Spain’s declining birth rate equals “a demographic winter,” say experts
Story by Olivia Sears
MADRID- A temporary security guard at a tire company, María del Valle Soto waited years to achieve the financial stability she felt she needed before starting a family. She put off having children to earn her degree in sociology from the University of Basque Country. Then, she wanted to find a stable job and eventually buy a house before she settled down.
Now 41, Valle Soto and her boyfriend, José Miguel Solas, 28, have no kids, are renting an apartment and work odd jobs to pay their bills. She feels she waited too long and that the chance to be a mother has slipped away.
“I was waiting for stability, and I never got to that point,” she said through a translator. “Now I am too old and realize I will never have children.”
Following the trend across the European Union, Valle Soto and an increasing number of women in Spain have decided against starting families, or, they are having fewer children. As a result, it is the only country in Europe projected to see a decline in population in upcoming years, which means its already-struggling economy will get worse, experts say, because there won’t be enough people to fill critical jobs.
Alejandro Macarrón, the general director and economic consultant for Demographic Renaissance, calls it a “demographic winter.” “In this type of society, democracy will be dominated by the elderly,” he said. His nonprofit organization, based in Madrid, seeks to raise awareness about the consequences of low birth rates and aging populations.
What further worries him and other economists is that that country’s leaders, so far, have not done much to address the issue.
In the 1970s, Spain had the highest fertility rates in the EU, but now has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. In the last quarter century, the number of children per woman fell from 2.8 to 1.3, according to reports by the World Bank. That means Spanish women are averaging half as many children as they were 15 years ago.
“The drop in fertility is associated with the rapid shift to democracy,” explained Gerardo Meil, senior professor of sociology at the Autonomous University of Madrid.
From 1939 to 1975, Spain was under the rule of dictator Francisco Franco. Meil explained that during Franco’s reign, women were expected to have many children and stay home to raise them. While birth rates in the rest of Europe were slowly declining, Spain remained a country where the average family consisted of three or more kids.
With Franco’s death in 1975, though, the culture changed rapidly. During this period, access to education, contraceptives and divorce increased for women, while birth rates plummeted. “In the past it was a priority to get married and have children. It is not anymore,” said Macarrón.
Currently, 20 percent of the population is younger than 25, while 35 percent is over the age of 55. By 2050, Spain, which today has 47 million people, is expected to have the highest median age in the world, with half of Spaniards over the age of 55, the World Bank estimates.
Families, Macarrón pointed out, have already lost status among the country’s decision makers. For example, in the measures taken to combat Spain’s economic recession, the government cut public expenses in almost every area except for pensions. The reason: No one wants to anger older constituencies because they account for 30 percent of politicians’ support base. Another example: Salaries have been lowered and taxes have been raised for public and private sector employees, while pensions for elders have remained untouched.
Meanwhile, only 100,000 families in Madrid have three or more children, which means their voices and concerns are largely ignored. María Menéndez, president of the non-profit Association of Large Families in Madrid and mother of nine children between the ages 7 and 22, works to address this problem. Specifically, she has been lobbying for tax reform in favor of families.
“Politicians need to think in advance, instead of concentrating on the older demographic,” Menéndez, 49, said through a translator. She feared that large families are becoming increasingly rare, and “and the government is not helping. If anything, they are making things harder.”
Macarrón agreed. “In taxes, it doesn’t make any sense that if you have three kids you pay the same as someone who doesn’t,” he said. “The state has to provide the right services to limit the burden of children.”
In Spain, families receive a tax credit of $2,500 for the first child, $2,800 for the second, $5,000 for the third and $5,700 for fourth or any after, which is generous by many standards. In comparison, families from the United States may be able to reduce their annual federal income tax by $1,000 for each child. However, the child allowances in Spain, explained Menéndez, do not offset the cost of raising a child.
She would like more support from the government for those with children and for women in the workforce, including benefits such as longer maternity leaves. These measures, she said, will further encourage women to feel supported in having more children.
“In Spain, to grow as a country, we need women in the job market,” said Menéndez. “But the government only thinks of people as workers, not families.”
With their new focus on careers, women are also waiting longer to have children, according to Macarrón. The increase in average maternal age, now at 29 – it was 21 two decades ago – also leads to a decrease in number of children, contributing to the falling fertility rates.
Valle Soto knows this story well, too.
“Around 30, you start think to think about having kids here in Spain,” she said, “but my situation was not stable. I had many small jobs for a short period of time. I do administrative work, working in shops, and in the cinemas.”
In order for the country to recover and avoid the consequences of a shrinking native population, the fertility rate must increase by 60 percent and reach 2.1 children per woman. This is the critical replacement rate that will lead to neither growth nor decline, but will sustain the current population size into the next generation.
Also, immigration can diminish the impact of a declining birth date, as it did in Spain from 1998 through 2008. But those numbers are in decline as well.
As for the growing elderly population and how the already failing economy will support them, the Spanish government has not expressed urgency in finding a solution. But the numbers will evolve regardless. One that experts are watching in particular: The dependency rate will double by 2021, according to Macarrón, meaning there will be six people retired or in school for every person working.
“We are on a path of decline, a path of decay, a path of poverty,” he said. “And if we do not change soon, this projection will become a reality.”