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TÜ professor: Estonia's birth rate impacted by economy, politics

Pregnant person.
Pregnant person. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

In the last two years, Estonia has seen record low birth rates. Mare Ainsaar, associate professor at the University of Tartu (TÜ), says that people's decision to have children are affected by both the economic situation and policy measures.

A total of 10,721 children were born in Estonia in 2023, usurping 2022 with the new lowest birth rate recorded since 1919. The country's population saw a negative natural increase last year, with 5,111 fewer births than deaths, Statistics Estonia reported Thursday.

Terje Trasberg, leading analyst at Statistics Estonia, explained that based on demographic trends, the birth rate shouldn't be expected to recover significantly, considering the fact that those currently of childbearing age belong to smaller generations is just one of the factors behind these low birth rates.

"You won't be seeing much bigger generations following from there either," Trasberg acknowledged. "Estonia's rate of natural increase has been negative throughout [its] period of reindependence. Only once, somewhere around 2010, did it briefly turn positive. Those people will soon reach an age where maybe there'll be a little bit of help there, but these future generations aren't very much bigger than the current ones either."

Broadly speaking, the causes can be split into short-term and long-term ones. Short-term causes include multiple crises piling up, which have also impacted other European countries' record low birth rates as well.

"We had the health crisis – [the] COVID-19 [pandemic] – followed immediately by the war, which clearly also affected the economy, and the rise in inflation and cost of living increase," the analyst cited. "It's precisely this cost of living increase that experts consider the biggest factor in why the decline in the birth rate has been so sharp."

"Approximately half of people of childbearing age care first and foremost about financial difficulties, and around 35 percent feel that insecurity and instability affect their decisions to have children," said Mare Ainsaar, associate professor of sociology and social policy at TÜ.

Long-term causes, however, include policy measures, and changing them can also affect the birth rate.

"Estonia is very generous with all kinds of child benefits, but what's also crucial in their case is that they remain stable – that they aren't changed," Trasberg explained. "It's precisely this stability that is so important when it comes to the birth rate, given that [having a baby] is a long-term event."

"The desire to have children is a personal decision, but of course it's affected by politics," Ainsaar said. "Because we also see that, perhaps because our policy measures have been aimed primarily at large families in recent years, the number of children [in those families] hasn't fallen, maybe, but the biggest issues are with first and second children specifically."

Minister of Social Protection Signe Riisalo (Reform) said that the Ministry of Social Affairs is conducting an analysis regarding what could be done.

"We must create the kind of environment where it's safe to raise children," Riisalo said. "That means all public services – education, healthcare, support for disabled children, parent education, mental health – to restore this sense of security."

The ministry's analysis is due to be completed by the end of the year.

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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