Chronic Absenteeism –Eastern Europeans Abroad: In Search Of Opportunity

I first became cognizant of Eastern Europeans heading abroad to pursue better economic opportunities 17 years ago while working for a summer on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Many seasonal stores and shops there employed Latvian students who looked by turns bemused and perplexed at finding themselves spending a summer far from the Baltic Sea. Instead they were on a barrier island along a stretch of distant American shoreline. I distinctly remember talking with one bored looking Latvian girl who was sequestered behind a gas station cash register. When I revealed a bit of my knowledge about her homeland, she looked at me as though I was crazy. Small talk was not her thing. She was there to earn money to tide her over for the coming year at university. The infusion of Latvian seasonal workers to the Carolina coast was nothing compared to what I experienced during my five years living in Wall, South Dakota.

High Plains Drifters – Eastern Europe in Western South Dakota
Wall is home to the world famous Wall Drug, a tourist hot spot par excellence. The drug store’s main claim to fame are its signs which dot interstates in all directions, hundreds of miles in advance of this kitschy attraction. Wall Drug signs can be found in such far flung locales as the North Pole, Nairobi and Amsterdam among many other places. In my travels, I have never seen a Wall Drug sign in Eastern Europe, but that has not stopped the drug store in recruiting legions of workers from these nations.  In that tiny town on the high plains of South Dakota there were Poles, Romanians, Czechs, Slovaks, Bulgars and Macedonians. Enough ethnic diversity to rival the old Austro-Hungarian Empire was settled down for a long, hot summer on the wind blasted landscape of rolling grasslands. I availed myself of the opportunity to hang out with these student age workers and discovered that several had already spent other summers away from their homelands.

Most of them hoped to eventually move abroad after they completed their degrees. Case in point, a young Polish woman who had worked the two previous summers in Wales. Her first job was working in a factory that mass produced baked goods. Putting dollops of cream on top of cakes paid more than many professional jobs did in Poland. Her mother held a decent government job in Poland but pay was mediocre and the work mind numbing. Cake factory work was no one’s idea of excitement, but the pay was worth it. She remarked that bartending in an English pub paid more than any job she could find back in Poland. Eventually after graduating university, she moved to Wales, found a good job and married another Pole who was there for the same reasons.

Rule Britannia - Eastern European living in Great Britain

Rule Britannia – Eastern European living in Great Britain

En Masse Emigration – Going West
The phenomenon of meeting Eastern Europeans far from their homelands continued on a trip around western Turkey several years later. It was there that I met a very nice young couple by the name of Andrew and Agnes. They were from Australia, or at least that was what I first thought. The couple had met while Agnes worked an internship in Australia, she was originally from Hungary. They had married not long before and spent the first year of their marriage on the island of Jersey in the English Channel due to her husband’s job. Agnes related her experiences of a winter spent living in relative isolation, suffering through endless, drenching rainstorms. This was not how she remembered life in Hungary, but she went where her husband’s work took her. A few years later I made the acquaintance of a would be Hungarian filmmaker. To support his projects, he was forced to find IT work, not in Hungary but Great Britain. He went there for the better wages. Working part of the year in Britain was more lucrative than a full-time job in Hungary.

Then there was my wife. Prior to our marriage and her emigration to the United States she spent a couple of summers working well-paying jobs at English language schools in Britain. When we met, she was considering moving there. One of her best friends worked for the United Nations and took a two year position in Jordan because it paid better than the one she had in Hungary. Another emigrated to Canada and immediately found a good paying job, soon thereafter she joined Toronto’s middle class. The more Hungarians I met, the more I realized how many upwardly mobile ones were leaving the country. This should not have been surprising, but it was for me. The media – especially in Great Britain – had been full of stories for years about Poles descending on their country in droves. There were fears throughout Europe of the dreaded Polish plumbers and legions of Romanians and Bulgarians emigrating en masse in search of economic opportunity.

The Rich Get Richer – Westward Flows The Course Of Emigration
Knowing so many Eastern Europeans who had left, were leaving or planned to leave their homelands personalized the situation for me. I began to wonder how these countries could possibly replace all that talent and brainpower, the short answer is that they cannot. Many of their best and brightest have headed abroad in search of a lifestyle that their parents could only have dreamed of. The stultifying corruption of post-communist governments in Eastern Europe forced those without insider connections to emigrate to richer, westernized countries where their job prospects would be based on achievement and merit. This emigration, mainly to the most economically developed European Union member nations, is unprecedented in the history of Eastern Europe.

According to the United Nations, fully 6% of Eastern Europe’s population emigrated between 1992 and 2015. That figure computes to an 18 million people, equivalent to the combined population of Hungary, Slovakia and Lithuania. All that human capital is hard at work in western countries, innovating, creating and producing. The rich get richer. Meanwhile Eastern Europe fights to maintain its place in an increasingly globalized world. Strides have been made in many Eastern European countries to lure talent back home or keep it from going abroad. Trying to reverse a quarter century of emigration from east to west will take time and most importantly, money.

An Age Old Problem – Hungary’s Demographic Die Off

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.

Hungary - Population Decline 2006 - 2017

Hungary – Population Decline 2006 – 2017 (Credit: Hungarian Central Statistical Office)

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 of Hungary from 1910 -2009

Population of Hungary from 1910 -2009 (Credit: Barna Rovacs)

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.