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DEMOGRAPHERS SAY SLOVAKIA COPYING WESTERN POPULATION SHRINKAGE TRENDS

Falling Slovak birth rate sets family alarms ringing

WORRIES about the village's falling birth rate in 2000 prompted municipal officials in southern Slovakia's Gbelce to offer parents Sk10,000 ($220) for every newborn child they produced.
Although few expected Gbelce's population to spurt after the money was announced, the number of newborns in the village of 2,400 increased from 14 in 1999 to 20 last year, pleasing city officials.
"The model has been successful, and now a neighbouring village is launching a similar drive, giving parents twice as much as we do," said Gbelce Mayor František Kovács.

WORRIES about the village's falling birth rate in 2000 prompted municipal officials in southern Slovakia's Gbelce to offer parents Sk10,000 ($220) for every newborn child they produced.

Although few expected Gbelce's population to spurt after the money was announced, the number of newborns in the village of 2,400 increased from 14 in 1999 to 20 last year, pleasing city officials.

"The model has been successful, and now a neighbouring village is launching a similar drive, giving parents twice as much as we do," said Gbelce Mayor František Kovács.

Plunging birth rates are more than a local concern, having recently become a troubling issue for the entire country. Last year, for the first time in Slovakia's modern history, deaths exceeded births by 51,980 to 51,130.

While many population experts said the development is part of a worrying and steady decrease in the number of newborns, others said that Slovakia is just copying the trend in western Europe, which has seen similar population shrinkages for several decades.

"Slovaks just aren't used to it. I don't view it negatively because it's nothing unusual. The only difference in the birth rate between Slovakia and western Europe is that here the decrease has been much faster and therefore more visible," said Danuša Jureová, a demographer at Infostat, an information and statistics agency.

The declining birth rate has been reflected in the average number of children per mother, which has fallen from 2.9 babies in 1990 to 1.2 in 2001. The figure, demographers say, goes hand-in-hand with the decrease in the number of marriages in Slovakia, which stood at 23,800 in 2001, down 2,000 from the previous year, and one of the lowest in the country since the end of the second world war.

On the other hand, the quality of life as well as life expectancy is on the rise, demographers say. Octogenarians now make up 1.9 per cent of the population, higher than ever before, although still well behind the EU average of around 4 per cent.

Since the fall of communism in 1989, many young Slovaks have delayed starting a family and chosen travelling abroad to study or work instead. Worsening economic conditions and the almost 20 per cent unemployment rate have also discouraged many couples from having children.

"After 1989, people lost all the support that governments had been giving to boost the population during communism, such as easy access to flats and favourable marriage loans. Although research shows that 89 per cent of Slovaks still place priority on the family, when it comes to launching their own, they hesitate," said Bernardína Bodnárová, head of research at the International Centre for Family Studies.

However, while Bratislava region citizens enjoy far higher wages and less unemployment than elsewhere in the country, fewer babies are born in the capital than in considerably poorer districts, casting doubt on the theory that the economy is at the root of falling births.

"No one can say that the declining birth rate is entirely the result of the bad economic situation," said Infostat's Jureová.

Bratislava reports the lowest unemployment rate in Slovakia of 6 per cent, while and its GDP per capita reaches 98 per cent of the EU average, compared to less than 40 per cent in some eastern regions. Nevertheless, only seven children per 1,000 people per year are born in Bratislava.

The northern Slovak district of Námestovo, on the other hand, has an annual birth rate of 16 children per 1,000 people.

Jureová said she expected the decline in the birth rate to slow after 2010, "depending on how Slovakia adapts to new conditions in the European Union environment and how economic restructuring goes."

While the EU relies on immigration to reduce the impact of its population shrinkage, Slovakia must rely on the fecundity of its own population due to a relative lack of interest among foreigners in settling in the country.

Since its independence in 1993, only 17,000 foreigners have received permanent residence permits to dwell in Slovakia, compared to around 200,000 in the neighbouring Czech Republic.

But demographers believe that even without steady population replenishment through immigration, the younger generation can be relied on to continue the nation's traditional regard for the family.

"Because this country was isolated during communism and people could not travel very much, family has become very important, and as a value remains stronger than in western Europe," Jureová said.

Bodnárová was also confident that Slovak young people would continue to start families, but that they would simply wait until later age than was usual for their parents or grandparents.

Back in Gbelce, Slavomíra, a 33-year-old freshly graduated teacher and her 36 year unemployed husband, Marko Lacuška, peeled potatoes for lunch to feed their four children. They said that even tough economic times had not stood in the way of their desire to have a large family.

"Even if we were to plan our family now, we would still elect to have four children," said Slavomíra.

"It's about wanting to do it, not about money. For us, children take first place," Marko added.

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