The government has recently improved maternity benefits, but will this encourage couples to have more children?
New government measures to fight falling birth rates and “safeguard Hellenism” have been dismissed as inadequate by young couples and appear unlikely to persuade millennials to have more children.
The climate crisis, disillusionment with modern society and the general financial burden of childrearing – combined with the present serious economic slowdown – are all cited as reasons for a reluctance to reproduce.
The current fertility rate is 1.31 births per woman, well below replacement level and lower than the EU average of 1.55, and has dropped year after year.
In a speech during an event of the association for large families last month, President Nicos Anastasiades recognised that Cyprus is faced with a “demographic problem” to which he added a patriotic element.
The “protection of Hellenism”, he said, is “an obligation, which is becoming necessary today” unlike those countries that take advantage of refugees and migrants to boost their populations.
“And protection is achieved if through measures and policies infertility is addressed,” the president said.
But for married 34-year-old Jessica Allen, government measures of the type Anastasiades was referring to would never be enough. The physical state of the world trumps all other reasons not to have children, a decision she made years ago.
“The health of the planet is at stake and not enough serious action is being taken by the people in power,” she said.
Twenty-seven-year-old Athena agrees. “The thought of bringing a child into this already overpopulated world, which is on the verge of environmental collapse, is harrowing,” she told the Cyprus Mail.
Allen explained how society prioritises money, consumerism and ‘development’ over social issues and equality which increases the wealth gap.
“This makes me feel insecure about my own future, let alone having someone else depend on me,” she said.
But for most young couples, the main disincentives are the cost and paid time to be with their children, and it is this element the government says it is addressing.
So far, a new law was introduced to increase maternity leave for mothers with two children or more, while more measures are in the works.
Ironically, the increase appears to have angered mothers who aimed for a much longer duration and increase in the percentage of salary being paid.
“It really pisses me off that paid maternity or parental leave is presented as an extra perk when it’s absolutely necessary,” said Athena.
Maternity leave has been increased to 22 weeks from 18 weeks for the second child, and to 26 weeks for the third (or subsequent) child. It includes adoption or surrogacy.
The paid leave for mothers should be “at least one year” said two mothers who recently gave birth to their firstborns, to allow the child to be old enough to walk and play with other kids and not be as dependent on the mother.
They added that most mothers will start their maternity leave before the birth, yet the maternity benefit is not being deposited immediately.
“I am still waiting to get the money since August,” said 26-year-old Diana said. “If I didn’t have my partner, I don’t know how I would survive. It’s very bad here.”
She compared the situation with her home country, Slovakia, where mothers are allowed about three years paid maternity leave.
“This is why I am not going back to work since my baby is stressed when I am missing for many hours from home,” 27-year-old Tina said and called it “unacceptable” that mothers are forced to work and leave their babies so soon.
Other countries which offer more maternity leave are the UK, where statutory maternity pay is paid for up to 39 weeks on 90 per cent of the average weekly earnings before tax for the first six weeks, as well as the Czech Republic with 28 weeks and Hungary with 24 weeks paid leave.
Maternity leave is less in Canada which offers 17 weeks, and in Spain and Romania with 16 weeks each. The US is exceptionally stingy with a legal requirement of just 12 weeks unpaid maternity leave.
“In theory, it is a very good incentive…. but is it indeed for the benefit of couples?” said mother-to-be Elina, 26, who is an advocate for legislation amendments to protect mothers in the workplace.
“Without the necessary adjustments, it is estimated that mothers who already have one child will not be hired, since on the second and third child they will be absent for longer from their job,” Elina explained.
“It would also be good to increase the percentage of the salary paid during the maternity leave to 100 per cent from the current 72 per cent,” she said.
Meanwhile, paternity leave, established in 2017, remained at two paid weeks. On top of that, it is only given to married couples or those who signed a civil partnership agreement.
“It’s totally unfair that the father of the child cannot stay at home to help his wife during the first weeks and get to know his child and what they need just because he is not married to the mother.The right to paid leave should be given to all fathers,” said Tina.
Her partner, Jeff, 30, spoke for the increase of paternity leave saying it “should be equal” with the mother’s. However, he added that those days should be decided by the parents on when it should be taken.
Currently, the two weeks should be taken during the mother’s maternity leave “because the reason why the paternity leave is given for the father to be there and help the mother” a labour ministry official said.
No discussions have taken place to extend paternity leave, but efforts are being made to establish a general paid parental leave, associate to the labour minister Phanos Kouroufexis told the Cyprus Mail.
“If you keep in mind that four years ago there was not paternity leave, one might say that we are moving things forward.”
In terms of parental leave, at present every parent, regardless of marital status, is eligible for up to 18 weeks unpaid leave for every child of up to eight years. The ministry is working on implementing that four to eight weeks of that period becomes paid leave.
The move will be applied to all parents, regardless of marital status and will be implemented by August 2022 according to the labour ministry official. He also explained that any amendments on paid leaves will be done gradually to allow the labour market to adjust.
“Employers will lose their staff for that time and thus the labour market is affected,” he said.
Additional time off work to take care of children however, is not enough to support modern young couples while they balance a hectic work schedule.
“The afternoon schools, apart from the fact that they are not offered in all public primary schools, finish at 4pm, while most parents (working in the private sector) are free only after 5pm,” Elina said.
The govenrment has laid out a plan to fund parents to be able to afford day care services for the academic year 2022 to 2023, Kouroufexis said.
The budget is already in place for the construction of 30 multi-functional centres across the island that will provide day care services for children including newborns (0-2 months).
“We strongly believe that these measures are what a new family needs and will help a lot those who want to have children to feel more confident,” Kouroufexis said.
The time frame for the completion is set for 2027.
“If the government wants to help, it would be good to take into account the hours and salaries that people receive in the private sector as the public and private sectors can no longer even be compared,” Elina added.
Child-friendly working hours, which are missing from the local labour market, would be a major advantage for women who want to focus on both their career and family.
“Something that is often neglected is how much easier it would be if parents, especially mothers, would be able to have flexible working hours and the ability to work from home,” 33-year-old Philio said.
MPs at the ad hoc House committee on demographics are pushing for the government to be even more generous regarding the increase of benefits for families.
Saying that “the future of Hellenism in this place has an expiration date” Diko MP Zacharias Koulias proposed the state proceed with a generous benefit for each birth.
It was suggested that subsidised housing should be provided and that with the first child, the couples receive €5,000 immediately, €6,000 if there is a second birth and so on.
There is a clear xenophobic element behind such proposed generosity, but even if such a scheme were implemented, it would not be enough to sway the likes of Jessica or Athena.