By NIKOS KONSTANDARAS
ATHENS — The Greeks are in a struggle for survival. And the odds are piling up against us. The fight is not only on the economic front, as we try to meet our commitments under an international 240-billion-euro bailout deal that has resulted in greatly reduced incomes, higher costs and taxes, and an overriding sense of insecurity. The danger is even more basic: Deaths are outnumbering births, people are leaving the country, and the population is aging so fast that in a few decades Greece may be unable to produce enough wealth to take care of its people and may cease to be a viable nation state.
“People tend to overlook the importance of the population, even though everything begins with it,” says Michalis Papadakis, professor emeritus of statistics and social security at the University of Piraeus, who has spent his life studying the issue. “Demographic reduction undermines defense capabilities, it cuts down the work force and obstructs business.”
He noted that 2011 was the first year in which the number of Greece’s residents dropped (with deaths exceeding births by 4,671). According to the European Union’s statistical service, in 2012 deaths in Greece outnumbered births by 16,300, while 44,200 more people left the country than moved to it.
Many European Union countries face a similar demographic problem and the Union as a whole is aging fast. But whereas European Union and national officials are looking for ways to deal with an aging population, in Greece the battle for economic survival is so overwhelming that no one has time for the bigger picture. In the urge to cut spending and stop borrowing, the Greeks have not been able to do the things that might have encouraged people to have children.
For instance, other countries — wealthy Germany, for one — are focusing on boosting youth employment, keeping people in the work force beyond today’s retirement age, and finding ways to balance commitments to family and work. But in Greece, even though the retirement age was raised to 67 from 65, efforts to cut down public and private sector employees over the past three years have pushed an estimated 150,000 people into retirement before their time (for a total of some 2.7 million pensioners). Unemployment is at 27.3 percent (1.4 million people), with over 60 percent of those under 24 without jobs. Those who do have work are getting less pay and facing higher taxes — and they don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Even immigrants from Bangladesh and Pakistan, who came seeking a better life, are moving on.
In 2012, the number of employed people in Greece was 3.8 million, while pensioners and the unemployed totaled 4.1 million, out of a population of 11,062,500. Fewer and fewer people are shouldering the burden of keeping the country on its feet. The 25 percent drop in Greece’s gross domestic product since 2008 reflects the reduction in people’s incomes as well as the state’s need to get as much out of them as possible, leaving few with disposable income, and forcing others to draw on their savings to meet their obligations.
Several European countries face challenges posed by their citizens’ living longer, having fewer children and moving abroad. It is not just countries plagued by high debt, like Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain, that are suffering. The problem of higher medical and pension costs for an aging population is a product of widespread prosperity and high standards of health and social security — joys that countries like Greece discovered only after joining the European Union. In Ireland, a high rate of emigration in 2012 was offset by a high birthrate. Elsewhere, immigration offset low birthrates. In Greece, though, an already low birthrate and emigration, including highly skilled graduates like doctors and engineers, resulted in a drop in population.
Mr. Papadakis, the demographer, says that though there is no reported research on this yet, there is a trend toward people marrying later and then delaying having their first child. The most recent Greek statistical service figures show the number of weddings dropping from 59,212 in 2009 (the year in which the impact of the crisis first became evident) to 55,099 in 2011.
Marilena Kapidaki, an obstetrician, says that among her clients, people who married usually decided to have children but appeared to be limiting themselves to one child. “I would not be surprised if the fertility rate has dropped even further during the crisis,” she says. The latest statistics, from 2011, showed a fertility rate of 1.4 in Greece, well below the 2.1 needed to replenish the previous generation. “A lot has changed since 2010,” Dr. Kapidaki says.
Even without statistical confirmation, the trend is evident. Some maternity hospitals have shut down wings and turned them over to other medical specialties, while many schools in the provinces and on the islands have only a handful of students. In village after village, the elderly outnumber locals and immigrants of working age.
The most frightening figure is a Eurostat projection which estimates that, in 2050, 32.1 percent of the Greek population will be over 65, compared with 16.6 percent in 2000. And this projection was made in 2007, before the crisis hit Greece’s population. We were still living high, before widespread unemployment, hasty retirement and the emigration of those with the skills to succeed abroad. New projections will most likely be much worse.
And yet, Greece has two mighty reasons for hope. It has a dynamic and prospering diaspora, mainly in the United States and Australia; and its European Union membership is a pillar of support today but, with its open borders, also a potential source of immigration. If we in Greece can hold the country steady through the crisis, and work toward optimism and opportunity for ourselves, then people will come.