The laughter of children still spills over the walls of St. John the Baptist School in Madrid, Spain. But it’s not quite as loud these days. There are fewer children at the school - just like at other schools all across Spain.
Births in Spain have gone from boom when couples commonly had a half-dozen children and dictator Francisco Franco rewarded the largest families to bust. Spaniards are having fewer babies than women of any other country in the world an average of 1.24 per woman, according to a 1996 report by the Council of Europe. Spanish demographers say the rate has since fallen to 1.21.
Indeed, many European countries have low birth rates, giving the Continent an overall average of 1.5 births per woman. Italy is not far behind Spain, with a rate of 1.26. Germany and Greece follow at 1.35 and Austria and Russia at 1.4. The birth rate is 2.1 in the United States.
Experts say an economic crunch, the increase of women getting jobs and society’s distancing from the Roman Catholic Church and its ban on contraception are behind Spain having the world’s lowest birth rate.
The new generation may be getting somewhat spoiled.
“The children come to school with their toys from home. If the toy breaks, they really don’t mind,” said Sagrario Pinto, director of St. John the Baptist’s preschool and kindergarten. “Their attitude is, ‘Oh well, mommy will buy me a new one.’ They don’t value what they have.”
So far, the drop in school enrollment - from just over 2 million in 1987 to 1.5 million today - has meant improved student-teacher ratios. But with Spain loosening laws that made it difficult and costly to fire employees, the decrease in students may soon translate into teacher layoffs. The government also warns that the social security system could be overburdened within 25 years, with the number of retirees increasing and fewer workers paying into the system.
The government is already allocating more money to social security because of Spain’s graying population. But the government no longer encourages women to have more babies, as Franco did during his 1939-1975 rule.
Some observers predict a swing back to couples having more babies, although not as many as before. “I believe in cycles,” said Amalia Gomez, secretary-general of the Social Affairs Ministry and a mother of two. “Eventually it always comes around.”
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