Recently I came across an article entitled It’s a Small, Small World: The fastest shrinking countries on earth are in Eastern Europe. Countries throughout Europe (as well as others such as Japan and Russia) have long bemoaned their declining birthrates. This particular article struck me because Bulgaria is cited as “the world’s fastest shrinking country.” Tomas Sobotka of the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital comments that such shrinkage comes on the heels of an already striking contraction of the Bulgarian population from just under 9 million in 1989 (the country’s historical high) to 7.1 million in 2017. “That’s a massive population loss, unprecedented in peace times,” he explains.
But concerns about falling birthrates in Bulgaria did not begin with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the wrenching political, economic, and social changes that followed. In February 1989, when no such changes could be foreseen, the Bulgarian monthly The Woman Today published an interview with Professor Minko Minkov entitled “From Now We Consider: 2005 and Beyond.” The article focused on the declining birthrate then and followed up a similar interview. Here is the first question and answer from that February 1989 interview:
Q: Professor Minkov, in an interview with The Woman Today three years ago, you said that in 1985 Bulgaria will have reached its lowest birthrate level—13.3 per thousand, and the lowest natural increase in population growth, 1.3 per thousand. How does the demographic picture look today?
A: Such a birthrate and natural increase we had in the beginning of the 1980s and then actually, effectually, truly, it was the lowest in the demographic history of the country. Now however it is still lower (during 1987, 12.9 per thousand), and with increasing mortality has reached 12 per thousand, ensuring a minimal natural increase of 0.9 per thousand, or in absolute numbers 8000 people.
We have to point out that, based on preliminary data from the first quarter of 1988, the picture is not optimistic—the results for the first half of 1987 repeat. We expected that after 1986 as women born after 1967 entered their fertile years, the results will improve but unfortunately so far no such phenomenon can be noticed. Something more. Projections show that if the current birth rate is maintained, the population will start declining after 2005, reaching 8,369,000 by 2060.
As pessimistic as Professor Minkov found the picture, it proved to be not nearly pessimistic enough. The population did not start declining after 2005 but instead the very year after the interview. Far from falling to “8,369,000 by 2060,” the population is already down to approximately seven million today and projected to be 5.4 million by 2050. The United Nations Population Division has all the data available in its World Population Prospects 2017 files, interactive data, maps, and graphs.
1989 may have been the high before the looming negative rate of natural increase (currently at -6.0 per thousand), but it represented only the beginning of the national angst over the dearth of babies. By 2013, Darik News reported—as Professor Minkov did for the 1985 year—“We have hit the bottom in birthrate (Ударихме дъното по раждаемост). In 2015, the daily paper 24 Chasa headlined an article “A drastic drop in birth rates for the first quarter is reported” (Отчетоха драстичен спад в раждаемостта за първото тримесечие) and opened with the statistic “A drastic decline in birth rates in Bulgaria is reported for the first three months of the year. Nearly two thousand fewer babies were born in comparison with the first quarter of 2014.” It was the daily newspaper Trud’s turn in December 2016. “Antirecord for birthrate in 2016 (Антирекорд по раждаемост през 2016 г.).
On February 8, 2018, Trud wryly headlined yet another birthrate story “The Demographic Crisis Isn’t From Yesterday: The Population of Bulgaria Is Aging, the Majority of Bulgarian Women Are Pensioners” (Демографската криза не е от вчера: Населението на България застарява, повечето от бълкарките са пенсионерки). After acknowledging that the subject was perennially a subject of public concern and conversation, author Sultanka Petrova said “if we want to finally get positive demographic results in Bulgaria and stop this demographic failure, we need a new type of demographic thinking and a rationalization of processes. And the most important thing is to stop the populist talk on the subject and get on with the task.”
Oddly enough, that’s almost verbatim what Professor Minkov said nearly three decades ago. Ms. Petrova went on to say “That is why we need to focus our efforts on stabilizing the two-pronged family model rather than on a sharp rise in birth rates.” Professor Minkov went on to say “The first urgent need should be to stop the process of erosion of the two-child model and to create conditions for young families to be able in time, even in the first years of marriage, to implement their reproductive plans.” As the French say, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” The French birthrate is declining steadily as well, by the way, despite the two-child model that is so pervasively idealized that Mr. Sobotka of the Wittgenstein Centre wrote an article entitled “Two Is Best? The Persistence of a Two-Child Family Ideal in Europe.”
I am not a demographer, sociologist, or statistician so I make no claim to expertise on this issue. But as a layperson reading the articles, for general and scholarly audiences alike, it seems clear that falling birthrates confound countries around the world—the United States too has a declining birthrate—no matter their historical experience, religious affinities, ethnic make-up, political structure, ideology, or fertility incentives. Human beings generally want to live as well as they are able to devise. Where possible, they attain the highest education available to them, seek the jobs with the highest income available to them, establish relationships and housing that are as stable as they can make them. And all of this is generally acknowledged to be positive not only for the individuals concerned but for the development of the societies in which they find themselves. And all of this takes time.
Do we want as a society to encourage people to delay childbearing until they feel independent and ready, and thus encourage the lower birthrates that inevitably are the outcome? Do we want to encourage young people to have children before they are emotionally and economically ready to provide for them and thus cut off the new parents’ ability to realize their own potential?
At one point in the 1989 The Woman Today interview, there is this question and answer:
Q: During the last few years a number of documents have been published to promote birth rates. What are the most important positive results after their entry into force?
A: It’s true that there is no small number of decisions adopted in the demographic policy sphere and overall their guidelines and aspirations are correct. The trouble comes from the fact that a significant part of them do not “work.”
What will “work”? In Bulgaria’s case, the most pressing need may not so much be the creation of more Bulgarians, but keeping the Bulgarians they already have living within the country’s borders. Outbound emigration is generally the province of the young—as is of course the birthrate—so perhaps an effective policy for the one will have a positive impact on the other. But I am not an objective observer. I like Bulgaria. I want it to thrive. For me, for my children, and for the grandchildren those Bulgarian pensioners are longing for.