Is Europe in the midst of a baby boom?

Several EU countries are experiencing a sudden jump in fertility rates, a trend which may appear surprising given the ongoing economic crisis. EURACTIV’s network of media affiliates explores the reasons behind this growing number of births, country by country.

France: Helped by social net 

In France, the crisis has not discouraged couples from having children, euractiv.fr reports. 

In fact, it may have encouraged it: in 2008, birth rates grew by 1.2% on the previous year and this tendency appears to be stable. 

With 829,000 births last year, France reached fertility rates which had not been seen since 1981. 

With more than two children per woman statistically, France has the second-highest fertility rate in Europe after Ireland, a country with strong catholic traditions. 

Sociologists explain the baby boom in France by the good level of social protection in the country. Psychologists add that in periods of crisis, the French have a tendency to turn to fundamental values, such as the family. France did not experience a fall in birth rates during the oil crisis of the seventies either, statistics show. 

As for other trends, French women are giving birth at an ever older age. In 2008, 21.4% of the newborns had a mother aged 35 or more, compared to 16.3% ten years back. This tendency is even more pronounced regarding the age of the father. 

In addition, births out of wedlock are also on the rise, representing 52% of all births in 2008 – 10% more than in 1998. The percentage of children from mixed marriages is also higher today. 12.7% of newborns are from parents of different nationalities, against 8% in 1998. 

Nadine Morano, state secretary for family affairs in the French government, welcomed “these excellent results,” as she called them. 

“It’s an encouraging message that the French people are sending out, proving their capacity to see a positive future for themselves, in spite of the crisis,” she said, quoted in the French media. 

Belgium: Social protection and second marriages 

Neighbouring Belgium is experiencing a similar trend. The birth rate is on the rise and the press is already speaking of a “baby boom”. The fertility rate has reached an unprecedented 1.7 children per woman overall. 

Sociologists have explained that Belgium’s exploding birth rate by changing social patterns: As more couples divorce, new couples form and have more babies, their argument goes. 

Italy: Driven by immigration 

In Italy, the baby boom has taken the country by surprise and seems fuelled by rising fertility and immigration. Although updated statistical data are still not available for 2009, regional newspapers write of record births in different maternitie wards across the country. 

Annamaria Celesti, an Italian gynaecologist who is also regional counsellor for Tuscany, said the economic crisis was prompting women to have more children, not fewer. 

“Children are the engine of societal recovery as they are an investment for the family and a great economic resource for the future,” she told Florence daily La Nazione earlier this year. 

Traditionally a country of emigrants, Italy’s population has in fact grown every year this decade, but not through breeding: its population growth is entirely driven by immigration. New births in 2008 were 57,000, about 12,000 more than in 2007. However, of the total number of new babies, 90,000 were born from foreign mothers, representing 15% of newborns. 

Britain: Fuelled by Pakistani and Polish migrants 

Similar trends are being seen in Britain, the Guardian newspaper recently wrote. The figures are described as “dramatic”: in 2001 women were having an average of 1.63 children in their lifetime. But in 2009, the rate jumped to 1.96. 

Here, specialists say the biggest factor is immigration. There are more women of childbearing age in the UK than before, and many of them came from the Indian sub-continent, Africa and Eastern Europe to work and make homes in Britain. 

The largest number of non-UK born mothers came from Pakistan, but they are now strongly challenged by Polish mums. In 2005, there were 3,403 births among Polish women in the UK, a figure which jumped to 16,101 last year, the Guardian reported. 

Iceland: Outburst of ‘crisis babies’

Further north, in Iceland, the press broadly speaks of a wave of “crisis babies”. Statistics show a 3.5% increase in the number of births from 1 January to 10 August this year compared to the same period in 2008. 

Specialists explained that in crisis-hit Iceland, practical sense is urging Icelanders to take advantage of social benefits offered by the government. Parents get nine months of paid leave when they have a baby – three for the mother, three for the father, and three additional months that can be taken by either one of them. 

Finland: Highest birth rate this decade 

Statistics confirm that there was already a baby boom in Finland in 2008, and the trend appears to be stable. Eight hundred more children were born last year in Finland than in the previous year. The birth rate in Finland now stands at its highest this decade – 1.85 children per woman compared with 1.83 in 2007. The last time the overall fertility rate was as high as 2008 was 1994. 

Poland: Crowded maternity wards 

A baby boom appears to be taking place in several Eastern European countries too. Its common denominator is, according to specialists, a catch-up effect following the years of hardship during the transition from Communism to a market economy, when many couples postponed having babies. 

Statistics in Warsaw show that the capital of Poland is seeing many more births than in previous years. Press reports cite shortages of maternity hospitals, crowded maternity rooms and even corridors. 

In private clinics in Poland no such problem exists, but the cost of giving birth there can be as high as 3,000 euros. 

Bulgaria: Defying hardship 

In Bulgaria, registered births were already 7% higher in the second quarter of 2009 than in the previous year, the press reported. Bulgarian sociologists commented that in times of hardship, Bulgarians tend to “defy the challenges”. 

This view seems to be backed by the fact that the poorest region of Bulgaria, around the city of Montana in the north-west of the country, saw a record 30% rise in new births. 

Romania: Hard to measure 

In Romania, a baby boom may well be taking hold, but it appears difficult to measure, as hundreds of thousands of young Romanians work abroad, especially in Italy and Spain. 

Professor Ioan Bolovan PhD from the Babes Bolyai University in Cluj spoke to EURACTIV.ro on the matter, but warned that his comments were not based on research: 

“I don’t think that in the coming years Romania will witness a baby boom as in other EU states, as our realities are a great deal different. Firstly, in Romania, family-related policies do not have the coherence and consistency of those in other EU states. We only have isolated measures […] and lack a clear vision. The bad shape of the economy of our country is also contributing to these realities, as well as the absence of a medium and long-term strategy,” Professor Bolovan said. 

The most famous baby boom came on the heels of World War II when an estimated 77 million Americans were born between 1945 and the early 1960s. The period was followed by a so-called 'echo baby boom' - a wave of children from the baby boom generation, which lasted roughly from 1980 to 1999. 

Baby booms are believed to mark times of growth, stability and optimism, although some analysts have now begun to dispute that view. 

The ongoing economic crisis, which started in 2007 with the meltdown of US housing market, has been called the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression, which started in 1929 and in many ways paved the way for WWII. The crisis started with the burst of the mortgage bubble and quickly spread to the rest of the financial system, triggering a global crisis. 

Europeans first realised their continent was affected when major banks suddenly found themselves on the brink of bankruptcy in the summer of 2008. Billions of public funds were pumped into the banks to keep them afloat and avoid a broader economic collapse. The economy went down and the euro zone officially entered recession in November 2008. 

France and Germany are now considered to be on the road to recovery but other EU countries, such as Spain and most of Eastern Europe, have not yet signalled the end of the recession (EURACTIV 18/08/09). 

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