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."
"We'll do whatever it takes to keep the local school open..."
"There's nothing more we can do, they're shutting down the school," the local teacher told María José Vallés, mayor of Lledó, a hamlet of 180 residents in Teruel province. This was a year ago. The school had struggled to remain open with no more than three children in the classroom, but for the 2012-2013 school year, the minimum enrollment requirement was going up to five students.
That was the day when Vallés, a Socialist, embarked on a personal, nearly obsessive mission to ensure that the school would not shut down. She absolutely had to find kids to occupy new desks by the following school year. So she placed an online ad, phoned up the regional television station, and pitched her story to anyone who would listen. "We urgently need a family with two or more children. We offer a job and a home with affordable rent," read the ad.
Hundreds of people answered the call. Lledó got not one but two families, with six children in all. And the school was saved.
Dozens of small municipalities across Spain have resorted to similar measures to avoid the closure of their own schools, which would drive away any remaining younger residents and eventually turn the villages into ghost towns.
The place names change, but the problem is the same: Abejar (Soria), Arganza (León), Peñas de San Pedro (Albacete), Puente de Vadillos (Cuenca) and Castelnou (Teruel) are just a few of the municipalities that are battling depopulation and competing with each other to attract a new generation of residents.
Lledó was able to offer a job thanks to a local entrepreneur. "He said to me, 'Whatever it takes, María José'," explains the mayor. Most villages offer homes for free or for a symbolic rent, some measure of financial aid, or an exemption from local taxes.
Although the practice is not new, the budget cuts threatening to close dozens of rural schools have shaken many small towns into action.
"I cried out of sheer powerlessness, because if you take away a village's school, you are taking away its future," says Vallés, who has been mayor since 2011. But it is hard to imagine this fortysomething, who speaks so forcefully, ever feeling downcast.
A couple from Zaragoza dialed the phone number that Vallés put on her ads. Noelia Duce and Fernando Lorente already look as though they have been living in the village all their lives. Smiling and looking relaxed, they tell their story while keeping an eye on Susana, their four-year-old, who is playing with the other kids in the playground. Theirs are the only cries to be heard bouncing off the thick stone walls of Lledó at siesta time. At first they were not the ideal candidates because they only had one child, but when they visited the wooded area of Matarraña - known popularly as the Spanish Tuscany thanks to its similar landscapes, and which Lorente was already familiar with thanks to field trips he took as a child - the couple decided that they would move there whether the town gave them a job or not.
"We thought we would take our unemployment checks and start a business here," they say. In the end it wasn't necessary, because the local entrepreneur offered a second job. Later, inside their spacious new home, Noelia and Fernando proudly show off a frame with three pictures inside, depicting their wedding a month ago right here in Lledó. It was a simple ceremony, with no fancy wedding dress in sight, and it was the first one that the mayor had ever officiated since taking up her post.
This fast-track repopulation method does not always work out, and sometimes families leave again shortly after arriving, or when the financial incentives run out. Noelia Duce warns those considering a return to nature that "you have to be able to differentiate between life in a village during the summer and life in a village 365 days a year."
Alija del Infantado (León), population 798, joined the initiative last year. Although this town's situation is not critical, since there are 28 kids at school, local authorities want to take action before it is too late. "The school is what brings life to the village," admits Victoriano Villar, the deputy mayor. "We love seeing children running around." The town offers free homes, arable land and a chance to run the sawmill, which is closed down at the moment. Families with more than five children get a 300-euro check just for moving in. As soon as the offer was advertised, five families settled in - but four have already left because they failed to find a job they liked, and the fifth one is about to go, too.
It's the same story in Rioseco (Soria), a hamlet of 150 residents that has been hosting families in exchange for jobs in local businesses for over 20 years. The last family moved in four years ago; they live in a municipal home, the father is a shepherd and one of their children works at the local construction company.
These small communities are refusing to idly sit by as the streets where they grew up become deserted. They are the main victims of the falling birth rate in Spain, which was negative again in 2012 for the fourth year running. Right now, 60,000 fewer children are born every year compared to 2008.
In Galicia, one of the regions hardest hit by depopulation, one small town of 600 residents decided to fight. In less than two months, the tenacity of Vilariño de Conso (Ourense) got dozens of families from Madrid, Barcelona and Teruel to move here, attracted by the low rent and ready for farm work, which is the main mode of subsistence there. Where there used to be 13 children under the age of 11, there are now 33.
Although many of these individual chapters end well, the story as a whole is still far from guaranteed a happy ending. José Andrés García, president of the State Network for Rural Development, believes that the arrival of new families is "a positive thing," but little more than a Band Aid for a structural problem, which is basically a lack of economic activity in the countryside.
"If jobs are created in the villages, then we will see children running in the streets again," he says.
Meanwhile, little Susana pedals down the winding streets of Lledó on her tricycle, thinking that in just two days school will be out for the summer - the same school that she unwittingly helped save.