The World will have around 10 billion inhabitants by 2050, mostly concentrated in the current population hotspots of India, China, and Africa. Meanwhile, Eastern Europe is silently emptying.
Since the end of Communism in the early 90s, the population has rapidly declined in several Eastern European countries. This has happened predominantly in Bulgaria and Romania but also in the three Baltic countries -Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania- all of which are members of the EU. By 2055, some of these countries are expected to lose up to 40% of their population since their shift to capitalism.
One could argue that their entrance to the single market (in 2004 for the Baltic countries and 2007 for Bulgaria and Romania) has been beneficial to them. It has enabled them to upgrade their infrastructure through cohesion funds and also to trade with the rest of the Union. However, it has caused many of their inhabitants to leave their countries seeking better working conditions and a more stable future.
This is why Emeritus Professor of Demography at Oxford University David Coleman believes they should have joined later on, when their economies were stronger: “[These countries] have been trapped by premature entry to the EU which has sucked population out of them because the conditions were better in the West.”
Bulgaria had nine million inhabitants in 1990. It now has seven million and according to the UN’s World Population Prospects (2015) it’s expected to have less than five by 2055.
Romania faces the same issue. It has lost more than four million inhabitants and gone down from 23 million to 19 and it will decrease even more to 15 by mid-century. In the course of 60 years it will have lost 10 million people.
The Baltic countries haven’t lost as many in absolute numbers due to their low population, but the trend is the same percentagewise. The three of them totalled nearly eight million in 1990 but are expected to have 40% less by 2055, while France is believed to increase by 10% and Germany to lose nearly the same percentage. But no Western European country faces the same problem as some of their Eastern counterparts.
The depopulation is mainly caused by three factors. The first one is the emigration from these countries to the West. The second one can be attributed to low birth rates. During Communism, all these countries had positive birth rates due to guaranteed employment and housing and also because getting married was one of the few ways to get a private life.
Moreover, low fertility rates come as a result of unequal conditions between men and women, according to Coleman: “Women are expected to work and study as much as men nowadays but then the whole burden of childcare and the household are shouldered on them.”
He mentions women catching up with men in the labour market but men not taking a part of the household chores in exchange. This is a double burden on the women and says that it causes lower fertility, as they can’t cope with everything plus having more than two children.
The fertility rate is the highest (of the West) in the Northern European countries, where burdens are more equally divided between men and women.
The third cause would be the high death rate that still haunts these states, but Coleman believes that it will diminish in the future.
“Depopulation isn’t necessarily a bad thing” says Coleman. In fact, negative growth can even be a good idea, as long as it’s not happening due to pathological problems and it comes to an end.
These countries do not regard the influx of immigrants as a solution and neither does Coleman. He sees migration as a “perfectly natural and helpful process” but argues that immigration cannot solve the issue of an ageing population and even if it does succeed in putting a halt to population decline, the amount of immigrants needed to reverse it would change the nature of the country.
If current trends continue, these countries may face serious problems in a matter of decades, the evident ones being a shortage of the workforce and the inability to pay the pensions.