Will Hungary’s Population Be Halved by 2100? Demography Expert Pál Demény Discusses Europe’s Low Birth Rate, Challenges Facing Hungary, and How to Maintain a Stable Population

Hungary Today had the pleasure of sitting down for an interview with Dr. Pál Demény, a Hungarian demographer and economist whose research on population decline and demographic policy have been extremely influential internationally. After fleeing Hungary following the fall of the 1956 Revolution, Dr. Demény made his way to the United States, where he would have a long and fruitful career. Now living in Budapest, the 85-year-old researcher continues to speak at lectures, conferences and other events, in addition to having recently overseen the translation of a collection of his work into Hungarian.

Over the course of the interview Dr. Demény, a member of the Friends of Hungary Foundation, discussed his personal background and his experience as a Hungarian refugee studying at Princeton, as well as his views on issues ranging from Europe’s demographic decline to a system of voting that would give children and the next generation greater weight in political affairs, a concept that is known to this day as “Demény voting.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and concision, and translated from the original Hungarian.


How would you introduce yourself?

I would begin by saying that I earned a Doctorate in Economics from Princeton in 1961, and within this I specialized in demographics and the way they relate to economics.


When did you move to America?

Well, I can easily answer this question, since yesterday was the 60th anniversary of my arrival in America, with an offer to complete my PhD at Princeton in my pocket. From the very first day I was there in Princeton to study. This lasted from 1957 until 1961, when I received my doctorate.


What was it like to arrive as a 20-something year-old to completely new surroundings? Was it frightening?

It was very exciting [laughs]. It wasn’t frightening, but it was highly interesting, especially since, even though I could read well in English, I couldn’t speak it at all, since I had learned the language exclusively through books.


How helpful were people? To what extent were you accepted?

If you are a graduate student at Princeton, they assume that you’re a smart person and don’t need help. While everyone was very kind and polite, they were also all occupied by their own research. It was a great place, one unlike any other I had experienced before. Earning my PhD was hard work. My original scholarship was for the first year only, meaning that by the end of that year I had to show that I was worthy of continuing my studies at Princeton. Ultimately, I continued to receive scholarships for the rest of my studies.

At the end of my second year I began to specialize in studying population trends and the ways in which they relate to economics. At the end of my second year I began to specialize in studying population trends and the ways in which they relate to economics. I got a job as a population research assistant at the Office of Population research, which, at the time, was the best population research institute in America. My doctorate’s theme was already demographics, dealing with how they related to economics.

After receiving my PhD, I received an offer to stay at the university as an Assistant Professor, while simultaneously being offered a formal position at the Office of Population Research as a researcher. I was there for 4 years. This was at the time when the use of computers started becoming more popular, and I learned programming because of this, so that by 1965 my work appeared alongside MC Coleal’s, a Princeton professor, in the Princeton University Press. It was an 800-page book, with 90% of it being composed of tables, mortality models, and the age structure for stable populations.


During your studies how connected were you to professors, and researchers you would eventually work with?

Exceptionally well. Especially with four professors, who made lasting impressions on me, and who taught me a lot. Two of these were population specialists, Fran Notstein, the director of the institute, and Ensley Cole, the vice-director.


You were at Princeton for 4 years after graduating?

Yes. After those 4 years news of my work spread, and I was offered a job at the University of Michigan. This is how I ended up at Ann Arbor, U of M, as an Associate Professor. I also received the position of Deputy Director and Researcher at the local Population Research Institute, which had a good reputation. After a little while I was named a Full Professor, and I received an invitation to Berkely, as Visiting Professor, with the intention of returning to Ann Arbor as a professor. This never came to be, however, because at Berkely I received an offer to go to Hawaii, which had just become an American state, as a Professor of Economics in Honolulu. I offered to start an institute there, which they eagerly accepted, and this is how I founded the East-West Population Institute, which started with one member: me. This institute specialised in the problems of population aging in East Asian countries, as well as parts of the Southeast Asian region.


Of course, I had to recruit a research team, who came partly from East Asia (from Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines). After a few years I had created an outstanding team, having brought people from Australia as well, and the institute began to build up a good reputation. Honolulu was an interesting place, far away from Princeton, far away from Ann Arbor, and far away from Berkely as well. Having had to recruit and build up the program meant that I spent quite a bit of time visiting Asia. These were most definitely interesting years.


There appeared a Hungarian publication that summarized your work from 1985 to 2015.

This is what brought me to Budapest for an extended amount of time.  I retired one week after my 80th birthday, but continued to work in my field. The local institute of population research kindly offered to put together a volume of my published work, which they would publish in Hungarian.

Although I started as a specialist in demographics, as time went on I utilised my speciality less and less. Nevertheless, I had a few publications in this field, including one prepared on behalf of the UN, that dealt with how to create a better statistical picture from poor or missing statistics using analytic techniques.

Getting back on topic though, I dealt more with the economic aspects of population, and especially how they could be affected by politics.


You have experience with the ebb and flow of population across many societies, how do you see the issue that is Europe’s primary challenge, demographic decline? Is there a global remedy for this sort of issue, or must it be considered in terms of a given country’s cultural framework? Is there a universal solution?

The main solutions have to take place on a country-by country basis. These global solutions don’t tend to work well, due to the large cultural differences [between different countries]. There were three large international conferences (World Population Congress) in 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, and I participated as an expert in all three.  I presented very critical lectures in all three.

The first one took place in Bucharest, the second in Mexico City, and the third one was held in Cairo. These primarily dealt with how to reduce the so-called population explosion; to find solutions for how to reduce fertility rates in places where it is very high. There aren’t good overall solutions for these situations either, or at least this was the opinion I presented at these lectures. This wasn’t the accepted political belief at the time; rather, the commonly held belief was that developed nations had a solution the problem, and that this needed to be exported.

But let us return to the topic of my career in Hawaii, which lasted only 5 years. Because of the success of the institute I founded I received a promising offer to come to New York, where there existed an NGO, the Population Council. They invited me to be the Vice President, and I went back east to New York. This was in 1973.

They wanted to tempt me to come back to New York. The Council had a ‘Demographic Division’, and they wanted me to be the director, while being vice-president as well.  I thought to myself, “If they wanted me that much then I’ll be in a good position to make demands.” My main wishes were to have a research team investigating population policies, instead of forming a Demographic Division, and to launch a journal, which is something that I felt was extremely necessary. There were already a few journals that dealt with population, but I felt that there needed to be a publication that tied together academia with policy, where truly interesting things were happening in the world of demographics. They kindly met my demands, and this is how “Population and Development Review” began in 1975. Simultaneously, instead of a Demographic Division, the “Center for Policy studies” was founded.

This truly was a successful endeavour, and for 38 years I was the editor, and very quickly it earned its prestige as a first-rate journal in America. The publication is successful to this very day, and is going on its 44th year.

The other endeavour, the Center for Policy Studies, was not successful in the long run. As is often the case, the source of money for developing and maintaining an institution had an impact, meaning that we had to listen the thoughts of people who were financially supporting the institution. Here the case was that the support was pushing a direction that, on one hand did not interest me, and that on the other hand I had did not have a particularly high opinion of. After its initial successes, I spent a good decade fighting for what this institution should do to for the entire Population Council, but in the meantime, the president who had invited me there had retired, and his successor was a president who understood what it takes to receive financial backing, but did not understand much about the subject matter himself. So, I finally resigned as Vice President, and by de facto the Center dissolved, I became a distinguished scholar in the institution, and I continued as editor of the journal, a post I held until my retirement.


Are there any publications from this journal which are included in the current Hungarian publication?

A good amount, but they don’t make up the majority. Returning to the publication in Budapest, I received this offer to put together such a volume, and, having the chance to select what I want, made it again clear that I did not want to do expressly work with just demographics and population selection, but to focus on population policy as well. When it was published, it included my publications from 1986, and nothing of my earlier work, which dealt mainly with demographics. It proved to be a lengthier undertaking than I thought it would be originally, because translation itself is not a simple thing. The translator was very enthusiastic and competent in the field of population, but I felt that I had to be involved in the translating so that there would be no misunderstandings.

The book was published in 2015, and took up most of my time for a year and a half.  My permanent residency is in America, in Long Island, but my wife and I have not been there for several years now.

There are two things come into play here: one is that I have been asked to participate in many local happenings; conferences, to give advice, to give opinions, so I was very busy after the completion of the publication. The other is that, when a person reaches his 85th birthday, his mobility is naturally not what it used to be. This applies to me, and even more so to my wife. Air travel in particular is not a pleasant thing when you get older. By default, then we live here in Budapest, and we have a very nice living arrangement here. We live in a very pleasant neighbourhood; it’s a very pleasant place. To a certain extent, we are stuck in Budapest, for now, but this is a very pleasant thing. We miss America too, and when a direct flight between Budapest and New York appears then we will likely try it out. Now my children and grandchildren visit me here quite often.


By 2100 it is predicted that Hungary’s population will be practically halved, that it will drop down to 5.4 million. Can this trend be stopped, or only slowed down?

A good question; a difficult question. I must say that in my filed of population policy this has become the problem we’re increasingly trying to address, partly because it has been a dominant question since the post-war decades, and growing in strength since then. Demographics is especially interested in this problem in the developing world, where a so-called population explosion has occurred. This meant that the problem of low fertility has been quite neglected. The low level of Hungarian fertility is not a unique phenomenon, it is the case in Europe and in other developed countries, and in many places the situation is even worse than in Hungary.

I have studied the question for a long time, as well as the issue of what role population policy, in the form of state intervention, can play in the process. Population growth depends on three factors from the demographic point of view: fertility levels, the mortality rate, and the rate of immigration. When this low fertility appeared in Western Europe between the two world wars, in Hungary, they began to formulate a solution through stimulating fertility with so-called “pro-natalist” tactics. After the Second World War, there was a temporary “baby boom” that let that solution be forgotten; the consequence of this was that even after the “baby boom”, the population situation seemed safe because they were major cohorts [in demographics this is a group who experienced a common event] that were born after the war.


Was the ‘Ratkó era’ part of this phenomenon as well?

They always refer to Ratkó in Hungary, but I do not like the term, partly because it refers to a rather unpleasant health minister [Anna Ratkó, Hungary’s health minister during the Stalinist dictatorship of Mátyás Rákosi]. But the terms ‘Ratkó’s kids’ and ‘Ratkó’s grandchildren’, these are all part of a general phenomenon that may have been amplified in Hungary, where abortions were strictly prohibited. But I would not attribute the majority of these cohorts to Anna Ratkó.

But returning to the topic of low fertility in Western Europe after the “baby boom”, these stimulated family friendly interventions returned, but not everywhere of course. It is somehow politically “incorrect” for the state to intervene and admit that it is a fertility intervention, and it is accepted rather as a logical component of government assistance programs, in helping mothers avoid financial burden when giving birth, and to have paid leave after birth, to have kindergartens, and family support in various forms.

The effectiveness of these policies has very bad press, and I understand the demographics analysis, and why there’s no great success that can be attributed to it. Of course, the problem here is that we can’t know what would have happened if we didn’t have these interventions at all; perhaps the fertility rate would be even lower. What would happen if they lowered the funding for these policies, or got rid of it altogether? Most likely, there would be a reaction affecting the fertility rate, namely a lowered fertility rate. When these policies become an accepted and expected system, then the government would have a very difficult time backing out of them.

The argument that the increase of these subsidies might be effective still remains. In Hungary, 4.5% of GDP is spent on family support, which is a very high percentage. Compared to Europe there are few rates this high, but one wonders, what if support was raised to 6%? It would most likely have a certain effect.

Housing presents another big problem in Hungary. It is difficult to raise two children in a 60-square-foot apartment, and three are almost unthinkable, especially if needs increase. This is the tendency; though the dominant trend is two-child families, there are more and more families with one child, and even zero-child families, even in the middle class. So a third, or fourth child, which is needed to balance out the trend of single child and zero-child families, is a very difficult problem. Family friendly programs like to concentrate on pushing for third and fourth children, but of course the first two children should also be there. The third child is difficult to bring to life when there is no first and second.

One problem with this is that we are talking about family-friendly measures, but the goal is not only to promote family fertility, but also raising the number of births. So, it’s hard to say if providing subsidies only for families is the best course of action, because this is the best way to raise a child, but the number of births also depends on what is happening outside the family. From this perspective, the family is defined as a mother and a child, even if the father is not at present or recorded in the book. So, family and birth number are not exactly the same, but policies are trying to ensure that most births happen within a family.


You have written that children should be given the right to vote as well.

I advised that every citizen should be given the right to vote. Every citizen means those people who were born in Hungary, are for all intents and purposes Hungarian citizens, and yet have no influence on the direction of politics. Children born today, or 5, or 10 years ago, will be alive for the majority of the 21st century. But those people who are around my age, or even 20 years younger than I, won’t be around anymore, and their entire life perspective is a shortened life perspective, and that is reflected in their thoughts on politics and general welfare. Their main interests are ensuring their pensions. But their pensions’ security also depends on how many of them are there, and the growth of the working-age population. If they try to fix this situation by increasing the number of births, those new children will enter the labor-force 20, 22, 25 years later. when these pensioners will be in a different world, so it is not surprising that they are not interested in such measures. As a result of past population trends, these pensioners control a plurality of the vote, and will eventually acquire a majority sooner or later.

This can be partially remedied by giving every child voting rights, which would be exercised by their parents, or rather by their mothers. Their mothers would vote in their stead. Is a mother capable of this? I think so, because they would be reminded, “think of your child’s future.”

On top of all this, it would add a certain distinction for having given birth. If they have given birth to 3 children then, they would count as 4 votes.


You also mentioned the idea of tailoring pensions according to how many children people have had throughout their life.

This policy recommendation has a greater value and more influence, although this would be a long-term thing, and wouldn’t bring immediate results to the fertility rates. The size of their pension would depend on the size of the population of the labour-force. This depends on how many children someone has nurtured. Whoever contributed more to the growth of the labour-force, has had an effect on the country’s economy, and the amount available for retirement funds. This individual who raised more children is deserving of compensation, especially looking at the money needed to raise multiple children and the sacrifices they needed to make, besides the money they put aside for retirement and savings; it’s difficult to imagine what is needed to have a large family.


Would those who adopt children benefit from this policy as well?

Figuring out the parameters of this is another thing on its own, but I think so, yes. In all respects, for these populace-stimulating measures, it is very important to communicate simply and what someone would receive for behaving differently than they might have planned. There should be no need to hire a lawyer who will investigate what kind of compensation an individual is eligible for and whether they are eligible for it, and so on. This is also a problem for family support systems, which often have too much fine print about who is eligible for what, and how it relates to their work, and so on. It needs to be easily communicable to have an impact.


A year and a half ago, one of your publications appeared in English, in which you expressed skepticism at the role immigrants play in demographic issues. As a man who lived in America, where Catholics and Chinese alike were formerly considered to be “dangerous”, do you consider it a possibility that in the long run assimilation would take place?

America’s genius, in terms of assimilation, is far beyond that of Europe’s genius. It is indeed a country whose historical traditions show that this was ultimately an immigrant nation, and that it has successfully assimilated the various waves of immigration.

There is an asymmetry in all this: the population problems of developing countries will not be solved by emigration, because only a small fraction of the population might conceivably leave, while the capacity of countries receiving immigrants to accept them is finite.  How finite is it? Well, Merkel originally said that, if there is civil war, then the gates of Germany are open to those war-torn countries. Today she says, “Such things will not happen again.”

It’s good that it will not happen again, because Syria is a tiny little state. What if there were a civil war in Egypt, or Nigeria, where hundreds of millions of people live? Obviously, even if they say refugees are welcome, there are limits to this. But what these boundaries should be depends on what the population that is living in the country wants. If refugees from far away are not enthusiastically accepted, then these boundaries must be aligned for that. It is the fundamental right of every country to determine how many people they wish to permanently admit.


How definite of an answer can you give to the question of whether the demographic decline of Hungarian society can be stopped?

The decline is inevitable, because the population’s structure is such that it is built-in. If today the fertility rate would go up to 2.1%, then a net decrease would occur at occur at the same time, regardless. For there to be a balanced population structure in the long-term, and for it to be stable, the fertility rate must be at 2.1%. In regards to if this is doable, all I can say is that we have every reason to try to make it a reality.



Reporting by Balázs Horváth and Tom Szigeti

Translated by Nagy Edward Gergely

Photos by Tom Szigeti