Human capital, not birth rates, key to building demographic resilience

The concept of demographic resilience is equally relevant in low fertility regions such as Eastern Europe, and the high fertility countries of Central Asia. Solutions must be comprehensive, based on sound evidence, and consistent with human rights and gender equality.

Depopulation has emerged as a critical issue for Eastern Europe over the past few decades, posing significant challenges to the economic and social well-being on the region.

Understanding the underlying causes and potential implications of depopulation is essential for policymakers, economists, and social scientists aiming to develop strategies to mitigate its adverse effects.

On July 11, World Population Day, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, appealed to governments in the region to ensure that their responses to these demographic shifts are based on sound evidence and human rights.

“The way demographic change is discussed in the region is still too often marked by misconceptions and anxieties,” says Florence Bauer, UNFPA Regional Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia. 

The population shifts the region is experiencing are real and their effects require urgent responses, added Bauer. “But there is no reason to panic: there is a lot governments can do to mitigate negative effects and make full use of the opportunities that also come with demographic change.”

Eastern Europe

Across Eastern and Southeastern Europe, fertility rates are low, generally between 1.3 and 1.8 children per woman.

At the same time, millions of people have left the countries in the region to look for better opportunities elsewhere. Taken together, these trends have accelerated the ageing and, in many cases, shrinking of populations in the region.

Most of the world’s countries that have smaller populations today than in 1990 are located in Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe. Populations have declined by 30 per cent or more during this period in some places. In Ukraine right now, these trends are worsened by the impact of Russia’s war, which has driven millions of refugees out of the country, increased mortality and led to a collapse of birth rates.

With most of those leaving the region being of working age, the knock-on effects have been a shrinking labour force and increased pressure on social welfare systems.

Central Asia

In contrast to Eastern Europe, the demographic situation in Central Asia is marked by high fertility rates (between 2.6 and 3.1 children per woman) and strong population growth.

The increase in population numbers is tempered by low life expectancy (at around 70 years) and high levels of outmigration (in 2020, some 7.8 million Central Asians lived abroad). All Central Asian states have young populations, with between 43 and 54 per cent of the population under 25 years old.

However, the concept of demographic resilience is equally relevant in low and high fertility contexts. It puts the emphasis on solutions to population concerns that are comprehensive, based on sound evidence, and consistent with human rights and gender equality.

Whether in high or low fertility contexts, experience around the world has shown that solutions work best when they are people-centred, human capital-oriented and expand people’s choices.

Focus on human capital

With much of the discourse in the region centred around increasing fertility rates, UNFPA warns that this can lead to putting blame and pressure on women and ignoring the underlying factors that hinder family formation and drive outmigration, such as poor education, unaffordable housing, unstable jobs, political instability and corruption. 

“This is why the focus on fertility rates can be counterproductive and potentially harmful,” says Bauer.

“It risks distracting from real solutions to demographic challenges and reversing decades of progress on gender equality, reproductive rights and women’s empowerment, with potentially far-reaching negative consequences for countries’ stability and development.”

UNFPA believes that governments should focus on developing human capital—the health, knowledge, skills and experiences possessed collectively by its inhabitants.

Societies with greater human capital tend to be more productive and innovative and find it easier to adapt to demographic change. For example, when people are healthy and well-educated in older age, they can continue to be active in the economy and public life, contributing their skills and experiences, and they are less likely to rely on social support transfers.

Similarly, if young women are empowered to have control over their bodies and fertility, they are more likely to complete their education, find a good job and become financially independent.

In both low- and high-fertility contexts, building human capital is key to addressing demographic change successfully. This requires tackling discrimination and other barriers that make it difficult for people, including women and other disadvantaged groups, to access health care, education and the job market and to succeed in the economy and other spheres of society.

In Central Asia, where populations are young and the share of working-age people is increasing, countries have an opportunity to realise the demographic dividend, provided they channel resources into human capital development, in addition to investments in infrastructure and technology.

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