Next time someone tells me that the world is getting too crowded, I am going to tell them about what has happened in Eastern Europe over the last twenty-seven years. Dating from just after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the region has experienced an unprecedented peacetime drop in its population. In 1990, there were 310 million people living in the region, by 2016 that number had fallen to 292 million. That is a net loss of 18 million people or the equivalent population of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia. Three entire nations worth of people have disappeared. Put another way, there were 310 million people living in the United States in 2011. If the same thing had happened in America, the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri and Nebraska would have become entirely depopulated in a generation and a half.
The reasons for this decline in Eastern Europe’s population are multi-faceted, they include lower birthrates, outward migration to richer western countries, alcohol or drug abuse and an aging demographic. Though some of these trends have slowed, Eastern Europe is suffering a demographic crisis that looks to accelerate in the coming decades. Fewer workers will be forced to support more and more pensioners. The effects on welfare, health care and fiscal discipline in countries across the region will be drastic. Not one nation in Eastern Europe has figured out how to deal with this situation. To get a better idea of what has occurred, it is instructive to focus on one specific country, in this case Hungary.
The Land of Loneliness– The 1950’s All Over Again
In the eight decades which stretched from 1870 until 1950, the population of Hungary only dropped in one of them. That was during the 1940’s, when due to the Second World War, Holocaust and the post-war expulsion of ethnic German and Slovak minorities the population of Hungary declined. Paradoxically, the imposition of hardline Stalinism led to a population recovery. Onerous laws such as childless parents being subjected to a special tax and the banning of abortion made having children almost compulsory. Beginning in the late 1950’s and lasting for the next two decades, the country’s population grew. Ironically, near the end of the 20th century when communist control loosened and then collapsed, population decline became entrenched. Since the mid-1980’s the population has consistently fallen. To the point that today, Hungary has about the same population as it did in the late 1950’s, only this time it is much older.
During my many visits to the country, I have been able to glean several anecdotal pieces of demographic evidence from personal observation. I am always a bit surprised when I see a Hungarian woman pushing a baby around in a carriage or walking along with a couple of toddlers. It is not a very common sight, at least in my experience. This is not all that much of a surprise considering how much time I have spent in Budapest. The statistical evidence bears that out. Though young people flock to the city for the greater educational, employment and entertainment opportunities it offers, Budapest has far and away the lowest fertility rate of any sizable place in the country. In 2011 that rate was just 1.13, which is almost half the replacement rate needed to maintain the Hungarian population at current levels. Budapest is a beautiful city, but demographically it is increasingly the capital of loners and loneliness. I have heard many Hungarians say how hard it is to find a partner. Whereas in the United States, young people search for the ”right” partner, in Hungary they seem to be searching for any partner.
Population In Peril – Infertile Ground
I often hear people say – mostly stateside, rarely in Hungary – how awful communism must have been. That was certainly true in Hungary during and just after the Stalinist era, in the late 1940’s and most of the 1950’s with mass repressions, purges and very limited freedoms. It was not a bed of roses after that time, but Janos Kadar’s Goulash Communism brought rising living standards and an emphasis on the traditional family. This led to Hungary’s greatest post-World War II population boom. Now let’s be clear, just because the population was growing Hungary did not suddenly become a paradise, but there was social stability and relative economic prosperity. Enough that people could afford to have several children. Hungary reached its highest population ever in 1981-82 with 10,710,000, almost a million more than live in the country today.
From personal experience, I have met or know many more Hungarian women in their thirties and forties without, rather than with, children. Some of this can be put down to the increasing number of women who work. Also, without a large social welfare safety net, Hungarians are left to fend for themselves in the unforgiving world of capitalism. In the countryside, the problem seems to be much worse. Traveling through the rural hinterlands, in those villages that time seems to have forgotten, I rarely see any children at all. Conversely, there are lots of people who are either pensioners or on the verge of senior citizenship. It is quite telling that a land as rich in agriculture as Hungary has so few people now working that land, hardly any of whom are young. Mechanization has made the need for large families working on farms a thing of the past. For example, I have never seen anyone under the age of fifty running a tractor in the Hungarian countryside. In this way, Hungary and to a great extent much of Eastern Europe mirrors the process of urbanization which continues to transform the modern world.
The Price Of Life – Future Shock
The greatest transformation of modern Hungarian society though, came from the collapse of communism. As communism sank, so did the fertility rate. That has continued into the age of capitalism. Today, young people are a dwindling minority in Hungary. According to figures recently published by the Hungarian Central Statistical Office, there are 1.4 million people under the age of fourteen in the nation. This is 1.1 million less than there were in 1960. The demographic consequences of the dwindling youth population for the future Hungarian state looks pretty dire. It will be difficult, if not impossible for the government to keep social services at a functioning level. The tax base will not exist. Hopes of an increase in immigration have proven futile. A society that still has a majority of the population that recalls the Soviet’s long and odious occupation is unlikely to accept large numbers of foreigners. Unless there is a radical change in attitude or circumstances, the future of Hungary will mean less Hungarians. The same could be said for all the nations of Eastern Europe.