another thing. I think that educated (with educated I mean university degree or higher) women in eastern europe are overall better integrated in the economy because of early births. It was a shock to me during my early years in Germany hearing educated men and women alike argue that after a child somebody (meaning mostly the woman) has to stay home for good. That sounded soooo patriarchal.

    Here are my proposals for the long-term recession antidote:

    1)reduce one useless year of school thus reducing graduation from school to 11-12 years. Encourage enrollment in universities immediately after!!

    2)Slowly create the infrastructure and social norms that encourage university education and discourage protracted graduation. ( Protracted studying/graduation seems to be the norm in western europe and America)

    3)Discourage local and regional mobility by thus strengthening families and possibly reducing the age when people start one. Well, this might be utopic :))

  22. If you are going to lose a generation, don’t you want to lose the smallest generation?

  23. It is funny to read such a BS about feminism in Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia (I will not dare to comment on other countries). Feminism is not existed here in western meaning of the word. Simply put, women realize themselves different in some aspects, but equal in rights and opportunities with men. Men, from the other hand, realize that women are somehow different, but equal in abilities and rights. So far, it is the most natural state of affairs I witnessed through my journey around the world.

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  25. AL, when it comes to feminism, there is no monolithic “western meaning of the word”. If you think that there is, you’re clueless. It varies from country to country, the simple reason being that the position of women also varies from country to country. That’s what I was saying.

    I’m glad that you found the East European gender relations a “natural state of affairs” during your “journey around the World”. Good for you.

    (“Equal in rights and opportunities”. Right. Spoken by a true expert.)

    Personally, my own experiences were very different, and strangely enough, after the said experiences, I found myself quite satisfied with the norms and customs of the country that I live in, thank you very much. I have no illusions of national superiority, but at least in this respect, I have to admit that somehow, this country has actually managed to produce at least something reasonably workable.


    J. J.

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  32. That information on spike in abortions you refer to was a total scam and plant, see here: http://www.sublimeoblivion.com/2009/10/22/russia-abortion-apocalypse/

    Something similar was also observed in Ukraine: an attempt to raise alarm at the very high media level http://korrespondent.net/tech/health/793029 (Korrespondent is a very influential Ukrainian weekly) which isn’t supported by the actual statistics: in the first 8 months of 2009, number of births per 1000 went up from 10.6 to 11.1.

    Let see how the rest of the year turns out.

  33. Simon, you live in a free society, no one prevents you from jumping from a window or at least not having babies on your own. But – it’s your personal choice, why would anyone listen to you?

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