October 17, 2019

When an economy booms, as Hungary’s has, with the best growth figures for more than a decade, the resulting pressures tell you something significant about the country. In Hungary’s case, it is a shortage of people that is the worry, and the first professionals feeling the heat from the economic pick-up are recruitment consultants. The most acute shortage may be among IT professionals, but the pinch is now being felt at the blue-collar end as well —  there is currently a shortfall of about 100,000 workers in the labour market. It’s all  the result of a decades-long Hungarian birth dearth.

Much of the world is in a fertility free-fall. As a new report by the Institute for Family Studies illustrates, very low birth rates are becoming increasingly normal across the globe: the number of children born by each successive cohort is dropping rapidly. Outside of sub-Saharan Africa, almost all countries are below replacement fertility or on their way, and this applies both to rich and middle-income countries, to Christian, Muslim or officially atheist states.

Places such as China, Iran and Bangladesh have, at different times in the past 50 years, seen the number of children born per woman fall from six to three in the space of a decade or two, and in all three countries it is now much lower than that.

This has been achieved through different strategies; coercion in the case of China (although the six-to-three fall was actually achieved before the introduction of the One Child Policy); the blessing of the mullahs on birth control in the case of Iran; and a widespread, grassroots movement to spread understanding of and access to family planning in Bangladesh.

But in all the places where fertility rates have fallen fast, from Belize to Burma, governments have had the luxury of working with the basic grain of human development. Higher levels of literacy (especially for women), greater urbanisation and a rise in per capita income are invariably associated with smaller family size, so as countries develop, family size declines whether or not encouraged to do so by government.

For already developed countries with low fertile rates, which have the opposite problem — of wanting to get the fertility rate up — things are not so straightforward. There is nothing very new in pro-natalism; in the inter-war years, when much of Europe and North America was moving towards replacement level fertility, dictators were keen to boost numbers.

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Both Hitler and Mussolini incentivised childbearing with limited success. In the 1960s Romanian dictator Nicolai Ceaușescu, eager to boost his nation’s demographic heft, removed the availability of contraception overnight. At first there was a sharp increase in the number of babies being born, but before too long people found ways around the system, and by the time of his fall, Ceaușescu’s Romania was not performing much better from a population perspective than most of its neighbours – which is to say, very poorly.

Although birth rates were limp in much of the developed world in the inter-war years and particularly during the depression of the 1930s, there was a famous post-war bounce in most places, and in many it lasted for a good couple of decades. In Japan, the baby boom was an intense but brief phenomenon, and likewise in much of central and eastern Europe the number of children born per woman has been extremely low for a long time.

Which brings us back to Hungary, where people have been having too few children to replace themselves for most of the last 60 years. If each cohort of child-bearing women is smaller than the last, and has fewer children, something like a population vortex starts to take effect, especially where supplementing numbers through immigration is unpopular and where emigration opportunities — such as membership of the EU — mean that many people are leaving.

Since the early Eighties, Hungary has lost just under a tenth of its population — around a million people — but the legacy of a very low fertility rate in the two decades since the mid-1990s has yet to fully work its way through the system; that is, there will be a smaller number of child-bearers in the couple of decades to come, which will have a knock-on effect in future.

Couple this with lengthening life expectancy and it is little wonder that the median Hungarian is now in his or her mid-forties, almost as senior as the super-old societies of Italy, Germany and Japan. Another characteristic of Hungary is an ethnic shift towards the Roma, who appear to have a higher fertility rate than ethnic Magyars, feeding nationalistic concerns that the majority is under threat in its own country. This is a sentiment which has also strengthened Hungary’s resolve to resist immigration from the south, but while it has largely prevented the rise of a multicultural society, it does not help boost numbers or counter the corrosive economic effects of falling numbers.

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Those familiar with the Orban government should not be surprised that it sees demography as a serious challenge and has introduced a wide range of measures to tackle population decline, from tax breaks to increased parental leave and the provision of creches.

Many of these policies are too recent for us to gauge their impact but there is no doubt that something positive has happened, with fertility rates rising by perhaps a quarter of a child per woman. But before the Hungarians uncork the champagne — or perhaps the Tokaj — three words of caution must be sounded.

First, a quarter of a child per woman is nowhere near enough to get Hungary up to replacement level, and even this improvement seems to be faltering.

Second, some of the effect may be what is known as “tempo”, which is the ending of the delay in childbearing; during the period when childbearing is delayed and women have children later, the fertility rate is artificially depressed. When this stops — and there is only so long that women can delay having children — the effect is unwound and the fertility rate rebounds, but the extent of the difference this makes is limited.

Third, detailed work by the Institute for Family Studies suggests that not that many of the extra children in Hungary are third children, and this is where the government efforts have been focused, so government policy may not be the real driving force in any recovery there has been. Full marks to the Hungarians for trying, then, but far too early to say whether they have proven that government policy really can make a difference.

Likewise in nearby Poland, where the current government stands on a pro-traditional-family platform and since 2016 has offered relatively generous child benefits – £100 per month per child – as well as maintaining strict anti-abortion laws. The policy has been credited with helping the ruling Law and Justice party win re-election, but, as in Hungary, the rise in fertility is small and still leaves Poland at barely two-thirds of what would be required for replacement.

With more and more countries within and beyond Europe moving into the low- and ultra-low fertility realm, then, the challenge for a society wanting to reproduce itself will become more and more prominent in the politics of the future.

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For now, two things for sure can be said. First, the best guarantee of avoiding the very lowest fertility rates in developed countries is an acceptance of extra-marital births and assistance to women in combining work and family. Where women get the education to aspire but are not encouraged to combine aspiration with motherhood, they tend to opt for the former, which is why fertility rates are so low in countries with traditional attitudes to women in the workplace, such as Italy and Japan, but higher in places like Scandinavia and France.

Second, much as governments can try their best, the only true guarantee of replacement fertility is a family-oriented and child-loving culture. Societies or ethnic groups wanting to survive and thrive should not just look to their governments for tax breaks and benefits but should look to themselves, their values and attitudes.

In this Israel is an exemplar, an OECD member with a fertility rate half as high again as its nearest rival. This is not just about the religious Jews (whose fertility rate, although high, may be falling) or Arab Israelis (whose fertility rate is no higher than that of the country as a whole), but is true also of the secular majority.

While this small state has many detractors, if we wish to learn how a people is to thrive not just culturally and materially but also demographically, we must look to those who first brought into the world the famous command: “Be fruitful and multiply”.