Feature: Estonians starting to have more kids — because they can

Renovated delivery room in the public Pelgulinna Maternity Hospital in Tallinn.
Renovated delivery room in the public Pelgulinna Maternity Hospital in Tallinn. Source: Linda Liis Eek/Pelgulinna Maternity Hospital

While many first world countries are becoming childless, Estonians are finding ways to halt their long decline in fertility, Marian Männi writes for Research in Estonia.

When a group of young New York documentary filmmakers came to Estonia to report about its digital society, they ended up wishing they could move to this small and dark Nordic country. Not because of Estonia's e-governance solutions. Instead, they were more interested in having kids here.

In the queueless, seamless futuristic society where people can vote and do their taxes within minutes online, Estonia's new upcoming success story may be something much more conventional — its family policy.

Solving the crisis

"Estonia is starting to get noticed in recent years," said Allan Puur, Estonia's leading demography expert at Tallinn University (TLÜ).

Puur has been working with the parliamentary committee that deals with population issues. The committee — with a slightly dramatic name, the Study Committee to Solve the Demographic Crisis — was formed in 2017 and has been closely cooperating with researchers and experts in the field.

Their goal is to ensure that the Estonian nation, language and culture are preserved. In a country of only 1.3 million, this is a real challenge.

Luckily, Estonia has one of the best family policies in the world, as noted in a recent UN report.

For a year and half, Estonian parents receive fully paid parental leave, depending on their salary before getting pregnant, with a maximum of three average salaries. At the same time, they are still allowed to earn extra if they wish to do so. Either parent can take the leave.

Their previous job is retained for at least three years. If the mother has another child within 3 years, her benefits will continue to be the same. This provision tends to stimulate parents to have shorter birth intervals.

"The combination of relatively long leave and full replacement of previous salary in Estonia is even more generous than the leave systems in the Nordic countries, where the leave is either shorter or with full wage replacement," the UN report concluded.

Understandably, in such a small country, every child counts. And you can sense it in Estonia's maternity wards in public hospitals. They are almost magical places. There are baths, exercise balls and other equipment in many birthing rooms. Mothers can dim the lights and bring their own music to relax better. Each birth is marked on a public board in the corridor with pride. And all this, of course, is for free.

Population issues in focus during elections

Estonia's new family policy launched in 2004, the same year the country joined the European Union. Initially, the duration of leave was one year. In 2008, it was extended to 1.5 years.

And it paid off.

The total fertility rate jumped from 1.37 in 2003 to 1.72 in 2008. In other words, closer to two children per woman.

The positive impact of the parental leave scheme was clearly evident during the economic recession between 2009 and 2010 when, despite the upsurge of unemployment and deteriorated economic prospects, the fertility rate stayed at the level of 1.70-1.72.

Many women with one or two children made use of the generous parental leave to withdraw from the labor market, have another child and return to work later, when the peak of recession had passed, Puur explained.

In July 2017, another important family policy measure was introduced to encourage parents to have a third child by giving them additional benefits. During the next two years, the number of third births increased by more than 20 percent compared with the period before the measure.

Population experts say that whether fertility rates are relatively close to two births per woman or far below that level matters greatly, especially in countries where people tend to leave in great numbers. This was the case in Estonia after joining the European Union, although massive emigration has since halted.

Since 2015, Estonia has shown positive net migration.

How many children do Estonians have now?

To get a more realistic account of fertility levels, demographers use cohort fertility rates instead of the total fertility rate, which can be biased up or downwards depending on how the childbearing age changes, Puur explained. For Estonia, the cohort fertility rate shows that women who are approaching 40 years of age have had 1.80-1.85 children on average.

For ethnic Estonians, the average number of children amounts to 1.90. (Around one third of Estonia's population consists of Russian-speaking immigrants and their descendants, who have somewhat lower fertility rates.)

This means that Estonia is slightly above the modern fertility target of 1.8 children per woman. If this rate is sustained for an extended period of time, it would lead to a moderate annual population decline of 0.4 percent, according to the UN report. In that case, the government would still be able to tackle it with adjustments in the labor market, pension systems, healthcare and social security. Or it could even be offset by accepting moderate levels of immigration.

By contrast, a long-term total fertility rate close to 1.0 would result in a population shrinking by 2.4 percent annually as well as drastic population aging. Such a pace of decline would be challenging even for governments accepting many immigrants or implementing radical reforms to their social security and pension systems, the UN report states.

Such very low birth rates are not just hypothetical. Birth rates in Malta, Spain and Italy are the lowest in the EU — below 1.3 children per woman. Outside the EU, similarly low fertility levels are also found in a number of East Asian countries, including Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.

It is still early to say whether Estonia's family policy will produce results that are sustained for a longer time period and the total fertility rate will one day reach the dream number: an average of 2.1 children per woman.

Thus far, however, the measures have worked.

"Besides learning from the best practices of other countries, we have to experiment with new solutions on our own," Puur said.

Century of small families

Estonia has quite a unique history when it comes to its population.

Estonians started having fewer children during its national awakening period in the second half of the 19th century. It was during this period that Russian Tsar Alexander II gradually granted Estonian peasants the right to an education, property and the liberty to move within Estonia and abroad.

By the end of the century, 96 percent of Estonians were literate.

But the cribs now stay empty. By the turn of the 20th century, small families with around two children became the new norm.

It has been estimated that the "population explosion" that rapidly brought the world population from about 1.6 billion to 6 billion during the 20th century didn't affect Estonia as much and only increased the number of people by 1.6 times. This was extremely low growth compared to many other countries. In various developed countries, the increase was 15-20 times.

The 20th century was not kind to Estonia. The country was hit with world wars, Nazi and Soviet occupations, deportations and an exodus to the West in 1944.

And of course it affected parents' desire to bring babies into this world. In the 1950s and early 1960s, both Estonia and its neighboring Latvia had one of the lowest fertility rates in the world; this resulted in Estonia and Latvia being the only countries in the world that now have fewer people than before World War II.

In short, it's a miracle that Estonia even still exists.

And it seems this small country is doing everything it can to keep it that way.  


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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