The Solution Lies in the People Who Are There Around Us

Young people, low and medium-skilled staff leave Serbia the most, says Danilo Vuković, and, with the fact that the number of students in Serbia has decreased by one third in the last two decades, he adds a warning that some regions will shrink faster, for example Eastern and Southeastern Serbia will lose up to 40 percent of their population in the coming decades.

Posted June 29, 2022
Kalenic pijaca u Beogradu

Depopulation brings with it two big changes: the population of Serbia will keep shrinking and will become older.

UNDP, Aleksandar Mijailović

Demography and depopulation, along with the phrase brain drain, have become commonplace expressions in both everyday and political jargon. Simply put, there are fewer of us from year to year, due to fewer births and people more frequently leaving, while the October census will show how much the number and the structure of the population have changed since 2011. The key question for solving the acute and chronic demographic problems is whether it is possible to reverse the depopulation course? 

"If we are thinking about a solution, perhaps it is best to start from what the problem is, in fact. If we say that the problem is that the population is shrinking, then the logical solution would be to stop or reverse that decline. If that is how we describe the problem or the situation we are in as a society, the big question is whether there is a solution at all, whether it is possible to do something that will increase fertility or reduce migration, to stick to those two aspects of depopulation," says Danilo Vuković, editor of the Human Development Report for Serbia 2022 entitled "Human Development in Response to Demographic Change" on behalf of UNDP Serbia and Associate Professor at the Belgrade University Law School. 

"Because the problem is so complex, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and it is very likely that there is no solution, as we understand the word"

He highlights that the Report, prepared by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in cooperation with the Government of the Republic of Serbia, sends another message: we are not looking for a simple solution, we, as a society, are looking for a way to learn to live with this phenomenon, to adapt to it and to act as best we can. 

"If that is how you formulate the problem, here is one possible solution: the solution lies not in those who have left or have not yet been born, but in those who are there, around us. In the people who now live in Serbia. When the population grows, if some do not work, do not finish school or if they are ill, from the point of view of society, it is a far smaller problem. When there are fewer people and when their number will definitely decrease, the society must take more care that everyone who wants can work, go to school, start a family, develop all their potentials. This means that we should have a more inclusive education that keeps children from lower social strata in the school system longer, a labour market that offers better conditions, especially for young people, a health care system that cooperates more successfully with other stakeholders in preventing mortality, especially from chronic noncommunicable diseases. If we do that, then we can achieve a different population policy goal, to be a relatively small, but healthy, educated and active nation". 

How will Serbia’s depopulation affect the population of Serbia? Which regions of Serbia will be hardest hit by depopulation? Does the fact that two thirds of the GDP are in Belgrade and Niš affect the depopulation and slower development of Serbia and how? 

Depopulation brings with it two big changes: the population of Serbia will keep shrinking and will become older. Some regions will shrink faster, for example Eastern and Southeastern Serbia will lose up to 40 percent of their population in the coming decades. Some will fare better, such as Belgrade and the large cities, because they can attract internal migrants. They already are, and if the trend of metropolization of Serbia continues, in the future they will represent economic, administrative, cultural centres that will always be far more attractive for life than villages and small and medium-sized towns. 

Places that are less attractive will fall into a vicious circle. They will have fewer people, fewer professionals, workers, producers and buyers, providers and users of various services. When there are no such people, it is more difficult to build "urban infrastructure", which means hospitals, colleges or universities, cultural institutions and factories. Such a town then has an uncertain future and it is harder for it to develop. We as a society are already facing this problem. 

That is why in the Human Development Report we say that depopulation is a developmental problem, not just a demographic one, and that it should be solved by using developmental, not only demographic or population measures. Balanced regional development is one of the solutions, and we already have many positive developments in that area, primarily the development of the economy and the creation of new jobs. The next step offered by the Report is decentralisation and deconcentration. These are considerable political and administrative changes on which, as a society, we must first have a dialogue. 

Another solution that the Human Development Report offers is to focus our attention on the development of medium-sized towns, which are towns with 30 to 100,000 inhabitants. They are important because they connect large cities with their hinterlands and because they are administrative centres that could be the basis for future decentralisation. There are potential solutions for such towns, such as infrastructure development, new urban planning solutions, opening of colleges and universities, better transport connections with the surrounding area. 

What responses of the state and society to demographic changes can we expect in the future?  

The fact that we have been thinking and talking intensely about depopulation in the last few years does not mean that it is a process that started yesterday. We have been losing population for decades now. And that is the first fact that we as a society should admit. Another question is why depopulation occurs. It is a process triggered by many factors: we give birth to fewer children, we live shorter than the inhabitants of developed countries, and the inhabitants of Serbia emigrate both from Serbia and from parts of Serbia which are less prosperous and less attractive to live in. Because the problem is so complex, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and it is very likely that there is no solution, as we understand the word. 
But that doesn't mean there's no hope and there's nothing we can do. The first step is to provide a good explanation of the situation we are in. The Human Development Report offers a detailed, scientifically based diagnosis. And it says, first, that the population of Serbia will continue to shrink and that increasing the fertility rate cannot reverse that, but that we must focus instead on balancing internal and managing external migrations. This will shift the focus to issues of regional development and decentralisation, for example. Or to issues of inclusive and efficient education or urban planning to stop the urban decline. This then means that depopulation is no longer just a matter of population policy or, even better, that we will have to test all future policies from a demographic point of view and make them responsive to demographic issues.  

Guided by this idea, in the Human Development Report we have offered a range of interventions in various areas. We started with those where a lot is already being done, such as parenting support and migration, but we also planned interventions in a number of other areas, from education and health care through the labour market and social protection to environment protection and urban development. These are, as a rule, interventions that the state can afford and which, even if they do not lead to more births or less migration, will succeed in bringing benefits to those who are there and live in Serbia. 

"Depopulation is a process triggered by many factors: we give birth to fewer children, we live shorter than the inhabitants of developed countries, and the inhabitants of Serbia emigrate both from Serbia and from parts of Serbia which are less prosperous and less attractive to live in."

Do low or highly skilled workers leave Serbia the most? Why? Is the core of the solution in migration? 

The vast majority of people believe that the best and the smartest are leaving Serbia and that we have a brain drain. You would find something similar in numerous analyses. An international organisation has placed us at the bottom of the list of countries in terms of their ability to retain talent. And then that formulation is being copied from one document to another, from one media report to another. And do you know how it came about? By asking managers and entrepreneurs in one survey how capable Serbia is of retaining talent. They voiced their opinion, their perception, and then that perception became a reality. And then that new reality began to produce media reports, human stories, strategies and measures. And our research shows, in fact, that young low- and medium-skilled staff leave the most. 
For many experts, Serbia is a relatively good place to live, they have good salaries and do not have many incentives to leave. This does not apply to the former: they enter the labour market under poor conditions, have low wages and low-quality jobs, which means that they find it harder to exercise their rights and that they work in poorer conditions. The pay gap between workers here and in Slovakia or Germany is large enough that the incentive to leave is almost irresistible. 
Then we as a society should ask ourselves: do we want Serbia to be a society tailored to older, more educated, employed workers, and that means a society tailored to the middle classes, or maybe we still want to take additional care of young people. Especially because the young people will bear children: here or in Germany. Another myth about migration concerns their massiveness. Thus, based on OECD data, it is said that 650,000 people left Serbia in 15 years, mostly young, educated and talented ones. However, the Human Development Report actually shows that the annual net out-migration is far smaller and probably amounts to between five and seven thousand people. 
One other important finding is that the number of circular, temporary and occasional migrations is growing. These are the people who leave, work abroad for a while, return, spend some time in Serbia and then leave again. They leave because they can earn more there, and they return because something is keeping them back here. The state should then establish what it is that keeps them and work to strengthen those ties, while at the same time trying to influence the labour market by rewarding those people more. 

  

How can we make Serbia and its society more family-friendly? 

We start from the assumption that we are a society which takes care about the family, parents and children. The Human Development Report shows that there are two major gaps in this regard: between work and parenthood and in the position of men and women. Women spend far more time caring for the household, children and older people than men. It is difficult for young women, mothers, to balance work and parenting, and they are withdrawing from the labour market. That is why the inactivity rates are higher in this group than in men. If they want to return to the labour market, they have to rely on preschool institutions, which are more accessible to employed parents and those living in larger cities. Once their children start school, a significant number of parents will work a lot with their children in order for them to successfully acquire the school subjects, which again makes it difficult to balance work and parenting. 
And so young mothers and young parents find themselves in a kind of vicious circle. In such circumstances, pronatal financial incentives are important and can help families cover current expenses or plan for the future. In that sense, parental benefit for the second child is especially important because the birth of the second child is a key challenge for parents in Serbia. And it is good that they are supplemented with housing policies, especially due to the fact that women's ownership of property is now supported, which is not the case in Serbia now, as a rule. 
However, the Human Development Report shows that we have to deal with the ecosystem in which families live, and proposes that the organisational culture be changed so that it would, for example, support fathers who want to take more care of children, or further development of preschool institutions, interventions in the labour market, and even changing the gender patterns. 

"The vast majority of people believe that the best and the smartest are leaving Serbia and that we have a brain drain. And our research shows, that young low- and medium-skilled staff leave the most. For many experts, Serbia is a relatively good place to live. This does not apply to the former."

How does the education system affect depopulation? Should it be adapted to demographic changes and how?  

In the last two decades, the number of students in Serbia has decreased by one third, and our needs for workers and professionals will not decrease. That is why the education system has two goals: to offer better quality and to become more inclusive. The results of PISA tests performed on children aged 15 are quite poor in the international context, while the results of the TIMSS test, which is done in the fourth grade of primary school, are much better. One of the reasons is the better pedagogical work of teachers in lower grades. We can already draw one "lesson learned" here: the quality of education can be improved by raising the quality of teaching and pedagogical work in higher grades and through better pedagogical and psychological education of teachers. Similar changes in the quality of professional performance can be achieved in secondary schools and in universities. 

"Roma are a very young population. The average age of Roma is about 28, one in two is under 25. They are, as the report says, Serbia’s 'demographic asset. But they are also a development potential whose social integration still requires a lot to work on our part. In other words, although a lot has been done, Roma are almost systematically excluded from our society. And while we are talking about the tens or hundreds of thousands of people we are losing because they have not been born and because they are leaving the country, at the same time there are tens or hundreds of thousands of Roma living around us who are not integrated into education, the labour market or politics. "Could there be a better argument in the context of this discussion about depopulation in order for us to seriously consider as a society what kind of future we offer these people, but also what they could offer to the society through their education, work, cultural development or political engagement," Vuković explains, answering the question why Roma are an important resource when it comes to depopulation.

This text was originally published in Serbian language in Novi magazin weekly, in June 2022: https://novimagazin.rs/iz-nedeljnika-nm/275468-danilo-vukovic-resenje-je-u-ljudima-koji-su-tu-oko-nas