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Researcher: Families have fewer children than they would like

A baby in a baby carrier.
A baby in a baby carrier. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

A senior researcher believes there is no problem with families wanting to have children in Estonia, but many have fewer than they would like. The main reason is economic security.

Estonia's population is growing, but the cause is immigration, not a rising birthrate. Last year, the lowest number of children were born in 100 years and the number is expected to be below 11,000 this year. A similar trend is also seen across Europe.

Demographers lay the blame on the rising cost of living, although the trend was not so steep after the 2008 economic crisis.

But another factor is that the number of people of childbearing age in Estonia is smaller than in previous generations as fewer children were born in the 1990s.

The Ministry of Social Affairs is planning a comprehensive overview of family policy to try and find the existing barriers. Surveys are also being carried out to see if the main concerns are economic, political, or lifestyle-related.

Anna Guzman from Tartu has two children. The 37-year-old works at a clinical research company in the medical sector. She told Sunday's "Aktuaalne kaamera" she had her first child at 34.

Anna Guzman. Source: ERR

"When I was younger, I had this romantic notion that I wanted to be a very young mother. Since my mother had me at 23, I also thought I wanted to be a youthful mother of three. But well, life went its own way. /.../ I can think of all sorts of nice reasons for wanting to work and there were all sorts of interesting projects. That's also true, it's not wrong. I guess in the end, the real reason was not having someone to make these kids with," she said.

At 30, she bought a one-way ticket and went backpacking to Latin America. That's where she met her future husband David.

"Coincidence or no coincidence. Maybe I was too busy, and as I got older it was harder and harder to find a partner. Maybe it's the fact that everyone's busy already or everyone's working or hanging out in their own social circles. But when traveling, there are more people," Guzman said.

Research also shows finding the right partner is a growing concern. But, at the same time, many couples in long-term relationships are choosing not to have children or putting it off.

Mare Ainsaar, senior sociology and social policy researcher at the University of Tartu, has observed this trend.

Mare Ainsaar Source: ERR

"What we are seeing now is that younger people who could have a first or second child are then either postponing the births they had hoped for or not having them [children] at all. If we look at the number of children, about a quarter of second children are unborn, and about 20 percent of first children. The third or fourth children and onwards, they're fine," Ainsaar told AK.

She said the main reason is economic insecurity and talk of cutting family benefits will not help, rather there should be discussions about raising them.

The research also shows that the younger a person is, the more concerns there are.

"In addition to the cost of living, there are worries about their own progress, unfinished studies or job insecurity or where they will live. Young people are the most vulnerable," said Ainsaar.

Gerda, a 28-year-old society and history teacher, said she is still undecided if she wants children or not.

"In the meantime, I had made a deal that I would give birth to one child and we would adopt the other. Looking at what's happening in the world at the moment, my will is disappearing more and more every day. I work as a teacher, and the salary I get is enough to live on as a single person, but I can't imagine how I would live if I had children or a child. It's not enough in my opinion, I can't even get a normal bank loan with that money," she said.

The climate crisis and the war in Europe have also raised additional concerns.

"I think we are living at a time when so many things could change in the next 10 years, just in terms of the health of the planet. That doesn't give me any confidence that things will get better. I don't want my descendants to suffer," she said.

While in some countries, fewer people are deciding to have children, this trend is not present in Estonia. Ainsaare said approximately 5 percent of people in Estonia consciously decide not to have children.

"We don't have the problems that other countries have, where young people actually say they don't want children. /.../ This desire is still quite high. Even if it's no longer 2.2 or 2.3 children, but it's 2 or 1.9 children even among the younger ones, it's still higher than what we actually have. So the problem for Estonia is still, in fact, that we have a big gap between the number of children we want and the actual number [we have]. Maybe we should not worry so much about the will, but still about how this can be realized," she said.

A child playing with toys. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

However, things could change in the long term. "What we see in other countries, in China or Germany, when it becomes the norm to have one child, for example, the will changes," said Ainsaar.

The low birth rate is not causing problems at the moment, but it may become an issue as the population ages.

Magnus Piirits, social insurance and economic expert at the Ministry of Social Affairs, said there two sides to thing about.

"One is low birth rates, the other is longer life expectancy. This is a positive trend in itself, we are living longer, but there is also the fact that healthy life years have not increased like life expectancy. As a result, a longer part of life is spent with illness, with health problems," he said.

"On the one hand, there are no more people of working age, and on the other, the population is aging. So an ageing population increases social protection expenditure and the revenue side does not grow as fast as the expenditure. That is where the long-term problem arises," Piirits added.

The Health Insurance Fund's expenses are forecast to be higher than its income in the near future. Forecasts show the deficit will grow to €1 billion by 2035.

"To get a pension of at least 40 percent of the average national salary, you also need more or less €1 billion each year alone. So, if the birth rate is even lower, revenues will not grow even as fast as originally projected," said Piirits.

There is little optimism that the birth rate will sharply increase in the future. Every drop means that there will also be fewer potential parents in the future.

"Migration is one thing to think about, but it cannot be the only solution. Changes in the social protection system need to be addressed, how the Health Insurance Fund can get more revenue," Piirits said.

If additional funds cannot be found, moving towards means testing is the only way forward, he said.

A pregnant woman. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Back in Tartu, Gerda, the teacher, said politicians need to come up with a solution.

"A real development plan of what they are prepared to do to make Estonian society sustainable. At the moment, all I hear are words, but I don't see much action. Let's finally get down to the details. Our education system is collapsing, our health system is barely standing /.../ Stop bickering amongst yourselves. These people have not been elected to produce headlines for the tabloids, but to run the country." she said.

The low birth rate is a global problem. Estonia is still around average when compared to other countries.

"No country is quite at replacement level. But yes, the decline that we had last year and are going to have this year is very steep. So if it continues, I think we'll be in that low-birth-rate group very quickly," Ainsaar said.

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Editor: Merili Nael, Helen Wright

Source: Aktuaalne kaamera. Nädal

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