Over the last 25 years, the population of Lithuania has fallen from 3.7 million to 2.9 million, shrinking by over 1% annually. While predictions of the eventual extinction of the Lithuanian people are premature, the trends are a real cause for concern and will present huge challenges for the country over the coming half-century.
© DELFI / Orestas Gurevičius

"Economists and politicians should be preparing for the consequences. First, they need to assess the demographic situation, the shrinking of the population, to understand why it is happening. The population is shrinking and ageing mostly due to emigration, low birth rates and high mortality. We must analyse each of these factors and how each process affects the population," said Professor Vlada Stankūnienė, head of the Lithuanian Demographic Research Centre.

People between 15 and 64, what statisticians regard as the economically active population, currently number 2 million in Lithuania. The United Nations estimates that the number will have shrunk to 1.5 million by the middle of this century.

The estimate excludes migration and takes into account only natural growth,that is the difference between births and deaths, Stankūnienė notes.

She said that while birth rates are low in Lithuania, of all the factors that drain the Lithuanian population it is the least worrisome, especially compared to other European nations.

"In terms of fertility, we are even above the EU average. The latest data from 2014 shows that Lithuanian women on average have 1.63 babies, while the EU average is 1.55. Still, in order to ensure stable population size, the fertility rate has to be at least 2," according to Stankūnienė.

Low fertility is not something that can be remedied fast or easily, she added. France, she said, had been working for over 50 years, pursuing consistent family and welfare policies.

"There are ways to boost birth rates, but do not expect it to work fast or that one measure will be enough. A set of economic, social, cultural factors can change the situation. The important thing is to provide conditions for people to balance work and family," she said.

At least before the crisis, Lithuania had been offering generous maternity and paternity benefits in an effort to boost birth rates. However, Stankūnienė notes there is no proven link between benefits and fertility.

Vlada Stankūnienė
Vlada Stankūnienė
© DELFI / Mindaugas Ažušilis

"Research suggests that bigger benefits make people have children earlier, but not more. What is needed is an effective network of child raising services, so that families with small children can raise them without giving up work," she said.

High death rates are another factor affecting the country's population. Stankūnienė notes that Lithuania "looks very bad" among EU nations.

"The death rate among men is the highest in the EU. So the male population is shrinking and death rates are high even among young age groups," she said.

Emigration, however, is the biggest drain on the population.

"Migration is and has been over the last 15 years very intense, it went up again last year and it is the main factor of depopulation," Stankūnienė said. "Since 2000, on average 40,000 left the country each year. We are among the EU 'leaders' in terms of emigration."

After Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004, conditions have been very favourable to emigration. The push factors - conditions encouraging people to leave - include relatively low wages at home, while job opportunities and better pay in Western Europe are strong pull factors, Stankūnienė said.

"The minimum wage in Lithuania is almost a fifth of what it is in the United Kingdom, the most popular destination for Lithuanian migrants. There have been no obstacles for emigration for over a decade, so why shouldn't people do it?"

She said that the longer emigration lasts, the easier it is for new migrants to make the trip and settle in growing diaspora communities.

Emigration from Lithuania 2011-2015
Emigration from Lithuania 2011-2015
© Statistikos departamento nuotr.

"One wave of migration gives rise to the next. And the longer people spend living abroad, the more likely they are to stay in their host countries."

While state policies could remedy the situation, Stankūnienė criticizes the Lithuanian government for adopting virtually no consistent policies to address migration.

While repatriation figures have given some reassurance lately, Stankūnienė said that people who came back from emigration are more likely to leave again, unless they find significantly better conditions at home.

Moreover, emigration is not just a drain on the population, but on people's skills as well. Many Lithuanians with college degrees work low-skilled work abroad, which means they are losing skills they previously had.

So even if these people do come back to Lithuania eventually, they will not contribute to the nation's skill pool.

Unbalanced population pyramid

Low fertility and intense emigration has skewed the country's population profile, Stankūnienė said, which means that the proportion of people in older age groups much outweigh the younger generation.

"For over a quarter of a century, fertility has been below generational replacement rates, emigration is massive and young people are the ones who leave. What is the result? Scarce younger generations will be replacing more numerous older generations. Right now, there are almost twice more people aged 45-54 than children between 10 and 19," Stankūnienė said.

That ageing population brings all sorts of problems, including a shrinking labour force and greater pressure on welfare, retirement and healthcare services.

Eurostat estimates that more than one in tenth people in Lithuania will be over the age of 80 by 2050. "There will be more people with chronic conditions, in constant need of healthcare services," Stankūnienė said.

In a macabre way, she said, high mortality is the only thing that slows down population ageing. "Many people do not live enough to reach old age."

"Such demographic structures and processes are reasons to be concerned here and now - and stop deceiving ourselves that expatriates will turn around and come back," according to Stankūnienė.

This does not mean, however, that the Lithuanian nation is doomed for extinction: "It is impossible for such regression to be sustained for a long period. Mortality has been dropping since 2007 and birth rates, albeit very low, are recovering. Emigration should decrease, too, since the growing generations as smaller, there is less potential for emigration."

Stankūnienė concedes that even smaller societies can be prosperous.

"But only when the population is stable, not when it is distorted. Right now, the age structure is so distorted, that the coming 50 years will present challenges and concerns."

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