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.