The roots of the demographic crisis: a matter of mentality

Source: Pexels.com / Rene Asmussen

The Czech Republic has managed to pull itself out of a deep demographic crisis in a little more than a decade. Polish policymakers say they would like to follow a similar path. Only it is not at all easy to find what led to the Czech success

Tomasz Rowiński

The Czechs are successful when it comes to demographics. We want to analyze to what extent what is happening in the Czech Republic is similar to what is happening in Poland; we want to learn from their practices” – Deputy Minister for Family Affairs Barbara Socha said last fall. Unfortunately, demographic policy is a multi-factor game, in which not everything depends on the mechanics that the state will build with social policy tools. A developed support system does not yet guarantee success. Finland, which like other Scandinavian countries is characterized by a caring approach to society, including the family, could not cope for years with a collapse in the birth rate. From 2010 to 2020, it fell from 1.87 to 1.37. 2019 was the worst, with the fertility rate at 1.35 children per woman.

Surprisingly, Finns – so it would seem, at least – have been helped by the pandemic. In the past two years, there has been a rather unexpected partial recovery in the country’s fertility rate. There is no good explanation for this situation, and those comments that have appeared on the matter have verged on the banal. One could read that due to the pandemic regime, spouses spent more time together and therefore new children appeared. Only that such a situation applied to a great many countries, and yet it was Finland that became the exception to the European environment. Of course, it must be added that the fertility rate in Finland continues to remain at a very low level. The indicator for last year says 1.46 children per woman. This is already better than in Poland, but worse than in the Czech Republic.

Czechs close to generational replacement

In 1999, Czech society reached a real demographic bottom. The fertility rate then was 1.13 children per woman, one of the lowest in the world. And just nine years earlier, that is, in 1990, just after leaving communism, it was 1.9. Today, most European countries would like to have at least such a rate. At the same time, Poland still boasted a coefficient of 2.06, which meant replacement of generations. These were among the last such good annual results for our society.

By 2010, the Czech Republic had managed, to some small extent, to rebuild fertility and at that time achieved a fertility rate result of 1.51. Even then, these figures were more favorable than ours. We, at that time, were heading towards the bottom of the valley of 2013. In 2010, the fertility rate in Poland was 1.38 children per woman. Three years later, we had slipped to a value of 1.26. Meanwhile, the Czechs, after one weaker year (1.43 – 2011), began an upward march toward rebuilding their national demographics, which continues to this day. Between 2013 and 2017, it might have seemed that the Poles would also follow this path, as the fertility rate in the last year of the period was 1.45. At that time, the Czechs already boasted a score of 1.69. The problem is that for the last five our southern neighbors have already only improved their fertility rate (1.82 in 2021), while in our country there has been another slump. Now, with a score of 1.3, we are approaching the dramatic fertility level of 2013.

Source: Pexels.com

Can we point to a reason why Czech demography is heading in a direction that in the Polish case may be, for now, only a dream? The case of Scandinavian countries shows that there are no easy answers when it comes to reconstructing demographic trends. Especially the good ones. In the early 1990s, political almanacs pointed out that one of the reasons for the low fertility rate in the Czech Republic was the high level of secularization of society. Since those days, Czechs have not become more religious, and their demographics have managed to go through various twists and turns to – for the time being – recover.

Abortion and in vitro

In recent years, some demographers have completely changed their minds about what are the causes and how they shape the Czech fertility rate. They now point out that it is this Czech secularism, liberalism, and pragmatism regarding social life that is the reason why more and more children are being born in the country. Such opinions smell of the triumph of ideological rationalizations rather than sound analysis. In an extensive text on Czech demography from April 2022, published on Onet.pl, a non-committal approach to the institution of marriage, the relatively low cost of the in vitro procedure, and the easy availability of abortion were identified as the main reasons for the Czech baby boom. The author of the study even went so far as to glorify a situation that many women treat as a traumatic experience. At issue is the well-established habit in many countries of gynecologists unjustifiably suggesting abortion. “Even in early pregnancy, it is perfectly normal for a doctor to ask a woman whether she wants this child. Everyone has the right to choose. In general, women’s awareness is greater. Here, preschoolers are made aware already, there is no pretense that children are brought by a stork,” reads the opinion of a “Polish woman living in the Czech Republic.”

An analogous socially liberal position was presented by Professor Irena Kotowska of the Warsaw School of Economics, quoted in the article: “According to Eurostat data, in 2019, 48% of children born in the Czech Republic are children in non-marital relationships. In our country, this percentage is about 26%. Not only that – civil unions are legally recognized in the Czech Republic, the couple can register their union and enjoy parental leave and benefits. In our country, non-marital unions are almost completely overlooked both in public statistics and in social policy solutions. We only learn about how many families there are that have a form of partnership with or without children from censuses.”

Is social instability really conducive to fertility? Małgorzata Sikorska, a researcher at the University of Warsaw, seems to argue otherwise in her report “Is it possible to increase fertility in Poland?”.

Making the decision to have the first child is postponed primarily by a lack of a sense of stability. This is especially true of the lack of stable employment for both partners […] and the lack of a stable housing situation. For women, it is also important whether they are married. Marriage makes the decision to have a child easier, while living in an informal relationship makes it more difficult,” Sikorska writes.

It is worth taking a closer look at the unethical method of in vitro, which is widely used in the Czech Republic. With the help of this procedure, about 6,000 children are born annually in our neighboring country. Another important statistic is that about 60% of births among women over 35 just happen thanks to IVF. While Czech women are far more likely than Polish women to give birth after the age of 30, and this is an important fertility factor in their society, one has to ask whether such a high percentage of women using IVF is really medically justified. Would women over-35 be able to give birth to children without the availability of this procedure? An infertility rate of 60% would have to be considered a surprising phenomenon. We should add that at the end of 2019, the number of all live births in the Czech Republic was about 112,000 children, so only about 5% of children are born from IVF.

Unfortunately, the debate on demography in Poland is strongly ideologically driven. A very interesting and well-researched demographic analysis of the Czech Republic, which appeared on Obserwatorgospodarczy.pl in January 2022, ends with a paragraph containing an obvious conclusion driven by ideology. It does not refer to any research or published data, but only provides a suggestion to the reader. “Such a good result in the Czech Republic is also influenced by many factors that are difficult to put into numbers. These may include a sense of security. Abortion in the Czech Republic is legal. This could be one of the many systemic factors that make mothers not so afraid of a potential pregnancy.”

Some data, however, gets almost no attention. In a report by the Generation Institute on demographics in the Czech Republic, there is an interesting chart comparing what Poles and Czechs consider their responsibilities to society. Nearly 50% of Czechs under the age of 29 believe that having children is fulfilling a duty to society. In Poland, only slightly more than 20% of young adults think so. At the same time, about 55% of Poles in this age bracket disagree that having children is fulfilling a duty to society. The young adult community in Poland limits its sense of duty to society to working life.

What conclusion can be drawn from these data? Quite simple, but unfortunately probably complicating the Polish road to demographic recovery. We are marked by social selfishness and individualism significantly more than the Czechs. Our sense of belonging to a political community or nation is also low. The demographic problems we face as a society may stem from a much more fundamental crisis than just an imperfect family support system. It looks like we need to start systemic change with the mentality that sits in Polish heads. But how to do it? For now, there seems to be no solution.

This article was published in March 2023 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine.