Demographer Suggests Spain Should Pay More Attention to the Reasons Behind Low Birth Rates

23 Sep 2021

Why are birth rates so low in Spain? How will the Covid-19 pandemic affect them? Demographer Albert Esteve shares his insights with STI and presents a new digital tool to improve data dissemination.

STI Experts

STI: Among your latest projects is the Social Explorer, a free digital tool that can be accessed by anyone to visualize the characteristics and changes in Spanish society. What does the Social Explorer project aim to achieve?

AE: The project exists to provide the demographic and economic data generated in Spanish and Catalan society to a wide audience of high school and university students, as well as to researchers. The idea is to make an effort to pinpoint the data and, above all, to share it in a very visual way so that people can see the potential behind it. 

STI: Why is this necessary?    

AE: Statistical institutes collect information very well, but they frequently disseminate it in formats that require database skills or even the ability to root out where the information is hidden. We wanted to take the information, process it and display it in a very simple and intuitive way, so that people can use us as a reference database. 

STI: What kind of data does it offer?

AE: Basically, we have demographic data: how many people live in each place, what characteristics those people have in terms of their origin, their sex, their age... We have also begun to include more social, environmental, economic, labor, income, average household income data, and so forth. There is data on crops, on land registries, and on infrastructure like trains and roads. These data serve as a sort of x-ray of how we are and how we organize ourselves as a society over time.

STI: Among the data this tool offers is the annual birthrate in Spain. You have studied this phenomenon quite a bit. What's going on?

AE: For some time, Spain has ranked among the countries with the lowest birth rates.  Yet, until now, we lacked good survey data to explain why women were having so few children. Thanks to the new INE (National Institute of Statistics) 2018 fertility survey, we have been able to analyze total fertility and birthrates over the last decades. On the one hand, we have seen evidence of something we already knew: that few children are born – an average of 1.2-1.3.  More importantly, we have also discovered something we did not know: people have far fewer children than they would like to have

STI: Can you expand on that?

AE: The survey – on different occasions and in different ways - asks interviewees whether or not they want to have children. The answers reveal that, on average, there is a strong preference for having two children; that people would prefer to become parents earlier than they do; and that people who do not want children at all make up less than 10% of the population. Comparing this desired number of children with the reality of current data, we can conclude that 0.7 children fewer than those desired are being born.  

STI: Why is this?

AE: Because people do not meet the conditions necessary for parenthood at an early enough age to take full advantage of their reproductive cycles. Normally, whether in Spain, Sweden, or the United States, people do not begin to think about having children until they are 28 years old, due perhaps to lifestyles, consumption patterns and other factors.  Then, around the age of 28, 29 or 30, people start to form couples and consider having children. But, if things aren’t going very well when they are 30, they begin to delay parenthood. The longer they delay, the more difficult it is to conceive the first child. Those who have a first child take longer to have the second. The difference between Spain and Sweden is that Swedes, when they decide they want to have children, do not usually encounter many obstacles. Here, on the other hand, when we decide to have children, we face numerous difficulties. 

STI: What kind of difficulties?

For example, many people are unable to support themselves outside their parents’ house. Other people who do not have a stable partner – perhaps a casual one, but not serious enough to take that step, which is also related to the difficulty of leaving home and becoming independent. There are also people who have managed to get their own place to live, and who have a partner, but who lack a reliable job or think they should wait to become more stable. It turns out, though, that by the time they've overcome all those obstacles, they are 38 and the odds of conceiving are lower. Thus, we find that among women in their 40s, there are many who cannot get pregnant because of a health issue. The combination of all these factors leads to having few children.

STI: What are the consequences of this low fertility?

AE: First, it has consequences at the individual level, because many people feel frustrated by not having gotten what they wanted, or by having stopped halfway [in the number of children]. There is a lot of talk about the right to housing, the right to work, but we should also talk about the right to have children, for those who want to have them. We should think about it, because we are really losing reproductive potential. 

STI: And at the population level? Is Spain losing inhabitants?

AE: At the population level, the situation is more relative. Spain has had very low fertility rates for thirty years, yet has never lost population. Among other things, this is because people have come from other countries. Catalonia, for example, has always had a very low fertility rate, yet its population has tripled or even quadrupled over the last 100 years, due to immigration.

STI: Do low fertility rates affect the economy?

AE: Sometimes there is concern over who will pay the retirement pensions, but we can see in immigration an example of other ways of keeping the economy afloat. Beyond the economic or population effects, I believe that it is more important to see what this falling fertility reveals. What it reveals is that people simply do not just have enough stability and security at the right age. 

STI: How has and will the Covid-19 pandemic affect the birth rate?    

In December 2020 and January 2021, birth figures fell by 20% compared to the previous year. We are in a context of falling birth rates in which births fall by between 3 and 4% every year. What remains to be seen is whether this year, with Covid-19, it will fall more than the 3 or 4% we have become accustomed to since 2008.

STI: So you aren’t expecting a baby boom?

AE: I don't expect one because having children requires that a lot of things happen. First, people have to have been able to start their own households. Then, they have to have found a partner and been stable as a couple for a while, and they have a job... And everything has to happen at a young age so that they can have children. I don't see that these factors have improved with Covid-19.

STI: How about among those people who already had these requisites favorable to the birth rate?

AE: There could be a baby boom among all those people who were already living together as a couple, who already had good jobs, and for whom none of those things have changed during this period. They may have found more time to devote to themselves in a relaxed way... Yet, this is only a subgroup of the population. Many others have been set back by the crisis. Therefore, altogether, I would say that negative indicators outweigh positive ones. 

STI: Pandemic mortality rates must have had a negative effect on the population balance. 

In Spain, there are many more deaths than births, and this year that difference has skyrocketed. Deaths have increased substantially, while births - in early 2020 -fell quite a bit, negatively affecting natural growth However, it is also the case that there has been a strong arrival of people from outside Spain. Immigration data in Spain for 2019 revealed figures similar to those of the best years of the 2000s... Even during 2020, despite the Covid-19 crisis, there will probably be a positive balance due to people entering the country.

Albert Esteve, Director of the Autonomous University of Barcelona’s Centre d'Estudis Demogràfics (Center for Demographic Studies)  is a specialist in marriage markets, household formation and structure, and other aspects related to demography, both at Spanish and international level. 

Esteve participated in the 2017 STI experts meeting Family Inequality: Causes and Consequences in Europe & the Americas, and in the resulting publication, 'Unequal Family Lives'.