Demographics in Spain: a real and serious problem requiring urgent action

Alarm about the decline of the population in Spain has been raised in the media after the publication of the latest data from the National Institute of Statistics (INE). We spoke to Canadian demographer Alban D'Entremont about this problem.

Rafael Hernández Urigüen-February 13, 2016-Reading time: 6 minutes
old people sitting on a bench in the street.

For the first time since 1999, more deaths than births were registered in Spain. According to the INE, in the first quarter of 2015 there were 206,656 births and 225,924 deaths, resulting in a negative balance of 19,268 fewer people.

In the Basque Country the demographic crisis is even more serious, since the figures speak of only 8.8 children per 1,000 inhabitants, compared to 9.1 in the national average and 10 in the European Union. In the Basque Country, the number of people over 65 years of age has increased considerably (there are currently 458,396), while those under 20 years of age only total 202,082. Furthermore, according to the INE, Basques between 30 and 40 years of age, who now number 372,000, will barely reach 207,000 in 2023.

However, this worrying demographic anemia has hardly been the object of attention in the state or Basque political debate, with only lukewarm or non-existent proposals in favor of the family and the birth rate in electoral programs. Although it is worth mentioning the appeals made in the last few years in favor of the family and the birth rate. arartekos (Basque Ombudsmen) in parliament. The first to warn about the seriousness of the problem was the socialist Íñigo Lamarca, who already raised in 2008 the need to adapt family support policies taking into account those already implemented in the rest of Europe, for example in Finland and other countries. The Basque Country invests a third less in family policies than the EU as a whole. The current ararteko, Manu Lezertua (proposed by the PNV), completed Lamarca's proposals in mid-December, stressing the need to promote policies that favor an effective family reconciliation and calling for economic investment in favor of families to grow up to 2 % of the Gross Domestic Product.

The writer Pedro Ugarte, for his part, has recently denounced the fear of the political parties to propose family policies that favor the birth rate, since they are conditioned by environmentalist, radical feminist and animalist pressure groups. Thus, the parties, according to Ugarte, "do not feel any concern about this demographic disaster". They do not feel concerned by the problem. Ugarte also alludes to pragmatism and the sustainability of the welfare state, which should at least make politicians react.

The Basque Government's plan to promote the birth rate will be developed starting this year, said the Minister of Employment, Ángel Toña. Throughout these first months, effective formulas will be studied. The previous 2011-2014 plan invested 233.4 million euros in birth and adoption aids, and in favoring family conciliation. But despite this effort, Basque women do not have their first child until they are 32.4 years old on average, later than in the nineties (at 30 years old) and than in 1975 (at 28.6). The delay in childbearing has been a constant both in years of economic boom and crisis.

For Ángel Toña, the key to opening a new demographic cycle is reconciliation policies, in addition to increasing economic aid. And above all, a change of mentality and culture is required to overcome the anti-natalist constants imposed by ideologies.

Undoubtedly, both in the Basque Country and in Spain, public authorities will have to consider new and decisive policies in favor of the birth rate. On these issues we have consulted the opinion of the expert Canadian demographer Alban D'Entremont.

What is the evolution of the main demographic indicators in the Basque Country?
-All demographic indicators - birth rate, fertility, mortality, growth, nuptiality, age and sex distribution - reflect a highly atypical and alarming situation.

The data in the Basque Country are on a par with those of other Spanish autonomous communities, with the aggravating factor that here, without exception, the indices reveal an even more critical situation. According to the INE, the Basque Country is losing population - some 2,800 people in the last quarter of last year - and the birth rates (8.9 per thousand) are not only lower than those of Spain as a whole (9.2 per thousand), but also lower than the mortality rates in the Basque Country (9.3 per thousand). Mortality is increasing due to the aging of the Basque population (almost 20 % are over 65 years of age). This gives a negative vegetative or natural growth, to which is added the population going abroad.

Basque women have an average of 1.4 children, below the Spanish average and far from the 2.1 children needed to renew generations. And nuptiality is also at very low levels (3.4 per thousand) and increasingly delayed: at 34 years of age in 2015.

What are the causes of demographic decline?
-Apart from the strictly demographic processes, there are other underlying causes, of a social, cultural and religious nature, which explain this situation. These are perhaps the most important causes of the collapse of the birth rate in Spain and surrounding countries. They are rooted in ethical and psychological issues: the serious deterioration of these values has generated the appearance and generalization of counter-values related to human procreation, which leads to social approval and legal sanction for alternative structures to traditional family structures, and the generation of an anti-natalist mentality.

This, together with new trends towards genetic manipulation, euthanasia and the expansion of abortion, paints a very worrying picture of personal and collective disintegration.

Was this demographic turnaround foreseeable and were policymakers warned?
-Although demography is a social science, which analyzes the behavior of free individuals, it is based on statistical analysis. And population projections, the further back in time they point to a certain trend, the more likely it is that this bias will continue in the future in the short and medium term. Forty years ago, Spain was already experiencing a fertility collapse: for the last generation there have not been two children per woman. There were also clear signs of an aging population, a decrease in population and an increase in mortality. The only factor that could not be taken into account was immigration, the effects of which were felt ten years ago, but have not been lasting.

The process itself has not been a surprise. The surprise has been the speed and dimension of the demographic, mentality and behavioral changes. But the political authorities were more than amply warned about this profound demographic crisis, but for reasons of political expediency they are not acting with conviction and determination: the left, because of their own ideology and adherence to supposedly progressive ideas in favor of divorce, abortion, euthanasia and the rest; and the right, because of a certain complex. In both cases, this is a serious irresponsibility.

Why do some consider natalist policies to be right-wing?
-This perception exists in Spain, but not in our neighboring countries. The famous "third child policy", which has given good results in France, was promoted by a socialist government: that of Mitterrand. And the Nordic countries promote very ambitious pro-natalist and maternity protection policies without any complexes. These are also social democratic governments. It is clear that promoting the birth rate and the family is not something right-wing or left-wing. But in Spain it is usually considered right-wing because they also defend life and marriage, and they tend to come from sectors that often identify with Catholic beliefs.

And why have conservative political parties not developed policies to increase the birth rate? Is the high number of abortions a relevant factor in the decline of the birth rate?
For the aforementioned reason of being branded as "right-wing" or close to the Church. And this, in the perception of these parties, would translate into a loss of votes. We are faced with the old dilemma of choosing between short-term and long-term good. Although my opinion is that a party that defends the family and the good of children, and explains it adequately, will win votes. The party that has been in power these years has had the pretension - on issues such as abortion, for example - of "appeasing" public opinion so as not to scare some and please others. The result has been that it has not pleased many and, on the other hand, has frightened quite a few.

As for the number of abortions in Spain (94,796 in 2014), it has not been the decisive factor in the decline in the birth rate, although it does have its relevance, since any loss of birth rate comes on top of the current large fertility deficit.

What specific measures should be taken and how should they be presented to the public?
Coherent, generous and effective long-term policies must be implemented. And I am not just referring to the specific area of reproduction or family formation, but to comprehensive and forceful policies in areas such as employment, housing, health and education, which would allow young people to marry and have children without having to make the enormous sacrifices of today.

Today this is tremendously difficult, since the aid earmarked for such purposes is extremely meager and insufficient for all intents and purposes - among the lowest in the European Union - and no political party has taken this issue seriously, with disastrous consequences such as the possible bankruptcy of the Social Security system.

I would recommend the Spanish government to place the demographic crisis at the same level as the economic crisis, to carry out a public awareness program and to allocate substantially more money to promoting the birth rate and the family than is currently the case. Until now, policies have focused mainly on the top of the pyramid (the elderly and pensioners); this has been a mistake: we must look at the bottom (children and young people), which is where the solution will come from.

The authorRafael Hernández Urigüen

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