Audronė Telešienė: Let’s not panic that there is not 3 million of us

Lithuania's basketball supporters, DELFI / Šarūnas Mažeika

Recently published United Nations (UN) statistics about population changes in Lithuania have really put the country on pins and needles. Headlines in the press were screaming that we are a country going extinct at the fastest rate in the world, warnings about an emergency state and even a national tragedy were heard.

The predictions of UN experts are frankly not too optimistic. According to them, in 2050 there will be 2.1 million inhabitants in Lithuania and at the end of this century, only 1.5 million will be left. I truly agree that these numbers might be a shock.

However, is everything actually so dim and the only thing that we are still able to do is to wait for the unavoidable extinction of our country? Answers may be found in Lithuanian historical population data, which would help us understand the context and the core of the problem, while at the same time giving the chance to evaluate future perspectives objectively and rationally.

If we look at the statistics of the overall population rate and ethnic composition change, there is no doubt that we can find a few interesting stories.

First of all, statistics confirm something that we already know: the population in Lithuania is constantly decreasing and this tendency has been observed since the 90s. The main drivers behind this decrease are already mentioned too often: low birthrate, emigration, repatriation. From 1989 to 2018 Lithuania diminished by almost one-quarter: we lost 23.6 per cent of inhabitants.

“Three million” is the second anthem of Lithuania and it is no wonder we are aiming towards being a 3 million country. A Lithuanian expression says that you can’t take the words out of a song. Nevertheless, sometimes it is better to trust the numbers. Indeed, they show that historically, a population larger than 3 million is not typical for Lithuania.

Only for a short period of time, which began around the 1960s – 1970s and lasted for almost four decades, we had crossed the line of 3 million inhabitants. This period, which lasted until 2013, we could call the golden age of country demographics.

This is a specific demographic transition which, during the growing level of development, is also experienced by other countries. It is important to understand that after a rise, there comes another stage where there are fewer births and more deaths, so the population decreases. It seems like this is a process coded in history a long time ago, yet only now we have started seeing the results. Of course, the overall population is also affected by the fact that the number of citizens leaving is much higher than those coming in.

When talking about one of the most painful reasons for the country’s population decline, which is emigration, we usually mention citizens who are looking for a better life abroad.

However, if we examined the ethnic composition change of Lithuanian inhabitants, it is obvious that they are not only leaving Lithuania. Based on the data of 1887, 62% of all Lithuanian citizens were Lithuanian, 13% Jewish, 10% Polish, 5% Russian and the other 11% were other ethnic groups. Of course, due to the territorial differences, it is hard to compare 1897 and 2018, apart from that we can truly say that the Jewish community has almost completely vanished. In 1887 there was almost 250 thousand of them, but by 2018 this number dropped by 83% to a mere 2.1 thousand. Even though we lost most Jewish inhabitants during the World Wars, a huge number left Lithuania after the restoration of independence as well.

The Polish community, which was growing fast until the independence, started declining and has remained in a decline since 1990. The Russian ethnic group increased rapidly when Lithuania became a part of the Soviet Union, however, after gaining independence and having political conditions changed, a large number of Russians left the country and moved back to Russia.

It is necessary to mention that in this period, the Lithuanian ethnic group was on the slowest decline of only 16%.

In summary, we can note that in the middle of the 20th century the population grew mostly because of the increase in Russian and Polish ethnic groups, and in the early 21st century it started declining as the same groups fell back. However, I would like to reiterate that we should not panic because there is not 3 million of us anymore. Rather, we should focus on preparing our economy and institutions so they are able to adjust to the needs of a smaller population.

We should also take a serious look at the demographical forecast. Everything is much easier when there are a lot of young, working-age people in a small population. Yet the average age of Lithuanian inhabitants is climbing, so an ageing society will become a bigger challenge. We need to start thinking about how to deal with this and must aim our political decisions in a way that creates possibilities for nearly retiring and retiring people to stay active for a longer period. For example, giving them the opportunity to work longer (in a job adjusted to them) or start engaging in the community or voluntary activities.

Not of lesser importance is the strategy of institutional reduction (I am not talking about cutting the number of Parliament members, these questions are unrelated) – city territory reorganization, some of the countryside territories being returned to nature or becoming legal agricultural areas, etc. Yet these topics are for the other articles. National discussions about the further steps that would help to adjust to the changing demographical climate are definitely in demand.

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