The fountain of youth is drying up fast in Poland, faster than in the rest of Europe. The number of children and teenagers is in fast decline. The average Polish mother has 1.3 children; the third lowest in the EU, but their Polish sisters in countries like Germany or the UK have 2.2 children. Meanwhile persistent emigration is draining the work forces of today.
By Olivia Kortas & Kasper Goethals
Warsaw, Poland – Monika Grzelak (25) is 12 weeks pregnant and although she always knew she wanted children, she didn’t want to plan it. She works 25 hours a week as a speech therapist in two kindergardens and her husband works full-time. She isn’t really worried about financial difficulties. Her mother is there to help her. “My parents live nearby and my mother doesn’t work, when my brother had a child in Canada, she moved there temporarily to help. So even if they didn’t live that close it wouldn’t be a problem.”
Monika is happy her mother takes that role, most of her friends that have children have their children in private nurseries; they aren’t cheap but there is not always an alternative. Parents have to apply for a public kindergarten. Single mothers and single fathers or people with disabilities have better chances to get a place for their child.
Having a child without support from the family or a high income to fall back on is a financial nightmare in Poland. Where Germany spends 3.3% of GDP on measures encouraging families to have more children, Poland only spends 0.9% of its GDP resulting in a severe lack of public nurseries and child support.
And families don’t feel encouraged. Poland has the second lowest birth rate of all EU countries. On average, a Polish woman has 1.3 children. Big catholic households with more children than chairs have become a rare sight.
But the large family traditions haven’t disappeared; they have just moved. In countries like the UK and Germany, Polish migrants have 2.2 children per household.
Finally rest. Katie Nowak (23) has put her 4-year-old daughter to bed. “She loves to run around all day and she loves to Skype. During the day it is a bit hectic”, she says. Katie moved from Poland to the UK five years ago, right after high school. “My uncle invited me and it was supposed to be only for three months, but I met someone and got pregnant.”
“I was young and dumb to be honest, but it turned out for the best”, she says. Now, Katie wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Katie is glad she doesn’t have to raise her girl in Poland; “I definitely think it is easier in the UK. I can see how hard it is for mothers in Poland that I know, working for the smallest amounts of money and getting little support for your kids.”
There are 3.1 million women between 25 and 35 in Poland, but there are only 1.8 million girls between 5 and 15. Even if the mothers of today would have as many children as their counterparts outside Poland, it wouldn’t be enough to sustain the Polish population.
The problem doesn’t limit itself to the future. The young work force of today is heading for a life outside Poland. Since the 1980s, young Polish workers have moved to countries in the west in search for a better future, but when Poland joined the EU in 2004 the situation escalated. 2.2 million young Poles, over 5% of the population, have left the country in the last ten years and, like Katie, most have decided to stay abroad.
23-year-old Lukasz Obrzut is working in the Belgian city Ghent. In the next months he will get up every morning at 8, puttying and painting all day with only one thing on his mind.
“I work so hard because I want to go back to Poland”, Lukasz says. He has a family; he got married last year and has a 4-month-old son. When asked about his boy, Lukasz pauses for a minute of painful silence and then continues, “The situation is not ideal. I want to make a living and provide for my family and I can’t do that in Poland. We live in the house of my stepfather now. I want to build a house just for us, and in the Netherlands or Belgium I can make four times more than in Poland.”
Lukasz is determined to go back eventually, although he knows most Polish men before him have stayed. His boss, Pjotr has been working in the Netherlands for 10 years. He also thought he would go back to Poland, but now he has his own company in the Netherlands, employing a new generation of young Polish men like Lukasz.
Erik Rooze, a Dutch recruiter who has worked with Polish people all over Europe since the eighties, recognises the pattern: “I’ve seen hundreds come by and they all said they want to go back home, but most of them didn’t. Their families came over instead. They only go back for Easter”
Men and women that move abroad to provide for their children don’t pay taxes in Poland and the country struggles to find money to provide better child support.
Other countries in Europe that face the challenge of an aging population, can count on a growing group of immigrants to fill the youth gap, but although the Polish standard of living is continuously increasing, there are still only 200,000 immigrants on a population of 38 million and there has been no real political debate about the matter.
The two biggest political parties blame each other for the continued emigration, but it seems that as long as Europe’s borders are open and the countries aren’t on the same level; high emigration seems inevitable.
They agree on one thing; the only hope to secure the future and development of any kind of Polish welfare state is economic growth. The country is on the right track; the GDP is projected to grow over 3% in 2015 and although the wages are still under 70% of the EU average, they are getting better. The country will have received the equivalent of roughly two times the Marshall Plan by 2020 and the money is finding its way to the people.
All over Poland brand new roads replaced the dust tracks of the past, they are a strong flow of new opportunities for businesses from in- and outside the country.
The next generation might be smaller than the previous one, but they are also more likely to stick around.