Demographer: Why are we a nation of only a million?

At the start of the demographic transition in Estonia, couples decided to have less children, as lower child mortality meant tighter material conditions for families.
At the start of the demographic transition in Estonia, couples decided to have less children, as lower child mortality meant tighter material conditions for families. Source: Estonica

The lack of explosive population growth has been troubling Estonians for more than a century. A successful policy on population growth requires consistency in striking agreements between political parties and thus transcending ideological barriers, says Mark Gortfelder, a demographic researcher at the University of Tallinn.

For decades, Estonian opinion leaders and people in the cultural sector have been concerned about the nation's survival. This worry is understandable as soon as one compares the size of the Estonian population with the populations in other countries in Europe. So why are the effects of the demographic explosion so modest in Estonia?

This is, indeed, the central question: Why are we still a nation of a million only? In the past, the low demographics in Estonia were partly due to the shattering effects of the Great Northern War (1700–1721) and the famines, but the non-explosive character of the population explosion in Estonia thereafter, which is also the case in Latvia, is quite unique in the world.

Next to Estonia, we see that also in France the demographic transition (a shift from higher birth and death rates in societies with minimal technological and socioeconomic development to lower birth and death rates in those societies at a more advanced stages of development, - ed.) was accompanied by population increase of less than twice the size of the original population. By comparison, even in countries neighboring Estonia, such as Finland and Sweden, the increase was considerably greater, i.e., three to four times, and in England over seven times. In some African countries the population growth is expected to increase in more than a tenfold.

In my work I have shown that the key to understanding such slow population growth in Estonia lies in the specific nature of the Estonian, Livonian, and Curonian principalities (the three Baltic provinces of the Russian Empire corresponding roughly to present-day Latvia and Estonia – ed.). On the one hand, the abolishing of serfdom (1816-1819) left the peasantry dependent on the actual landowners for a long time after the reform (for half a century they were not allowed to own land, - ed.) So the dependence of the peasant on the landlord remained high and land was scarce. On the other hand, there is also a cultural aspect to the problem of slow population growth at that time. Being brought up under the influence of Germanic culture and education and in the spirit of Protestantism affected economic thinking and demographic behavior in society. An emphasis was put on deliberation and planning and the power of individual free choice.

I should add, that this hypothesis is speculative in nature, i.e., it is based on logical conclusions I have drawn from the primary sources and not on data-driven analysis.

If we look specifically at the childbearing patterns, we see that the decline in the mean number of children, apart from Estonia and Latvia, happened as early as the 19th century only in France, Belgium and in a few Nordic states. What do these countries have in common?

In Belgium, we have seen a clear difference in fertility rate between its French-speaking and Dutch-speaking populations. There was a time difference of at least half a century in the change of fertility behavior. This was due to a phenomenon of the French-speaking Wallonian culture that was characterized by early secularization and resistance to the church authority that challenged the established worldview and family image.

In northern Europe and England there is certainly a Protestant spirit present. Although some of those countries are separated by hundreds or even thousands of kilometers, it could be said that the protestant way of life is a common feature of all those societies and that was a major influence on their childbearing behavior.

Speaking of digital solutions offered in Estonia today: we seem to enjoy living in a progressive society. How should we think about this demographic stagnation?

Speaking of pride, I heard people exchanging jokes about how Estonian demographers are implying that even our demographic data illustrates that this is not Russia. We have since long established a European marriage pattern, which was lacking in Russia and most of eastern Europe. Added to this was a very early occurrence of demographic transition in Estonia. We could perhaps take more pride in that, since it represents another case in point of being closer to Northern Europe than the East.

Border cases are, of course, always interesting. For example, in my recent article on birth rates, I have shown to what extent were the Estonian and Russian-speaking areas clearly differentiated at the time. The only exceptions were the Seto people of Petseri county, who were more like orthodox Russians than fellow Estonians.

Number of children the second half of the 19th century Estonia. Source: Mark Gortfelder

Despite the overall high level of development in the country, there are still visible differences between the urban and rural ways of life here. How did rural and urban areas differ in terms of demographic trends in the second half of the 19th century?

This difference was certainly significant. However, if you compare it to us, I would even say that in terms of childbearing patterns, the gap between a very urbanized settlement and a rural settlement is even greater today. My publication in Acta Historica  (In Estonian - ed.) discusses the differences between rural areas in Estonia at that time. In some places, the number of children have been even at the same level as in the cities, while other more peripheral areas had yet a completely different birth rate.

However, cities clearly had a role to play in this development, as in urban surroundings the traditional way of life inherited from manor and parish-based communities started to disappear. Urbanization was accompanied, among other things, by the decline in the number of churches and so the influence of clerical and parochial pressure has also waned. The effects of shifting from a private way of life in villages to a largely anonymous city life played the decisive role in the decline of birth rate. Also, Marxist tendency was more widespread in cities, even though there were a lot of rural laborers with no property of their own in the countryside.

In the cities at the beginning of the 20th century, the living spaces were tiny. Looking at the apartment listings of Tallinn and Tartu of that time, one can see a whole family living in a single room, and in cases of very poor families a corner of that one-room apartment was even sublet to a few other tenants. Such a shortage of space made it difficult to maintain the traditional number of children per family.

Living next to those poor families, who had been arriving from the countryside and settling in cities, were also the elites and the educated. About them, we could say that not only the waning influence of the church has changed their Christian worldview, but also their active political stance in adopting ideas of liberalism, Marxism, and nationalism contributed to that.

The fast pace of industrialization certainly lead to higher consumption rates and pleasure-seeking behavior, and the Marxist worldview added to the attitude of seeing sex for pleasure while having a child was considered as a tedious routine and an additional chore.

Anton Hansen Tammsaare, for example, notes how the cafe culture at the time was not conducive to having children, i.e., women at the local bars were expected to be beautiful, petite, and well-endowed, not akin in anyway to wide-hips and sunken-breast land workers. In the same spirit, the men who Tammsaare described expected women to be city girls, not so much mothers.

Hugo Bernhard Rahamägi, who became the leader of the Lutheran Church in Estonia, said that while he was working as a private teacher for the children of the elite and middle-class attending secondary level schools at the beginning of the century, he heard them proudly and openly discussing their new contraceptive methods. This must even have been a status symbol for them.

At least in terms of worldview, the 20th century has seen many opportunities for bridging the gap between the rural and urban areas. What factors are still influencing fertility rates in such convergent worldviews?

Rural and urban areas have indeed conformed, especially due to the noticeable influence of mass media - radio, television and the internet. However, opinion polls and election results still today show that conservative vs. progressive tensions in society exist, eve though they are not as prominent as they were in the past. And while we are still reading in history novels how easy it is to spot a country person in a city by his or her looks, it is not really that simple any longer.

On the other hand, other factors such as housing needs have remained in place. While there is a huge increase in the number of square meters of living space per capita in cities compared with the early 20th century, we still see in the high-density residential areas dominated by apartment blocks, that the birth rate is lower than in those residential areas that have gardens and larger housing. The comfort and suitability of housing and the safety of the living environment for children are still important motives for the consideration of having a child.

Due to the complex nature of the problem and the sheer abundance of nuances, it is not easy to regulate the demographic development in a country. There is no single correct answer how politicians and policymakers should set the development in the right direction, rather they have to keep turning several knobs at the same time, hoping to reach the desired effect.

The problem is that those who are in power often share similar life conditions, outlooks and educational backgrounds, and that reflects on policy making in general. It is a challenge to also account for people with different life expectations, opinions and values. Even when the diversity and heterogeneity is rightly addressed, endorsing such policies in reality also has its complications.

Two examples come in handy here: the main reason the birthrate in Germany is so low is that they have an ultra-conservative outlook on family relations, the labor market, etc., which results in the practice where mother after having a child stays at home to care for her family. At best, she does part-time work. This does not encourage women who are willing to pursue a career to also have children.

In Estonia and the Nordics, on the other hand, it is rather common to do both at the same time, i.e.,  to have a child while pursuing a career. For example, in the heated debate on family allowances, women with more than three children are even ridiculed - the allowance is said to be so high that they will never return to work.

However, the latest opinion polls show that the majority of women in Estonia think that family and children should take precedence over work. That is to say, our policymakers, who may personally have different expectations, should take those opinion polls seriously.

Coming back to the demographic changes in the late 19th century, in which regions of Estonia did these developments take place the fastest and how did this happen? Risking overgeneralization: the number of children seems to have a strong correlation with wealth, which brings to mind the historic region of Mulgimaa at the time.

Yes, in addition to urban areas, there were also two rural areas where the changes in fertility rates occurred relatively early on.

One of them is Mulgimaa (a clearly distinguishable ethnographic and linguistic area in the 19th century Estonia, which includes present day Viljandi County and the northwest part of Valga County - ed.). In the parish of Helme in Mulgimaa, the drop in birthrates was recorded a little later than in the other parishes in northern Viljandimaa. The overall early development there is certainly no surprise - the purchase of farms there started earlier. (After the abolition of serfdom, Mulgi people were among the first who started to buy out their farms, and so the second half of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries is considered a golden era of Mulgimaa. – ed.) It was also one of the cradles of the Estonian nationalist movement. There were many people from Mulgimaa among the elite of independent Estonia. It was a breeding ground for a new identity that valued education and social participation. Thus, not only economic progress played a role in the early demographic transition in this area, but also the cultural factors.

The second region is southern Läänemaa and northern Pärnumaa, where the surprise in terms of demographic data is even greater. It was poorer than many of the other areas, and even education-wise it was not as prominent. Why did modernization take place so quickly in this area, which resulted in changes to the birthrate, has not been explained so far.

A quote in a newspaper article from 1920 by the pastor of one of the congregations of St. Michael's parish might cast some light on what was going on. The pastor speaks of itinerant traders selling cheap materials and equipment for family planning and pregnancy prevention purposes. Whether such merchants were active elsewhere or whether there was a much greater demand in the area, we don't know for sure.

With the advent of WWI, the birth rates in most European countries have dropped. Although there was a noticeable recovery after the war, it did not last long. How did the war and independence affect Estonia's birth rate?

Indeed, during WWI, the birth rate fell significantly across Europe. With men returning home, the birth rate increased for a few years. Thereafter, the birth rate stabilized, but at a lower level than before. This was the case both here and in the rest of Europe, including Norway and Sweden that the war (largely - ed.) passed by.

The First World War led to a series of social changes - women went to work and the further liberalization of society gained momentum. At the same time, the big-scale war gave rise to prostitution that fueled the spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea and chlamydia, which had a negative impact on people's ability to have children as well. It is very difficult to quantify the possible impact of this factor due to the private nature of the topic, but that might explain why fertility rates among men in the upper classes were lower than among other classes. Even though they married late in life, it is unlikely that they did not have premarital sexual encounters.

Prostitution and the spreading of venereal diseases also gave impetus to mass production of condoms. For example, the aforementioned Hugo Bernhard Rahamägi noted how German soldiers set up condom machines in Saaremaa during the war, leading to the mass production and popularization of condoms on the entire island.

Glancing over the past century, we see that the total fertility rate in Estonia has been below the replacement rate for most of the time, even with mortality in decline during this period. As this is still in the spotlight, due to the results of the population census and the debate on family benefits bill, in which way is the current situation in demographic terms special? Is there something we should be worried about?

It is estimated that the birth rates in generations that came into being at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century were, implicitly, a third or a quarter below the Estonian replacement rate (i.e., fertility rate of children per woman, which is needed to maintain a society's population size - ed.). By way of comparison, for the cohort born in the 1970s, i.e. the last generation to reach the end of the childbearing years, the shortfall is around 10 percent of the total population, and even less for ethnic Estonians.

It is satisfactory to realize that the debates we have today in developed countries are in fact very old, even 100-120 years ago they existed in exactly the same way. So we can conclude that the birth rate decline is an inherent problem modern societies are facing, i.e., fertility rates tend to be lower than needed to maintain population levels in those societies.

It is an equally serious problem not only for Europe but also for East and South Asia, among other places. For example, in relatively poor and not very westernized Thailand, the current birth rate is 1.1. So this tendency is spreading and becoming a fairly common phenomenon. However, birth rates below replacement levels are not necessarily problematic for the overpopulated Netherlands or Thailand. A shrinking population would result in more space for nature and thus less pollution.

From Estonia's perspective, however, every little decline is painful, as there are already so few of us. Compared to Western Europe, where the issue of low birthrate is mainly linked to economic prosperity, the labor market and welfare state programs, we also face a more existential challenge of sustaining our national culture.

What demographic indicators could we best focus on? Judging from the birth rate at a given calendar period could make us overly pessimistic and longing for the good old days. Conversely, considering only the mean number of children of a given cohort seems like burying one's head in the sand. What do demographers say?

Nowadays, when people have on average only two children, and the childbearing age varies greatly, it is not enough to use a period analytical view only. The normal sum total of birthrates cannot be taken as a golden mean. Going that way, may result in a one-sided and distorted representation of reality. Depending on changes in the timing of childbearing, it may be either too high or too low compared to the actual mean number of children in a given cohort that has reached the end of its reproductive cycle. In this sense, the cohort account of the total fertility rate is an important indicator.

As demographers, we monitor both of those factors quite closely: a year-by-year view is important for planning the number of expected nursery or school places, or to better understand the short-term changes due to societal shocks such as the coronavirus pandemic or financial crisis. With a cohort view, we can see the actual replacement of generations more accurately than with a period view. Unfortunately, it is often the case that only a period view is taken in account, and in this light Estonia's present is dark and so is its future. A cohort view gives a much better representation of the situation in Estonian.

Leaving aside the effects of revolutions and wars, individual historic events tend to have a minor impact on population processes, which are inherent to the context of people's lifespans. What should policymakers make of that? What period of time should be allowed to fully see the results of population policies?

When it comes to fertility and mortality, these are certainly long-term factors. Our ability to change them quickly is limited - just think of Juhan Parts, who hoped to get the total fertility rate up to 2.1 by the end of his time as prime minister (2003-2005, Res Publica). His plan did not work out due to the fact that the expectation to see a change in such a short period of time was naive, as Parts admitted later.

Politicians largely understand very well that the nature of the problem is long-term. Demographic processes, unlike economic changes, have a long cycle, which is coming close to the cycle of one generation. So back to basics -- there is no silver bullet to solve the problem once and for all. The impact of the implemented measures need to be continuously monitored so that those measures could be changed on the go as events unfold, i.e., rather than expecting them to be effective in ten years' time.

Consistency is certainly very important. As governments fall, and so do their policies, but it would be great to have some consensus among the parties that helps to ensure this continuity. However, there is no consensus at the moment, and the debate on population policy is sadly becoming increasingly ideological. People's views on value issues also determine their views on family benefits, for example. It is probably naive to expect a consensus with political polarization deepening at the moment.

Also, when looking for working solutions in policies from other countries, it would be better to look to our neighboring countries. While almost all Western countries face the challenge of ageing populations and declining birth rates, it is more useful for us to take the lead from the Nordic countries than, e.g., from the U.S., and from Visegrad countries (a cultural and political alliance between the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia – ed.) rather than from Israel. They are culturally closer to us.

And finally, looking at current trends, will the Estonian people exist still in 2100?

Surely, they will. Judging by the history of the world, the extinction of a group with a certain identity does not mean that they necessarily become physically extinct, rather this means they are assimilated by some other group that had dominated them.

The genetic composition of Estonians is certainly not 100 percent Finno-Ugric or Finnic, which is only a small part of our genetic profile. This means that when the they came here, they assimilated the local population who might have lived here for a long time or have just moved here. For example, many people from Finland came to northern Estonia in the 17th century, which resulted in the cultural dominance over people living at the time in Estonia.

For us, the extinction of the Estonian people would not mean that we all perish and that our genes disappear, but that our identity would be diluted again or even replaced through cultural mixing. I believe that by the end of this century there is no such threat.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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