Europe is getting older. In 1994, life expectancy at birth in the EU was 72.4 years. In 2020 – it was 80.4 years. Unfortunately, the statistics on the number of children on the old continent are steadily moving in the opposite direction. There were 88.6 million children (0-14 years) in the EU-27 in 1994. In 2014, there were 79.1 million children.
Czech demography: does heaven help?
According to projections made by Eurostat, there will be 76.3 million children by 2035. “EU’s population is likely to shrink in the coming decades due to a prolonged period of relatively low fertility rates (assuming no change in migratory patterns). This falling number of children and young people in the total population could result in labor market shortages in specific countries and regions and particular occupations,” projects Eurostat in its report “Being young in Europe today.”
Europe’s birth rate is well below the level to avoid aging
What is the proper response to this situation? The old Czech proverb says: “Na Boha se spolehni, ale sám se přičiň” (Heaven helps those who help themselves). Europe could help itself if it could persuade people on the continent to have more children. It’s a mission that is seemingly impossible as children fit less and less into the modern lifestyle. We are witnessing an accelerating shift away from the traditional family to other types of relationships – and all this does not go hand in hand with having a large family with many children. Hence the ever-decreasing number of minors in Europe.
But this is not to say that this trend is carved in stone and will forever follow this pattern. In fact, a few countries have managed to reverse it, with birth rates growing in recent years. The brightest example is the Czech Republic. What are they doing right?
Czech demography: No need to lose hope
The average number of children each woman would need to give birth to for the natural generation renewal to take place is 2.1. This has not been the case in EU countries for a long time. The last time this ratio was exceeded was in 1976. In 2022, the average European woman gave birth to 1.49 children. And this is the case despite the unprecedented opening of our continent to migrants from other continents, where women give birth much more often. Despite this, Europe’s birth rate is well below the level to avoid aging.
France comes closest out of all of the EU countries to the threshold for natural generation renewal, where one woman gives birth to an average of 1.83 children. Next are Romania (1.80) and Czechia (1.71). At the opposite extreme are countries such as Malta (1.13), Spain (1.19), Italy (1.24), and Cyprus (1.36). But the overall picture does not look very optimistic: there are fewer and fewer children. And suppose one considers the increasing life expectancy. In that case, the relevance of the words of Pope Francis, who compared Europe to a ‘childless old woman a few years ago, becomes increasingly clear. Even if this image seems exaggerated today, it may prove very accurate over the next decade.
“In a word, things are not good, but there is no need to lose hope, as Gypsy Janeczek said in Pilsen when they put a noose around his neck for a double murder in 1879,” said one of the quotes from a famous Czech book, “The Good Soldier Švejk” written by Jaroslav Hašek. This book is now a classic in the ironic and Monty Python-style humor – but in terms of the number of children, Czechs have not lost hope. They are right now at the upper end of the European average. One woman gives birth to 1.71 children in this country. But more interesting than this ratio is its evolution in recent years.
Back in 1999, one Czech woman gave birth to an average of 1.13 children. The juxtaposition of these two figures brilliantly shows what a long way the Czechs have come in the last two decades regarding demography. Compared to other European countries, their result can even be considered sensational – because, at the same time, the average number of children per woman in other countries with good reproductive results (France, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark) was gradually decreasing. The Czech Republic went against this trend.
Good jobs, kindergartens, and respect for family
How did Czechs manage to change the course of their demographic history? This is described in a report by the Polish Generations Institute (Instytut Pokolenia). Its authors precisely explained how Czechs had helped themselves to reverse the negative birth trend. Above all, they emphasize one essential feature: consequence. A pro-natalist policy in the country (then still Czechoslovakia – before the country’s division into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993) had already been in place since the 1970s. Even then, the authorities ensured that the country had an adequate number of nurseries and kindergartens.
From 2001, various programs to support families with children were consistently introduced. Among others, a parental allowance of 300,000 Czech crowns (around 12,000 euros) was introduced. When a couple has several children, this allowance is higher. Additional methods of support are emerging for those on low incomes. In addition, the Czech Republic also has the longest maternity leave in Europe (both parents can take it – for a certain period also together), which can be used for up to three years.
Living conditions were also of great importance for the increase in birth rates. When deciding to have children, a sense of stability and predictability (also in economic terms) is crucial. At this age, the Czech Republic has not – unlike other countries in the region – experienced high unemployment, so Czechs feel no fear of unemployment. There are also good housing conditions in the country. Only 15% of Czechs live in overcrowded homes. This compares with 37% in Poland or 31% in Italy. It is no coincidence that these two countries have a much lower fertility rate.
All this is compounded by a cultural factor: the high value of family and children. “The widespread belief that having and bringing up children is a duty to society translates into the acceptance of temporary cessation of work by a parent caring for a young child. This implies a social appreciation of parents’ work in raising children,” wrote authors of the report from the Generations Institute. The results of opinion polls support this claim. 48% of Czechs believe that having and raising children is a duty to society. Only 20% of Czechs say the opposite.
A strong contrast can be seen with, for example, neighboring Poland, where only 22.3% of residents consider having children to be a duty to society. As many as 55.4% disagree with such judgment. As Václav Havel once said: “it is not enough to stare up the steps; we must step up the stairs.” The Czechs noticed the stairs associated with the low birth rate and decided to climb them. With positive results, they can be an example for many European countries.