In Serbia, Too Few Babies
From ‘love cruises’ to pregnancy payouts to tougher employment
Thirty-two-year-old Sonja pushed a pram along the main pedestrian street in Belgrade on a brisk day in mid-December. The capital is one of the few places in Serbia with a growing population. Though that growth is mainly thanks to urbanisation, Belgrade is also the easiest and cheapest place in the country to have a child.
Even here, however, it’s tough being a parent. Sonja cited the country’s steep unemployment rate – it officially reached 28 per cent in December – and job discrimination against women who get pregnant or already have children. She reports losing a job because her employer did not renew her contract after learning she was expecting. For now, the family of three lives on Sonja’s husband’s wages, with help from her parents.
"It’s not easy, but that’s how it is," she shrugged. "Several of my female former colleagues have experienced similar things."
A town dies every year
Such employment practices are one of a wide range of factors that have been driving down birth rates in Serbia for decades – to such a degree that observers warn that the country’s survival is at stake.
"The greatest and most difficult problem Serbia faces is the demographic question, to stop the biological decline and the extinction of the nation," Prime Minister Ivica Dačić declared in his inauguration speech in July. It’s a common refrain in the press: "Every year, a whole town dies," read a typically dramatic headline over a story in a national newspaper that said Serbia loses 30,000 to 40,000 people annually. The 2011 census showed a 4.2 per cent population decline since the previous count in 2002.
The term "birth dearth" was coined in 1987, but the phenomenon of deaths eclipsing births has been noted across Europe, straining the continent’s pension systems and saddling workers with the growing burden of paying for them. That the trend is so widespread suggests its roots are cultural as well as economic, said Branislav Djurdjev, a demographer from the University of Novi Sad.
"In traditional societies children become net producers by their 12th year. In modern societies, they are exclusively an expense," he said.
But if the consequences for more affluent countries are serious, in the developing Balkan region they could be catastrophic. With current population trends, Djurdjev predicted that by mid-century, Serbia will be struggling to maintain its infrastructure and care for its older citizens. "In a demographic sense [Serbia] belongs to the modern world," he said, "but in an economic sense, it’s part of the third." In 2008, Djurdjev helped draft a national strategy for reversing the fall in fertility. Their suggestions ranged from giving families with more children cheap loans to giving third and fourth children €200 a month until their 18th birthday. The plan was approved but remains unimplemented for lack of money.
Tackling the "White Plague"
In the central city of Jagodina, Mayor Dragan "Palma" Markovic took aim at the declining birth rate last fall by hosting a dinner for 105 middle-aged bachelors and 145 single women aged 30 to 45 from all over Serbia, in hopes that his guests would pair off and have kids. Diners were invited on a seaside holiday in Greece, also funded by the city.
"So far eight couples have married, one baby has been born, and one is on its way," said Markovic, now a Member of Parliament and president of the city council. More weddings are pending.
"When it comes to fighting the white plague" – the Balkan term for the shrinking population – "no activity is too small," he said, "even if the result is the birth of only one more baby." Jagodina also gives unemployed women €120 each month from the third month of pregnancy until a child turns one, and families get €200 a month for every child after their third until its majority – significant pay-outs in a country with an average monthly wage of about €525. Markovic claimed the city also has the lowest cost in Europe to enroll a child in kindergarten, at €20 per month. He credited this emphasis on "family values" for Jagodina’s status as one of the few Serbian towns to gain population between the 2002 and 2011 censuses.
But demographer Djurdjev said programmes like Jagodina’s are a waste of money. "Measures for family planning can only be effective if they’re implemented at the national level," he said, arguing that funds should instead target structural problems, like recent studies revealing that the maternal age for a first child rose by two years – from 25 to 27 – over the past decade, a delay Mirjana Rasevic, director of the Institute for Social Research in Belgrade, called a "major reason" for the declining birth rate.
Another study found that university women on average plan to have 2.6 children, but their grown-up counterparts actually have an average of 1.6, suggesting that young women might not realise the consequences of putting off childbirth.
"Women giving birth at an older age often won’t be able to live up to their own views about the perfect number of children," Rasevic said.
Changing the expatriation paradigm
Back in Belgrade’s pedestrian Knez Mihailova Street, Jelena, 19, and Mirjana, 20, have the same dreams as those in Rasevic’s study. Both hope to be married with two or three children by their 30s. They blame the economic crisis, but also the growing tendency of young adults to spend more years on carefree pursuits or building their careers. "At some point, they remember that they also want to have children, but then it’s too late," Mirjana said.
A couple passing by with their son in a pram agreed. They blamed the low birth rate on "hedonism", but also on emigration that began when borders opened in the early 1990s. The 2011 census put the number at nearly 300,000, or about four per cent of the population, but demographers say official figures undercount emigrants.
"A critical mass of my generation have gone to the West for a better standard of living," 42-year-old Nenad said. "They were supposed to drive this country forward but have left and now have their children elsewhere."
Even with government intervention, Rasevic doubts much will change. Ticking off elements of the plan – "Financial help to the family, reconciling work and parenthood, development of systems to take care of working parents’ children" – she said the "maximal impact" of such measures "is to make fertility grow up to 10 per cent. In conditions of an extremely low birth rate, that’s not enough."
Instead, Rasevic urges "a new system of values and lifestyle" stressing the importance of family.
"The largest and most complex problem the population policies must solve lies in the mind," she said. "Both the political and the individual."
Uffe Andersen is a freelance journalist, living and working in Smederevo, Serbia