Photograph: Angel Sifontes
Translation: Gigi Papaoulias
“I don’t want to think about it, I’m terrified by the thought.”
“I can’t see it as something I could do… I don’t want to say never, but …”
These are the answers I got from Marilena and Amalia when we asked “Do you want to have a child?” The 28 year-old women agreed to talk to me about the “baby recession” – the severe decline in birth rates in Greece, which has led the average number of children per couple in 2015 to drop to 1.3. With this indicator, the current population is unable to reproduce itself (at least two children per couple are needed) and estimates for the country’s population in the future are bleak.
Based on the National Statistical Service, in 1932 the annual birth rate in Greece exceeded 185,000, while in 2017 it was only 88,553. A few years ago, in 2011, for the first time in history, the mortality rate surpassed the birth rate. According to data of the Laboratory of Demographic and Social Analysis at the University of Thessaly, demographers believe that the current total population of 10,738,868 inhabitants will shrink to 8.3 million by 2050, perhaps for the most pessimistic, the estimate is 6.5 million. It will indeed be an aging population, since according to a recent survey by NGO HOPEgenesis it is approximated that more than three out of ten people in Greece will be 65 or older by 2050. And just one out of ten will be either children or adolescents.
“The latest data indicates that deaths exceed births not by 2,000 or 3,000, but 35,000. In addition, there are now fewer women than men,” states Georgios Creatsas (Professor of Gynecology and Obstetrics, University of Athens and Honorary Chairman of the Scientific Board of HOPEgenesis). “Young people should make it a goal, when they are adults, to have a child. The opposite is procrastination. We are no longer interested in the demographic. Whether you fault school, the state, doctors, minors or adults, no one is interested in the future.”
“I’ve never thought about having a baby, first of all for practical reasons. I can’t support myself,” explains Marilena Moschou, an actor who has been working for the past couple of years as an assistant director on three-month contracts, as the acting profession is very competitive. A year ago, she moved into her own apartment and lives alone, but it is not sure that she’ll be able to keep it. “I earn €500 per month, I pay €220 for rent. I had to ask my parents for help. I live month-to-month.” She first left her parents’ home in 2012 (which was the worst year) to live on her own with a roommate. “I could feel the economic crisis, it became clear that the money I was making was not enough. I could get by with €500 in 2010 and 2011 but not in 2012.” Her girlfriends who have kids are virtually under-employed and depend on their husbands’ income to live. And what about Marilena? When she turned 26, she explains, “I felt a great panic” because her mother was 26 when she had her. “I thought, back then she was able to have me, while now it is not at all possible for me.”
Amalia Gerolymatou is not able to live on her own, due to financial reasons. After finishing her studies in Ioannina, in infant care/teaching young children, she was forced to return to her mother’s home. “It’s hard, because you feel trapped, living in your childhood room again,” she says. Since October she’s been employed at a public day care center, but because she is paid via OAED (state employment organization), she has yet to receive her €500 per month salary. “Before I got this job, I was unemployed for eight months, now I am employed but I am unpaid. This attitude of oh, you’ll be paid at some point could wipe out a parent with obligations.”
Through her work at the day care center, Amalia sees the difficulties of the parents first-hand – the center currently hosts 80 children, while the space is designed to accommodate only 30 children. “Mothers are at work for many hours, so we have a lot of children at day care centers, because parents have nowhere else to leave them. Both parents work all day. And even with two salaries, families are just getting by. This does not give you an incentive to have a child.”
After meeting with the young women, the implications were overwhelming. To begin with, both women, at age 28, are at their “peak fertility” as I was told by my gynecologist when I was that age, and was cautioned that henceforth female fertility begins to gradually decline.
When and if they finally decide to have children, they may face challenges and have to endure the psychologically painful process of IVF. Both of the young women I interviewed are paid via OAED (state employment organization). Their very employment is, so to speak, “fictitious.” They are assisted by the state in finding work, they are assisted by their parents to make ends meet. They are still not initiating production, although they are entering one of the most creative phases of their lives. Perhaps we have already become a country of old people…
But the cost of raising children, the salary reductions and the economic downturn are not at all fictitious. According to a survey by NGO diaNEOsis, (coordinated by Μanos Matsaganis professor at the Polytechnic of Milan), between 2009-2014, young people aged 18-29 lost 44.8% of their income, the largest percentage of any other age group. Besides young people, victims of the crisis are also families with one or two children, which are affected more than families without children or large families. At the same time, based on data presented by Ira Emke-Poulopoulou, vice president of the Hellenic Society of Demographic Studies, the cost of raising a child from birth to the age of 18 was estimated in 1994 at about €53,000, while in December 2014 the estimate had exceeded €107,000. The researcher has also authored a book titled The Population of Greece under Persecution.
In crisis-stricken Greece, in 2013 all tax relief provisions relating to families with children were eliminated. Μost of the state benefits for families and children, were converted into two income benefits: the “single child support allowance” for all parents and the “special allowance for families with three or more children.” In 2018, both of those allowances were eliminated and replaced with one general “child benefit allowance” based on income level.
Between 1995-2004, the “golden age” of social spending, the state did not support child and family welfare, and only spent 4% of the funding on this category. Today, it’s a bit… too late. The crisis has put pressure on working mothers and women who are considering having a child. According to the Greek General Confederation of Labor (GSEE), many employers violate the rights of pregnant workers, as is evident in an extreme case where a pregnant woman, employed as a museum attendant, was refused her right to alter the working environment to suit her needs, resulting in severe hemorrhage due to standing for extended periods of time. In the private sector, mothers are less likely to use the facilities available to them because they are afraid of losing their jobs. With the crisis, the silence has grown.
But the problem of low birth rates began before the financial crisis, essentially for the first time since the 1950s. And no matter how tempting it is to explain it mainly on the basis of economic criteria, it’s more complex. A large majority of young people don’t want to have children at all – the thought is really “terrifying” to them. But why is that?
“Population decline is the result of both personal choice and economic circumstances. From the 80s on, people lived better with two children. The crisis hit and two children became one,” says Anastasia Barbouni, pediatrician and professor of Public Health and Disease Prevention at the National School of Public Health. It was preceded by the 90s, during which migrants who came to Greece “stimulated” the birth rate. However, today, immigrants are leaving the country along with the Greeks. Both Ms Barbouni and Artemis Tsitsika, (Associate Professor of Adolescent Medicine at the University of Athens and head of the Adolescent Health Unit at Kyriakou Children’s Hospital), stress that steps must be taken to support women. “If we don’t do anything,” warns Ms Tsitsika, “one in four women born after 1970 will remain childless.” In other words, her reproductive cycle will come to a close without producing any children.
Vironas Kotzamanis, professor of demography and director of the Laboratory of Demographic and Social Analyses (LDSA) at the University of Thessaly, stresses that in an attempt to explain the phenomenon of population decline, scientists developed four theories which complement each other. The first, the rational theory, maintains that potential parents weigh the pros and cons of having a child, i.e. the cost in relation to the emotional satisfaction. The second, the theory of avoiding risk, explains that the lack of better prospects for the future, makes such a decision difficult. The third, the theory of meta-materialistic values, argues that the increasing individualism and narcissism of the new generations leads them to choose the maximum fulfillment of their perceived needs. The fourth, the theory of gender equality, reminds us of something very important. If women don’t see equality in the distribution of the responsibilities of child rearing, young women who are expected – like their mothers – to bear all the combined responsibility of a job, housework, and raising a child, will decide to not have children. Young women look upon the bitter example of their “tired feminist” mothers. It is no wonder that the thought of having a child terrifies them…
Employment is not the reversal of fertility, as was believed in the past. France and the Scandinavian countries concurrently display both the highest birth rate levels and the highest levels of employed women. On the contrary, the European south shares, besides the crisis, lower rates of employed women, as well as patriarchy and population decline. However, if the problem of population decline is chronic, it was only a month ago that the politicians were informed of the issue with a report by a special parliamentary committee. This is the first time since 1993 that the issue has been brought to parliament. What can be done? Mr. Kotzamanis, a member of the inter-party committee, says that measures will not have an immediate outcome, they must be taken progressively in all areas.
First, perhaps, emphasis should be placed on preschool education to help new mothers. Measures such as the early retirement of women, which were taken in the past, were simply disastrous and misguided. Nor are benefits and allowances enough, especially in a time when state funds are low. A total change of attitude is required. And, according to Μanos Matsaganis, “there is a need for a shift in public policy from exclusive obsession with the elderly generation towards the new generations.”
A decade ago we were talking about the ‘€700-generation’ or the ‘€1,000-euro-generation living outside of Greece, the milleuristi in Italy or mileuristas in Spain. It was the so-called precariat – the unstable, non-privileged new generation, the new proletariat. At present, young employees have evolved, to an even worse position, to the €500-generation and €300-generation. The bibliography in fact speaks of a “war between the generations”, with the older generations now being the privileged workers. The only thing that saves us here from such a “war” is the fact that the Greek family is funneling all its money to its younger family members. The grandparents’ pensions and lump-sum allowances are given to the younger family members so they can study at university and to support other unemployed and underemployed family members, even grandchildren. Perhaps this war, however, will remain a “cold war.” And young people, too weak to free themselves economically and socially, will continue to refrain from their “contractual obligations” – thus fueling the baby recession.