AN AGING population poses one of the biggest threats to Slovakia's economic stability in the coming decades. Reforms, not newborns, will mitigate the risks, experts say.
According to a study prepared by the Labour Ministry, Slovakia must brace itself for hits to the economy after 2015, when a majority of the population passes beyond childbearing age.
The ministry's report says that 789,000 nationals will be older than 65 in the coming decade, which is 144,000 more than today. For a country with a population around 5 million, the proportion is extremely high. Not even an expected rise in childbirths will turn the tide.
The Labour Ministry's report is based on conclusions drawn at a United Nations conference on population and development and findings by the Slovak Demographic Research Centre, which the Slovak cabinet discussed on March 9.
"The continuing aging process, which will speed up after 2015, will have a serious impact on society and how it functions. An aging population will impact the economy, especially in the social security and healthcare sectors; it belongs to a set of serious social problems facing coming decades," the report states.
In addition to a falling population, the proportion of children to the population has fallen below 18 percent. Currently there are 1.2 children per woman in Slovakia, and this ratio is not expected to increase beyond 1 to 1.5. The proportion of older people to the population rose to 18.7 percent.
The average Slovak will be 40.5 years old in 2015 and 47.8 in 2050. Today, the average Slovak is 37.6 years.
The Labour Ministry's spokesman Martin Danko says that while the outlook seems gloomy at first sight, Slovakia is doing its best to prevent major problems in the future by approving reforms today in all related fields. According to Danko, Slovakia is ahead of its neighbours in this respect as well as some of the more developed western European states, which are facing the same trends.
"Slovakia is definitely not the only country facing this problem. The Czech Republic, for instance, is even worse off, and so are some states in Western Europe, which have not even started reforming their social security and pension systems," he told The Slovak Spectator.
The current Slovak government introduced extensive reforms over the last two-and-a-half years in several spheres that are sensitive to an aging demographic, including social and pension programmes as well as healthcare.
Slovakia's reformed pension system, which now bears on three pillars - pay-as-you-go, capitalization and supplementary - represents a significant change that helps the country prepare for the future.
"The demographic trends are irreversible. In order to reduce the negative impacts, our ministry has prepared the pension reform as a major tool to avoid the looming collapse of the pension system," said Danko.
The aging of the Slovak population can hardly be stopped, agrees demographer Michal Tirpák from Slovakia's Statistical Office.
Tirpák told the Pravda daily that even though the birth rate is expected to grow in coming years due to national economic and social stabilization, too few babies would be born to compensate for the aging population.
However, Tirpák said the overall negative demographic development could be slowed down thanks to the European migrant population moving through an ever-expanding Europe.
According to the ministry's report, a "positive turn" took place in Slovakia's population development in 2003:
"The major change was in the number of newborns. After 23 years of a continually falling birth rate, a turn was registered."
Another positive phenomenon, the report continues, is a "continuing growth in the number of concluded marriages" and a slowing down of the country's divorce rate.
Divorce has been on the rise in Slovakia ever since 1954, with the exception of a few individual years in between. Slovakia's divorce index in 2003 showed that there were 41.2 divorces to 100 concluded marriages, down from 43.7 divorces to concluded marriages in 2002.
The Labour Ministry is preparing measures to encourage people to work, get married and have children.
"Naturally, we can't and won't change the demographic trend but we want to help revive positive developments by motivating economically active people to participate in the process," said Danko.
Select trends in Slovakia demographics
* Slovakia's northern and eastern regions - Žilina, Prešov, Košice - recorded and foresee a growing population; its inhabitants are relatively young. The "traditionally regressive" are in the central, southern and western Slovak regions where the aging ocess is already in an advanced stage. However, the aging process will affect all Slovak regions and will accelerate.
* Women are giving birth when they are older. In 1996 the average childbearing age was 25.5. This rose to 27 in 2003. People prefer to have smaller families with fewer children; there is a tendency towards one-child families. The number of children bornut of wedlock has risen from 14 percent in 1996 to 23.3 percent in 2003. This trend is more apparent in the west of the country but continues spreading towards the east.
* The average life span is 69.6 years in men and 77.6 years in women. Men and women in Slovakia's southern districts - from Komárno to Trebišov - live the shortest on average. Trebišov is also the district that has the lowest life span in both men (65.7years) and women (75.69 years).
14. Mar 2005 at 0:00 | Martina Jurinová