Poland’s natural population decline has reached its highest level since the Second World War, according to new data from Statistics Poland (GUS), a government agency.
Last year, 375,000 people were born in Poland (the green line in the graph below), which was 13,000 fewer than in 2018. Meanwhile, 410,000 people died (red line in the graph), continuing on a long-term upward trend.
GUS, dane wstępne:
W całym 2019 urodziło się 375 tys. dzieci. To o 13 tys. mniej niż rok temu.
Zmarło 410 tys. (Rok wcześniej 414 tys.)
W 2019 o 35 tys. więcej osób zmarło niż się urodziło. To największa różnica od IIWŚ. pic.twitter.com/hRJBnX9Ro2
— Rafał Mundry (@RafalMundry) January 29, 2020
Experts say that the current decline was to be expected, and is largely caused by shifts in the underlying demographic structure.
“The number of births and deaths depends on age structure,” Irena Kotowska, a professor of demographics at the Warsaw School of Economics and chair of the demographics committee at the National Academy of Sciences, told Notes from Poland.
“These processes have an internal mechanism,” explained Kotowska. “Recovery will take a while, because the number of women who can have children in future years has decreased.” Moreover, as the share of elderly people in Poland’s population increases, there will also be a rise in the number of deaths, said Kotowska.
Poland’s fertility rate currently stands at 1.43, well below the replacement rate and trailing the EU average of 1.59, according to Eurostat. The government recently admitted that it’s flagship “500+” child-benefit programme has failed to boost the number of births.
Another factor is that Polish women are having children later, at a median age of 30 in 2018, up from 26 in 2000. The GUS report pinned this on changing “attitudes and life priorities of young people”, such as choosing to first “reach a certain level of education and economic stability”.
Piotr Szukalski, a professor of demographics at the University of Łódź, explained that this year’s slump could also be a hangover from the 2017 peak in births. At that time, the median age of women having their second and third child briefly fell as many sped up their plans for having children. This has resulted in fewer children being born subsequently.
“I suspect that this was caused by ‘500+’, which led those who wanted to have a second or third child anyway to have them quicker” due to uncertainty around how long the handouts would be issued, Szukalski told Notes from Poland.
“When Civic Platform [the current main opposition] was in power, the onus was on helping working people, especially working women, reconcile their careers with caring for their family,” said Szukalski. Maternal leave was extended and funds were channelled to nurseries and kindergartens.
By contrast, under the current government, the focus has shifted to lifting the financial strain of larger families, he added. Last year, the government introduced a new “Mama 4+” programme that will provide a guaranteed minimum pension to mothers who have given birth to and raised four or more children.
The best way to increase fertility is to ensure husbands earn enough to raise 3 or 4 children and not by building nurseries and preschools that permit both parents to work, which is a legacy of communism, said a leading PiS figure in an election debate https://t.co/fnOcoEqLKk
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) October 7, 2019
As a side-effect of the child-benefit programme, in the first year an estimated 150,000 women left the workforce, estimated Gazeta Prawna. Poland already trails behind other European countries in terms of workforce participation, according to the OECD, and scores low on female participation in the workforce.
According to Kotowska, natalist programmes which diminish workforce participation end up being counterproductive. “Having both parents work is not an obstacle to having children. It can actually encourage it,” Kotowska said. “Therefore we should be discussing how we can allow them to make a living and bring up kids at the same time,” she added.
The current conservative government has also cut state funding for in vitro fertilisation (IVF), which had previously been helping to boost the number of births.
A greying population is also set to put growing pressure on pensions, with the annual deficit of Poland’s state social-insurance institution (ZUS) expected to surpass 100 billion zloty by 2026, according to the Kalecki Foundation, a think tank. The median Pole is 41 years old today, but by 2040 this is expected to rise to 50, reported Gazeta Wyborcza.
Poland’s demographic woes, made worse by the emigration of an estimated 1.7 million Poles to other parts of the EU, have long been on the political agenda. “If we cannot drag Poland out of the demographic pit, we cannot begin talking about development” said Mateusz Morawiecki, then the development minister and now prime minister, in 2016.
As well as seeking to raise the birth rate and encouraging Poles abroad to return home, the current government has also overseen an unprecedented wave of immigration, with Poland issuing more residence permits to non-EU citizens than any other member states for the last two years.
Maria Wilczek is deputy editor of Notes from Poland. She also contributes regularly to The Economist and Al Jazeera, and has also written for The Times, Politico Europe, The Spectator and Gazeta Wyborcza.