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No country for old men

Select nations in Eastern Europe and South Asia are facing a population disaster. In Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Russia and Japan, the fertility rate, the average number of children born to women during their reproductive years, has fallen to between 1.3 and 1.8. This is far below the 2.1 required to maintain a stable population. 

Population pyramid of Latvia

(Creative Commons)

In some of these countries, deaths have outpaced births for more than a decade. And, in the absence of meaningful immigration, the fear is that these countries are moving toward the point of no return. This is when the number of women of child bearing age hits a critical low from which there is no way to reverse the trend of population decline.

In countries like Japan, rural communities are emptying out. More than 90% of Japanese now live in major cities. That has left rural areas facing critical labor shortages. 

Bulgaria and Romania, also face a flood of disconcerting demographic data. These countries are on the brink of becoming the next Japan, unless major interventions occur. 

In Hungary and Poland, the belief is that you can buy yourself out of negative population growth. Hungary has nationalized IVF clinics, provides generous loans for couples to have children, and grants lifetime income tax exemptions for having four or more babies. Poland is doing something similar. But, can Hungary and Poland simply just pay their populace to have more babies? Their government’s think so. 

For Russia and Ukraine, well before the war, the average number of children born to women during their reproductive years had fallen to approximately 1.8 in both nations. Russia realizing the danger of falling below the 2.1 threshold required to maintain a stable population, began to offer government subsidies to encourage new births. These subsidies have been in place for slightly more than half a decade. While initially successful, the war with Ukraine is undoing these gains. War in its essence is such a futile endeavor, more futile when both of the opposing sides have a birthing problem. Both Ukraine and Russia are now facing the reality of becoming nations with a severe shortage of young men. 

As Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Russia and Japan struggle with their shrinking populations, this has left their leaders facing the unenviable task of trying to fund pensions and health care for an aging population. Also, with rising inflation, this means having a baby is becoming too expensive for many young adults. The current subsidies in Hungary, Poland and Russia, may now not be enough of an inducement. 

None of these countries, with the exception of Romania, have meaningfully opened up their borders for immigrants. Foreigners now account for less than 2.5% of their populations on average, compared to 13.6 percent in the United States. If immigration isn’t seen as the answer to the birthing problem, it’s less obvious as to what other plausible solutions may exist.


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