Croatian Population Growing Older, Demographic Crisis Worsening

Lauren Simmonds

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As Gojko Drljaca/Novac writes, since the start of a new wave of emigration back in 2013 when Croatia joined the European Union, Slavonia, Sisak-Moslavina, Lika-Senj and Šibenik-Knin counties have been all but devastated, and earthquakes and even a pandemic have occurred. They will only make the situation worse, both in terms of domestic and cross-border migration. The elderly Croatian population is particularly vulnerable.

The pandemic only exposed all the sensibilities of an ”old” Croatia. What can stop the emigration of the Croaian population from the areas affected by the earthquake now? How can we bring life back to the hinterland of Split-Dalmatia County?  Is there a single recipe for Croatian demographic renewal at all, or should a whole set of measures be applied and implemented at all administrative levels? These are all problems and issues that were touched on in the panel discussion “Aging and Emigration” with Sanja Klempic Bogada, scientific advisor at the Centre for Migration and Demographic Research of the Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies, and Kresimir Ivanda, a scientist from the Zagreb Faculty of Economics. The panel discussion “Aging and Emigration” is part of the Croatia of the New Generation project.

Aging and emigration are two factors that predetermine the demographic picture of Croatia in the future.

”We’re at the top of the age indicator of the population, we can say that we are a very old nation not only in Europe but also in the world. Just over 20 percent of the Croatian population is 65 or older. Aging is a global trend, and not just in Europe as the oldest continent. Aging is a process that happens significantly faster in less developed countries. In Croatia, the negative aspects of aging are often highlighted, thus creating a rather negative image of older people. However, people over the age of 65 are very often resourceful and financially independent. Not all seniors are a huge burden to the state. In fact, this problem was generated by the fact that the state pursued the policy of early retirement and, regardless of the demographic picture, created a large number of retirees who left the labour market prematurely,” warned Klempic Bogadi, while Kresimir Ivanda emphasised the impact of the age of the Croatian population:

”There’s been a change in spending, changes in the way of investing in the areas which become depopulated and increased allocations for the costs of the pension, healthcare and social system. We’re seeing a large shift in consumption, both in a public and a private sense, towards the elderly population. We have, therefore, on the one hand, increased costs, and on the other hand we have a changed structure of consumption. This problem of the nation’s aging is linked to the increasingly pronounced problem of emigration.

Today, the consequences of emigration are much more visible and stronger than they were back in the waves which occurred in Croatia 50-70 years ago. We used to have a much larger share of a young population, that is, labour reserves that we no longer have today. In the 1960s, there were five or more employees per retiree. Today, when we have only 1.4 employees per retiree, it’s clear that every single emigrant is a bigger economic problem than they used to be. If we look at the scale of emigration, then and today, we’re somewhere around the total number, but today’s emigration will have more serious consequences,” warned Ivanda.

Emigrants are a heterogeneous group, Klempic Bogadi added, but in principle it can be said that in the 1960s and 1970s, most people left rural areas and were mostly made up of unskilled labour.

”The former state somewhat limited the emigration of the well-educated Croatian population. However, in that period in the 1960s and 1970s, Croatia was filled with immigrants from Bosnia and Herzegovina, who made up for the loss of the population. Today, people of different profiles are emigrating; highly educated people, and young people, but also older individuals. Croatia no longer has a “demographic stock” to import from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Demographic trends there are also negative and we can no longer count on solving part of the problem through migration from that neighbouring country. In addition, today’s emigrants are different than they were back in the sixties because they only used to leave for temporary work, often coming back. The countries that received them calculated that they would stay only temporarily, they didn’t try to integrate them. A significant part of these people still remained abroad, but today it’s impossible to say how many emigrants plan to return at all when they leave. It’s unclear what the long-term consequences will be,” stated Klempic Bogadi.

Not everything about Croatian population issues is so black…

”Foreign currency remittances are growing from year to year. This means that connections are being maintained, and these remittances have an effect. Remittances are a kind of protective social network. After the crisis, from 2009 to 2013, these remittances had a very favourable effect on the Croatian economy, but during the expansion of the economy they often have the opposite effect because they usually go into current consumption. They may even slow down the employment of those who really do depend on these remittances. This has also been observed in other remittance-dependent countries, such as Mexico,” Ivanda explained.

In a number of aging developed nations, the question is beginning to arise as to whether gross domestic product is an adequate measure of a country’s performance. How does GDP measure success if a population which is too old limits growth?

”We can’t measure everything in society through economic profit. Countries like Japan or Denmark have long since realised that they must adapt their economies to the needs of the elderly,” said Klempic Bogadi, who sees the great potential of the so-called silver economy.

”We don’t have too many old people, but we do have too few young people. It’s fantastic to live longer than we ever have before in history, but it will bring costs and challenges, and GDP will be hard to replace soon. Even with the aging Croatian population, GDP has a comparison function. We are, very old, as is Germany, but again we have very different levels of GDP,” Ivanda said.

One of the key problems arising from the combined problems of an aging Croatian population is the sustainability of the pension system.

”Croatia, along with Italy, has the shortest expected working life. The average man is expected to have only 35 years of experience, and they go off o work in Sweden and the Netherlands for more than 42 years. Life expectancy has been extended and working life has been shortened. The key problem is therefore people leaving the labour market prematurely,” stated Klempic Bogadi.

”Not only do we retire too early, but we enter the labour market too late. Between the ages of thirty and forty-five, we’re comparable in employment to the rest of Europe, but not up to the age of thirty. In addition, the picture of the labour market after the age of 55 is particularly worrying… Approximately half of pensions are spent on full old-age pensions. All the others are some other categories. That isn’t something that has only been occurring recently. That has been going on for about sixty years now. It isn’t a solution if you push three people to retire and hire only one younger person,” added Ivanda, who believes that in the future, we’ll have more highly educated people in the labour market because they usually work for a longer time period.

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