Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN
The shrinkage of Lithuanian population is nowhere close to a halt. In fact, the recent numbers by the Lithuanian Statistics and Eurostat, the European Union‘s statistics agency, purport the opposite: exodus has picked up last year – 50,000 Lithuanian citizens left the country for a better life abroad, up from 44,500 in the previous year.
A gloomy forecast
Meanwhile, 30,000 people hunkered down in Lithuania in 2016, an increase of 8,000 from 2015. The actual number of departures is estimated to be at least 20-30 per cent larger, as many people do not report their leave.
Meanwhile, thelatest Eurostat forecast on population in each member state has alarmed many in Lithuania with the EU stats processor claiming that it is Lithuania that faces the gloomiest changes in population in the bloc.
«When I saw it, my initial thought was Eurostat had erred,» said Vlada Stankūnienė, professor of Kaunas Vytautas Magnus University and head of the Demographic Research Centre at the University.
According to a recent estimation by Eurostat, by 2080, the actual number of inhabitants in Lithuania will be at a mere 1.65 million, down from ca 2.8 million today.
National security in jeopardy
The emptier Lithuania become, the more challenges arises to the state, certainly. And furthermore: «Any decrease of population is a threat to our national security, especially at the numbers Eurostat projects,» says Gediminas Grina, former director of Lithuania’s State Security Department.
Behind exodus stands the economy, he says, and, unless there are tangible improvements in it and particularly in the standards of Lithuanians’ living, people will keep decamping, believes Grina, now a security expert.
«But I just don‘t see it happening yet,» Grina claimed to BNN.
For Stankūnienė, of Kaunas Vytautas Magnus, the projected decline is more than just about the lukewarm economy.
«The projected yearly decrease of the population by 20,000-30,000 people until 2030 is catastrophic to Lithuania despite someslight improvement in birth rate among certain groups of women. A raft of reasons are behind the declination,» she says.
Latvia behind Lithuania
In recent years, Latvia was widely seen as a country with the most pessimistic demographic forecasts, but the new Eurostat prognosis has put Lithuania on top again.
«If the projected numbers translate into reality, at them we will be nearing to the population numbers in neighbouring countries, Latvia and Estonia. Yet Lithuania is nowhere so far in competition with Estonia, which has seen population growth in recent years,» the scholar noted.
Although it was thought earlier that, long-term, Lithuania‘s birth rate will become similar to those in Northern European countries – ca 1.9 babies per woman – in reality, the number appears to be less than the average.
«To catch up with the Nordic countries, we would need to see a leap (in birth rate), but leaps are projected only in strategies. When it comes to birth, growth and changes are always sluggish,» says Stankūnienė.
According to her, birth rate has been edging down with every generation in Lithuania and there is no silver lining in the cloud in the near future.
«The trends will prevail,» the Demographic Centre head says.
Some glint shines ahead though
Yet there is a glint of hope that the shrinkage of Lithuania will be slower than the Eurostat forecast.
«For example, we‘ve been lately observing some positive birth rate changes among women with high education. Until recently, they were among those with least babies, but now women with secondary education give birth least,» Stankūnienė emphasised.
According to her, Vilnius especially stands out in terms of the new baby arrivals.
The Vilnius Municipality has recently implemented a set of measures aimed at alleviating the parenthood. For example, the authority has eased every family‘s affordability of private kindergartens by allotting 100 euros monthly to cover the costs.
Life expectancy to grow
Some of the mortality prognoses are also pretty optimistic, the scholar notes.
«For many years, the average life span in Lithuania has been nearly the same and was downward among men. However, the EU forecast has extended the average life expectancy for men until 85 years by 2080, which is a significant increase from the average of 69 years now. The average life expectancy among Lithuanian women is believed to reach 90 years by then, up from 79,6 years now,» she said.
The increasing army of pensioners and the scarcer younger population in labour market poses a huge challenge to Lithuania, believes Vytautas Dumbliauskas, a political analyst and associate professor at the Vilnius-based Mykolas Romeris University.
«Despite all the efforts to rein in emigration by, effectively, all the previous Lithuanian governments, and this current of the Farmers and Greens, the decamping is continuing. This is a very bad omen for the state. The imigration policies have failed. In fact, there have not been any, I mean, one well thought-out, outreaching and sustainable,» he told BNN.
Asked whether he believes the current government is able to harness emigration, he was terse: «No.“
Taxes matter most
To reverse exodus, the government should aim to ease the tax burden for population and boost the economy, Dumbliauskas is convinced.
«What we see now are a lot of talking about new taxes and a slew of ideas on reforming the tax system. The people are tired of the incessant futile talks and little action,» Dumbliauskas underscored.
The lingering gloomy outlook on the state and its future among a significant part of population is also a factor to consider.
«Yet economy is a determining factor. Unless the employers afford paying the workers more than the minimal wage of 300 euro-plus-something, we cannot expect to reverse the trends,» the analyst suggested.
In his words, many people not only often mistrust the state, but they do not see anyone who could help them.
«We don‘t have that type of trade unions like the southerners, where they are a powerful force. Therefore, in Lithuania, we see people individually tackling their issues. For cheaper goods, many go shopping to Poland and many others, unable to make ends meet with the wages they have, leave for the richer European countries. As I said, unless the state can make significant changes to the tax system, making the life more affordable here, emigration will continue to plague Lithuania,» Dumbliauskas underscored.
Focus in largest cities
For Vaidotas Rūkas, director of the Investment Management Department at INVL Asset Management, an asset management company, luring back the departed Lithuanians seems a „colossal task».
«Again, it is all about economy. If it sees some tangible improvements, the impetus to leave the country will diminish,» he says. «In tackling emigration, Ireland is seen as a classical example of the good experience. If we saw here more competitive, well-paid jobs, emigration would decline,» he said.
With the regions dwindling and social exclusion therefore increasing, Rūkas supports the idea of ramping up the largest Lithuanian cities, which have become a destination for the workforce from hinterland.
«Despite the influx, businesses are still dealing with shortage of skilled workforce. Although the number of those on payroll went up by 15,000 last year, it is not enough to satisfy the employers‘ needs,» Rūkas emphasised.