Under the headline ‘The four big wounds of the low birth rate in Cyprus’, the Akel newspaper Haravghi arrived at the rather simplistic conclusion that state policy was primarily to blame for the low number of children being born in Cyprus. The implication was that if the state was more generous with regard to maternity and paternity leave the birth rate would somehow shoot up.
There is no doubt we have a problem. At 1.32 births per woman, Cyprus has the third lowest birth rate in the EU, the average of which stands 1.59 births, while the replenishment level is 2.10. We have an ageing population. In 2012 the number of people above 65 was 108,304 while in 2017 it rose to 128,447; for the corresponding years the population below 15 fell from 142,586 to 140,155.
The ageing population is a problem in many EU countries, and there are already major concerns about pension funds being put under pressure in the coming years. One way of dealing with this has been the pushing back of the retirement age, but while this eases the strain on public finances it will not see off the problem, but merely put back the drastic measures that would have to be taken. Attempts to raise the birth rate through incentives from the state have not proved effective.
The Haravghi report nevertheless attributed the problem to the following four ‘wounds’: reduced wages, ‘very low’ payments for maternity and paternity leave compared to other EU countries and the low state spending in the field of health. That money plays a significant part there is no doubt but even in the EU countries which pay higher wages, maternity and paternity leave payments are high and also offer free healthcare for all, the birth rate is still below the replenishment level of 2.1 live births per woman.
Finances do play a part in decisions of couples, but there is a host of other factors influencing these decisions. For instance, family support is not as it was 50 or 60 years ago which means couples have to pay for childcare; many women have children later in life, wanting to establish a career first; couples want to have a high disposable income, which is reduced by expenses of children. Sixty or 50 years ago in Cyprus wages were much lower than today, healthcare was as costly, maternity leave was short, but there was still a higher birth-rate than there is today.
The reality is that lifestyles have changed radically since those days, with living standards steadily rising. People are better off, but they also calculate that having many children would affect their standard of living, eating away their disposable income and their taking up much of the leisure time they value. How these attitudes can change is difficult to know.