Today, 6.87 million people live in Serbia – about 300 thousand less than ten years ago, 626 thousand less than two decades ago, and as many as 965 thousand fewer inhabitants than in 1991.
“Domestic demographic calculations reveal that the population of Serbia will decrease by 1.4 million – or one-fifth – by the middle of the century. If this scenario is realized, Serbia will be among the countries that are losing population at the fastest rate, both in Europe and globally,” states the publication “Human Development in Response to Demographic Change“. The National Human Development Report was prepared with the support of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and was officially presented to Parliament on May 27th.
Richer regions are emptying more slowly, so it is estimated that Belgrade will lose only 3.8% of its population, Vojvodina 19.4%, while Southern and Eastern Serbia will be left without a third, and South-Eastern Serbia without two-fifths of the current population. In total, it is expected that in 18 out of 25 regions in Serbia, the number of inhabitants will be halved by the end of the century.
Emigration and low birth rates are cited as the main causes of population decline. The publication, however, goes much further than that in the analysis, so the authors of various chapters point to the connection between population trends and education, the labor market, public health, and environmental protection.
According to the publication, about 850 thousand people have left Serbia in search of a better life in the last three decades. It is pointed out that the labour market encourages young people to emigrate and that raising the birth rate cannot be expected to compensate for losses – contrary to messages sporadically coming from the top of the state.
“The position of young people on the labour market, especially those with lower and secondary education, is very bad. Their first jobs are of poor quality, with low wages and unfavourable working conditions, very often on the informal labour market,” it is stated.
The report also draws attention to the fact that the Serbian labour market is “hostile … ‘towards young parents, present and future”, i.e. that youth unemployment rates are high, women’s participation in the labour market is low, and that an increasing percentage of women are engaged at “temporary and occasional jobs with a low level of labour protection”. Reconciliation of work and parenthood is, in addition, inaccessible to those men who would like to carry their share of the child and family care load because, for example, it is impossible to achieve flexible working hours in most companies; and they face other obstacles.
Encouragingly, an entire chapter is devoted to explaining that gender equality is part of the solution, not the cause of the problem. The publication states that satisfaction with the quality of life and the relationship between spouses is one of the factors that contribute to higher birth rates and that the experiences of European countries, especially those with a higher level of gender equality, support this thesis. In that sense, it is explained that changing attitudes about gender roles is “one of the ways to consolidate the demographic development in Serbia”.
“Human Development in Response to Demographic Change” also brings a comparative analysis of decades of demographic trends in Serbia and other countries. Noting that the trend of delaying childbirth is becoming more pronounced in the wider European context, the authors give an interpretation that is much more carefully formulated than the statements we are used to hearing from Serbian officials:
“Unemployment, extended schooling, unresolved housing issues, low living standards, childcare related problems and feelings of uncertainty and social anomie undoubtedly play an important role in the decision to postpone parenthood in Serbia.”
The publication also deals with institutional care. The picture of healthcare and education provided by “Human development in response to demographic change” is illustrative in this regard. The report emphasizes the insufficient availability of healthcare services and states that it is the result of inadequate investment in public health. The unavailability and inefficiency of public healthcare directs wealthier citizens to turn to the private sector, which accounts for as much as 42% of health expenditures, while vulnerable socio-economic groups effectively remain unprotected. The authors of the report, therefore, call for an increase in government investment in a more efficient and equitable healthcare system adapted to the new demographic circumstances, which will include increased care for the elderly.
“Human development in response to demographic change” analyzes the impact of the spatial distribution of the population and the state of cities and villages as factors of demographic trends, and questions to what extent environmental and climatic factors affect fertility, mortality, and migration. The authors point out that Serbia is one of the countries that will be increasingly affected by climate change, and that the material damage caused by extreme weather in the period from 2000 to 2015 has already amounted to over 5 billion euros.
Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić
This article was ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED in Serbian on May 30, 2022