National trends

Why the crisis is keeping the stork at bay

The birth rate in Spain has dropped nearly 13 percent since 2008 Demographic experts are warning of the risks of an imbalance in society

The crisis is prompting more and more couples to put off having children.
The crisis is prompting more and more couples to put off having children.TANIA CASTRO (EL PAÍS)

Spain is ageing in step with the crisis. The collapse of the job market, wage cuts and lower expectations for future prosperity are all causing birth rates to dwindle. Since 2008, the year when the impact of the recession began to be felt, the number of births has fallen nearly 13 percent, according to data released last week by the National Statistics Institute (INE).

Growing numbers of Spanish women are delaying motherhood, or renouncing it altogether, while the smaller immigrant population in Spain is no longer compensating for the shortfall in newborns. But the economic situation is not the only cause. The fertile population segment (15-45 years old) is shrinking because the younger generations are reducing in number.

In 2012, 453,637 children were born in Spain, representing a 3.9-percent drop from the previous year. It is a notable fall, yet not nearly as sharp as the 12.8-percent drop registered since 2008. The fall has now become a steady trend after four years, explains INE in its report entitled "Natural population movement and basic demographic indicators."

"Having a child is a project that involves the future, and right now the future is not looking too rosy," explains Margarita Delgado, a demographer at the Institute of Economics, Geography and Demographics at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC). If the inertia remains, especially with regard to low fertility rates (the number of children born per woman), then Spain will face "a very serious ageing problem in the mid- to long-run," explains Juan Antonio Fernández Cordón, a demographer, economist and former member of the Economic and Social Council.

Having a child is involves the future, and right now the future is not looking too rosy"

Among all the factors behind the drop in birth rates, perhaps the fall in fertility is the most relevant. The total fertility rate, which measures the number of children born to a woman over her lifetime, has dropped from 1.44 in 2008 to 1.34 in 2011, and 1.32 in 2012. This is a far cry from the 2.1 rate that is required to maintain population levels stable.

Demographic studies suggest that the danger zone begins at fertility rates of 1.5. Spain has been in the danger zone for years, although before the crisis hit, it looked like it might pull away thanks to high birth rates among immigrant women living in Spain.

But new dangers loom. The term "lowest low fertility" relates to a total fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman, and figures suggest that Spain is coming ever closer to this category.

"I am surprised that the fertility rate has not dropped even more," says Teresa Castro, of the CSIC's Center for Human and Social Sciences. She cites jobs as a major factor in delaying motherhood. "In order to have a child, it is necessary for the father and the mother to have an occupation and a certain degree of stability, and this is very complicated these days," she says.

Spain is approaching  the "lowest low fertility" rate of 1.3 children

In every crisis, it is common to delay parenthood, adds Castro. This has an impact on fertility and birth rates. Right now "it is still too early to see whether we're talking about a real drop in the number of children or a postponement."

Castro underscores a paradoxical situation: it is now southern and eastern European countries that have the lowest fertility rates, compared with northern nations; a few decades ago it was the exact opposite. In 1976, the Spanish fertility rate was 2.8 children per woman, compared with 1.3 right now. By comparison, the rate in France is 2, in Britain it is 1.8 and in The Netherlands it is 1.7.

"In places with more female employment and work-family reconciliation programs, fertility rates are higher," she adds.

"We already had low fertility rates before the crisis," notes Fernández Cordón. Between 2000 and 2004, Spain reached rates of 1.23 children per woman. But the influx of immigrants raised the rate again. Right now, however, immigrants are moving back home. Of the 453,637 live births in 2012, 86,945 were to foreign mothers, representing 19.2 percent of the total.

In places with more work-family programs, fertility rates are higher"

It is also a fact that immigrant women are themselves having fewer children, partly because of sociocultural assimilation, and partly because of the crisis. The drop in fertility rates between 2011 and 2012 was greater among this segment (from 1.58 to 1.54) than among Spanish women (from 1.29 to 1.28). In 2002, the average fertility rate among immigrant women was 1.86 children.

Unless the trend changes again, the scenario that will emerge from these figures is "a population imbalance in the mid- to long-run, in 15 to 20 years," says Fernández Cordón.

"The newly released data does not come as a surprise," adds Delgado. "They reflect how the population structure is getting more complicated, as well as the increasingly unfavorable relationship between the potentially active population and the dependent population."

How can this trend be reversed? Fernández Cordón points to countries with higher fertility rates. But the case of Sweden, which ranks in the top positions among European nations, fails to convince him. The financial incentives offered in the mid-1990s only provided short-term results, he says. "Couples took advantage of it, and in fact there was a huge rise in fertility, but after a while the rates went back to normal. People had children earlier to take advantage of the subsidies, and later rates went down again."

That is why he prefers systems that afford long-term assistance, such as that of France. The key, he says, is to offer services allowing parents to balance work with childcare, especially during the early years. "The greatest problem is with children under three, who require permanent care," he says. "Making efforts in terms of services, and a degree of understanding at the workplace, all help reconcile; having a family is not just about personal satisfaction, it is also a contribution to society that must be valued as such."

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