The countries of Central Europe stand out within the European Union with populations that are ageing and shrinking faster and differently compared to their neighbors. Unlike in Western Europe where ageing has been driven mainly by increases in longevity, countries in Central Europe (and the Baltics) have been ageing largely as a result of low fertility and emigration. Demographic change is significant: For example, Bulgaria has seen its population shrink by more than 15 percent since 1990, Romania and Hungary by more than 5 percent.
UN population projections show that this trend is expected to continue and even accelerate. Shrinking labor forces put economic growth at risk and contribute to fiscal pressures. A recent World Bank report argues that countries in Central Europe can respond to these challenges by promoting active, healthy and productive ageing. The heart of the policy response is to invest in people to ensure that current and future cohorts are well skilled and healthy so that more people are in work and can work for longer.
Ageing and shrinking countries of Central Europe can do better on employment activity, health and skills of their populations. This is particularly true for their Roma citizens who are among the poorest and most vulnerable Europeans, facing poverty, exclusion, and discrimination.
Roma in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania or the Slovak Republic on average face higher unemployment and more informal and precarious employment than their non-Roma neighbors. Moreover, their children learn less and drop out earlier from school. Roma also suffer from poorer health and worse access to health services. World Bank research shows that such inequality does not result from a lack of trying: Roma report having similar aspirations to those of their non-Roma neighbors. But they do not face the same opportunities.
Demographic ageing and decline mean that ensuring equal opportunities for Roma is not just a moral and social imperative based firmly on European values, but it is also an economic necessity: Put simply, with declining working age populations, countries cannot afford to leave significant parts of their populations idle and excluded.
This is even more so given that, unlike their countries’ aggregate populations, Roma populations are growing and represent an increasing share of new labor market entrants (see population pyramids for Bulgaria with data from a 2011 survey conducted by the European Commission, UNDP and the World Bank).
Twenty-five years and more of analysis have shown that inequalities between Roma and non-Roma start early. Some of them reflect family circumstances.
For example, a Roma child is much more likely to grow up in a household at the very bottom of the income distribution, or have parents with little or no education. Other inequalities reflect limited opportunities such as access to basic goods and services like quality education and adequate living conditions, which are necessary not only for realizing one’s potential in life, but also for living with dignity. Just as importantly, the evidence shows that early circumstances perpetuate disadvantage over the life cycle.
What is the policy response?
Promoting equal opportunities for Roma starts with an emphasis on children and their healthy and cognitive development. Addressing early childhood development gaps by promoting adequate parenting skills and improving the availability or affordability of quality services in the first 1,000 days of life could go a long way in enhancing opportunities for Roma children well into adulthood.
Moreover, redesigning education systems toward a more inclusive structure—delaying tracking, promoting desegregation, enhancing incentives for teachers to work in marginalized areas, and providing remedial education support and mentoring—would continue to create a level playing field in systems that continue to stack chances against children from disadvantaged socioeconomic background, such as many Roma.
But the focus on children is not exclusive – the policy response needs to go further. Leveling the playing field in early childhood might not be enough to secure equal opportunities: Roma continue to face unfair chances during key points in their lives, such as when looking for a job.
A broader set of policies should address some of the disadvantaged circumstances in which a large share of Roma children grow up, such as access to employment, decent living conditions and access to quality services such as in health.
If countries in Central Europe want to prepare for demographic ageing and decline, they should start with its poorest and most vulnerable citizens.
Unlike often argued, dealing with the discrimination and social and economic exclusion of the majority of Roma citizens in the European Union is not an intractable challenge. There are plenty of encouraging examples across Europe of how determined, inclusive policy in education, employment and social and health services can make a difference.
Originally published in New Europe on 9 April, 2015