All of the studies on the evolution of Greece’s population numbers agree on one thing: The country is on course for a significant demographic decline. Even though the birth rate has been dropping steadily for several decades, the influx of a large number of migrants in the 1990s helped restore the balance and even bring about a small rise, so that births in 2008 were the highest that they had been since 1985. The economic crisis, however, put a stop to that upward trend.
Greece was dealt a triple blow: Many migrants returned to their countries, many Greeks moved abroad, and those that stayed had fewer children. Birth rates plummeted. It is indicative that the number of children who were born in 2008 and went to first grade in 2014-15 came to 111,300, while just three years later, in the 2017-18 academic year, the number of first-graders had dropped to 102,000. According to a study by the Foundation for Economic & Industrial Research (IOBE), the impact of this decline will be evident in education, the job market and the economy in general – and will be felt a lot sooner than we think.
So what can be done? Most proposals refer to a medley of interventions aimed at encouraging young couples to have more children with financial incentives. However, Greece’s economic resources are still paltry and a population rebound remains elusive. In the meantime, the global population is growing at an incredibly rapid pace, which means it is almost certain that migration flows into Greece will also rise.
Apart from the economic impact, these demographic trends generate deeper, more existential concerns. To the degree that our individual identity is connected to that of many others who comprise the Greek nation, the prospects of shrinking collectively can only be regarded with great concern and this will likely to lead to extreme political and social reactions.
Many European countries facing similar problems are having to deal with the emergence of conspiracy theories linking migrant inflows with the demographic decline (like the so-called “great replacement” theory) and extremist movements. But we can – and must – turn this angst into more productive channels, in favor of our national rather than our demographic continuity.
A glance at the history of mankind shows us that demographic purity and population stability are myths. People are always on the move, whether by peaceful or violent means, so that the populations of different regions are constantly changing.
The population of Macedonia today is small only in relation to what it was a century ago. Genetic studies have also shown that modern nations comprise people with a multitude of backgrounds. What makes us a collective entity is the sum of many different factors, such as language, but also the consciousness of belonging to one nation. In the case of Greece, we have the huge added advantage of being connected to an great ancient civilization – a relationship which survives through language and geography. If we underscore this relationship in a clever and – most importantly – inclusive way, we will be in a position to ensure the continuity of Hellenism.
Greece is a privileged place and in the near future will attract people from wealthy countries who want the quality of life it offers as well as people from poor countries looking for security and freedom. Basically, it is completely unlikely that Greece will become barren of people. It is my belief, therefore, that our mission as modern-day Greeks, as a small link in a long human chain that has evolved here, is to pass our best moral virtues onto the people who will succeed us here, whether we are genetically connected to them or not.
Stathis N. Kalyvas is the Gladstone Professor of Government at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford.