Newborns and a Two-Speed Europe

In Central Europe - much more often than in Western Europe - more people affirm Kundera's view that "The child makes us care about the world."

Group of kindergarten kids friends arm around sitting together
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“Having a child today makes no sense for a man. The case for women is different because they still feel the need to have someone to love – which is not, and never has been, the case for men. It is not true that men also need to nurture, play with and cuddle their children. It has been said for years, but it is still false,” wrote famous French writer Michel Houellebecq in his book “The Elementary Particles,” published in 1998. It is difficult to see his words as an injection of optimism and faith in the future of humanity.

French depressionism, Czech hopefullness

Let’s consider the way of thinking presented by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (“The dearest child of Faith is a Miracle” – used to say German poet) typical of the Europeans’ approach to life. Houellebecq’s words are actually a complete contradiction of them. It is no coincidence that the French author is considered the most characteristic of the early 21st-century literary trend called “déprimisme,” or in other words, “depressionism”. That is a good description, as it is difficult to find anything optimistic.

On average, one European woman gave birth to 1.57 children in 2010. In 2020, this average fell to 1.5 children. But this decline is not spread evenly across the continent

“The Elementary Particles” was published in 1998. Almost simultaneously (in 1997), the Czech writer Milan Kundera finished his novel “Identity.” Although it was written simultaneously, the tone is quite different. “The child makes us care about the world, think about its future, willingly join in its racket and its turmoils, take its incurable stupidity seriously,” – wrote Kundera. Kundera’s attitude to children is diametrically opposed to Houellebecq’s. The same differences can be seen when comparing Central and Western Europe. They are so large that one can even speak of a two-speed Europe in relation to newborns.

The new norm

Generally speaking, Europe has a big problem with its fertility rate. It is clearly seen when analyzing data provided by Eurostat. “In 2020, 4.071 million children were born in the EU, corresponding to a crude birth rate (the number of live births per 1 000 persons) of 9.1. For comparison, the EU crude birth rate was 10.5 in 2000, 12.8 in 1985, and 16.4 in 1970,” writes this European Commission agency in its report from April 2022.

“Fertility rates steadily declined from the mid-1960s to the turn of the century in the EU Member States. However, at the beginning of the 2000s, the total fertility rate in the EU showed signs of rising again.

This development stopped in 2010, and a subsequent decline was observed through to a relative low in 2013, followed by a slight increase up to 2016 and another decrease since. In 2020, the total fertility rate in the EU was 1.50 live births per woman,” adds Eurostat.

European women have fewer babies and decide to give birth to their children at an older age than previously. Only in the last decade (2010-2020) the mean age of women giving birth has risen from 29.0 to 31.0. While in 2001, the fertility rate of women aged 25-29 was highest among all the age groups, 20 years later, the fertility rate of women aged 30-34 became the highest. Besides, the number of women over 35 years old having babies has also been significantly rising – underlines Eurostat, describing the social changes in Europe.

Children of the depression

The quoted report points to another significant change. First-time babies are a growing group in the total number of new children. On average, 46.2% of the children born in the EU in 2020 were firstborn. In countries like Portugal, Romania, Luxembourg, Malta, Spain, and Bulgaria, over half of the kids born in 2020 were the first children of their mothers. More and more women have only one kid. “The only child is becoming the norm,” noted the “Financial Times” in 2019. Additionally, nearly 20% of European women have no babies at all.

This level of childlessness was last recorded in Europe 100 years ago, during the Great Depression. This best shows the scale of the transformation that has taken place on the old continent. Pope Francis commented at the beginning of 2022: “We see a form of selfishness. We see that some people do not want to have a child. Sometimes they have one, and that’s it, but they have dogs and cats that take the place of children.” But there is no sign that his stark comment was even noticed.

The more traditional view of parenthood

On average, one European woman gave birth to 1.57 children in 2010. In 2020, this average fell to 1.5 children. But this decline is not spread evenly across the continent. While in Western European countries, these statistics are gradually decreasing, in the CEE region – after a substantial slump in the 1990s and early 2000s – they have already progressively recovered in the last decade. Data from Eurostat prove it.

For example, in Belgium, women gave birth to 1.55 children in 2020 (in 2010, it was 1.86). In Italy, this average decreased from 1.46 in 2010 to 1.24 ten years later. In Finland – it went from 1.87 to 1.37. In Malta – from 1.36 to 1.13. The most challenging situation occurred in Spain, where the average number of kids born by a woman has fallen from 1.37 in 2010 to 1.19 in 2020.

This trend looks different in Central Europe. In Czechia, the average has increased from 1.51 in 2010 to 1.71 in 2020. In Latvia – from 1.36 to 1.55. In Hungary – from 1.25 to 1.59. In Romania, gains were the highest – from 1.59 in 2010 to 1.80 ten years later. Other countries in the region saw declines in the average number of births, but these were not as high as in Western Europe. For instance, in Poland, the average decreased from 1.41 to 1.39. In Lithuania – from 1.50 to 1.48. In Croatia – from 1.55 to 1.48. And in Austria, it stayed on the same level – every Austrian woman gives birth to 1.44 babies.

Those CEEs that threw off the yoke of communism after 1989 and embarked on democratic and free-market transitions experienced strong demographic dynamics. Rates fell sharply in the 1990s and 2000s – an unwanted consequence of the social changes associated with the labor market revolution and the adoption of capitalist game rules.

But the fact that in the decade 2010-2020, the downward trend has been reversed or at least slowed down in Central Europe best proves that these countries have not followed this trend, which Pope Francis defined as “a dog or a cat in place of a child” – or at least they have not fully tracked it. A more traditional view of parenthood is also confirmed by another statistic: concerning the timing of the birth of the first child.

According to Eurostat, 29.5 years was the mean age of women at the birth of their first child in the EU in 2020. The lowest mean age at birth of a first child can be found in Bulgaria (26.4 years) and Romania (27.1 years); the highest is recorded in Italy (31.4 years) and in Spain (31.2 years). The best confirmation is that in Central Europe – much more often than in Western Europe – more people affirm Kundera’s view that “The child makes us care about the world.”

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