The need for immigrants – Pál Demény about the shrinking Hungarian population

Hungary Today recently published an interesting interview with Pál Demény, a demographer who is researching population trends. The 85-year-old Demény left Hungary in 1956, lived in the US and now has decided to retire to Budapest. (Read here.)

He was born in Nyíregyháza, went to university in Budapest and in 1961 received a PhD in Economics from Princeton. Demény has analyzed the links between demography, economics and policies and claims that Hungary will face a dramatic population decline soon. He agrees that by 2100 Hungary’s population will be halved; it will drop to 5.4 million. According UN estimates Hungary’s population will drop to 8.3 million by 2050. Can this trend be stopped, or only slowed down?

In order to increase its population Hungary’s fertility rate must reach or surpass 2.1. Currently it is at 1.49 which is a bit higher than neighboring countries. (Serbia 1.43, Slovakia 1.40, Croatia 1.39, Slovenia 1.35 and Romania 1.34)

To understand Hungary’s demographic drama we have to take a look at the numbers. In 1980 Hungary had close to 11 million people and today, 38 years later, the number is about 9.8 million. So in the last 40 years Hungary’s population declined about 1 million people. Today from the 9.8 million about 600,000 live temporarily (or permanently) in other, mainly EU countries while maintaining residences in Hungary. The country may have about 9 million people living within the borders.

In addition, according to surveys, about 1.2 million young people are ready to leave. With the exodus of the young adult population the decline will accelerate in years to come; labor shortages are already evident. Retail stores have shorter hours and it is almost impossible to find qualified painters, roofers and other trades people. Companies delay investments because they cannot find qualified workers.

Mr. Orbán thinks that by spending 4.6 percent of the GDP on family support programs sooner or later fertility rates will dramatically increase. I think he is mistaken and Demény also disagrees with him. He says that Hungary’s population decrease is irreversible!

Many demographers have warned that the Hungarian government is already late to start an immigration program. Demény thinks that the population problems of poorer countries will not be solved by emigration, “because only a small fraction of the population might conceivably leave.” He is probably right, but the “small fraction” can run in the millions.

I have a feeling that soon we’ll see a policy reversal in Hungary to encourage immigration, probably from Asia. The current anti-immigrant policy is unsustainable, it is not only damaging the economy but (ironically) encourages more Hungarians to leave the country and settle abroad.

The Economist’s headline says it all: “Eastern Europe’s workers are emigrating, but its pensioners are staying.” Young people who stay will be poor pensioners with ailing healthcare and low life expectancy. And the young people are also frustrated with the political situation in Hungary, the unreliable judicial system and the institutionalized corruption; they are tired of waiting for change. Their best bet is to leave the country while they can.

They can always come back later and have a comfortable retirement… just like Mr. Demény did.

György Lázár


  1. That’s more than anything down to emigration done by Hunagrians selling out to what they perceive to be wealthier countries.

    The decline in population in the long run will only be temporary. Give or take about a century, then Hungarian fertility rates are predicted to climb back up and Hungary will grow again.

  2. 1) Hungary had a birth rate of 1.25 in 2011, now it is up to 1.5. Still not good enough, but clearly headed in the right direction. So, it is false to claim that current policies are not working. I think it will work even better if the economic fundamentals of the country continue to improve, as they have been since 2013.

    2) There are some indications that the exodus following the 2002-2010 economic fiasco has ended and in fact may be reversing, with many people returning from abroad. For instance, foreign-placement workers from Hungary saw a net decline of 19,000 last year alone.

    3) Focusing the pro-migrant debate on the immediate economic considerations, especially in a place like Europe, where we are dealing with distinct native ethno-cultural entities is deeply flawed. Even if migration has net benefits economically speaking, it does not mean that it is in the longer-term interests of the native cultures. Just think that a few hundred years ago, European colonists boosted North America’s GDP/capita by probably a hundred fold at least, just on the back of the new technologies. I believe that many natives saw it the same way at the time. More powerful weapons, cutting, farming tools and so on, in exchange for some furs they were trading with the Europeans. There must have been a reason why chief Pontiac who managed to unite a number of native tribes in temporarily halting the European settlement Westward was assassinated by a fellow native. I doubt that today there would be many natives who would not wish they could travel back in time and kill the assassin of chief Pontiac. Going back to the European situation, I really do not see any longer-term benefit to the native cultures that inhabit the area. Culturally-induced low fertility rates can be reversed, through incentives and perhaps natural cultural evolution. A native culture becoming a minority group in their own land has never ever seen a reverse of the situation in human history, to my knowledge. Most of the time, it ends up with ethno-cultural extinction. And we have to be honest now, West European strategy of population replacement is most likely set to cause native Europeans to become a minority in many countries. In Sweden for instance, it may happen by 2050 already, which like I said, historically speaking always leads to a sad ending for the natives, even in the event that the new population is not particularly hostile.

    To be clear, I am not for a zero migrant policy in Hungary. But a very carefully managed one, with the focus still on boosting birth rates as the main longer term demographic strategy. And the focus on attracting migrants should focus rather on people hailing from more similar cultures.

    Aside from that, we should keep in mind that we are hearing more and more how we might be perhaps decades away from having most human labor rendered obsolete by automation. Is a growing population still going to be the right cultural & economic adaptation in such a world?

    • Reality Check says:

      Perhaps Peter does not understand that population growth is equal to (births – deaths) + (immigration – emmigration). Looking at birth rates in isolation is meaningless.

      Given this the last decade has looked like this:

      1998 10,297,082 -0.25 %
      1999 10,268,024 -0.28 %
      2000 10,238,612 -0.29 %
      2001 10,210,046 -0.28 %
      2002 10,182,040 -0.27 %
      2003 10,154,786 -0.27 %
      2004 10,129,342 -0.25 %
      2005 10,106,589 -0.22 %
      2006 10,087,213 -0.19 %
      2007 10,071,300 -0.16 %
      2008 10,057,419 -0.14 %
      2009 10,042,825 -0.15 %
      2010 10,024,792 -0.18 %
      2011 10,001,740 -0.23 %
      2012 9,973,590 -0.28 %
      2013 9,941,421 -0.32 %
      2014 9,907,024 -0.35 %
      2015 9,872,282 -0.35 %
      2016 9,840,592 -0.32 %
      2017 9,809,004 -0.32 %
      2018 9,777,517 -0.32 %

      He claims economic conditions since 2013 are better and therefore there is hope for a reversal of demographic decline. Yet the net population decline has shown no improvement since then. Also note that during the “2002-2010 economic fiasco” period, demographic decline was slower than during the last eight years.

      The amount of increase in birth rates needed to reverse demographic decline would require an unattainable increase in birth rates. Given the aspirations of modern Hungarian women, they are not about to signficantly increase their reproductive output.

      • You really do need a reality check. Yes, 2002-2010 economic fiasco demographic decline was slower. But it has to do with two factors. 1) the longer term trend, 2) the fact that it was the period of the debt bubble formation. Life is always good during the period when you are in the process of maxing out your credit card. Its when it is maxed out and you have to pay it all back, or at least pay the interest, that life starts to really suck.

        Other than that, the birth rate is the metric you have to watch. If it reaches 2.1 you are achieving long term demographic balance. In this regard, as I pointed out since 2011 things are headed in the right direction, which is a statistical fact. But because of past imbalance, for a while even reaching a birth rate of 2.1 will not immediately halt population decline. Same as countries which used to have a high birth rate, but recently went bellow 2.1, do not immediately see population decline (See Iran, China, Saudi Arabia). I am trying very hard to understand whether you are just confused and lack basic understanding in regards of some facts and their meaning, or whether you are just looking to throw in red herrings into the conversation. It might be a bit of both?

        • Reality Check says:

          A 2.1 birth rate is not a magical number, since population growth rates are based on the four parameters of the basic BIDE model. The values of all of these parameters can change over time. Pál Demény is making the assumption that emmigration rates will not increase, when in fact they could. Given the dismal state of healthcare in Hungary, death rates could also increase. And you can’t assume that value is the same in other countries, since the parameters in the model vary from country to country. And even the other parameters in the model are assumed to be constant in Hungary, good luck getting the reproductive age women of Hungary to reach that average. The likelihood is near zero.

          No I do not have issues with basic facts, since I have done population modeling as part of my professional work. It seems, you read the link to Demény and now you think you are an expert. It’s clear you lack the depth of knowledge to critically evaluate that piece.

          • Infant mortality rates are among the lowest in the world in Hungary, so I do believe that 2.1 would apply to Hungary. The dismal health care situation is mostly thanks to near-economic collapse caused by debt bubbles inherited from previous government. With a return to economic health, health care should also start to improve. Can’t have health care, education or most other good things in the long run without a relatively healthy economy. It is not what Hungarians inherited from previous government, but has been improving.

          • Reality Check says:

            Believe what you want. It is clear you do not understand the basics of population dynamics.

  3. As societies advance, women refuse to become like breading machines for the benefit of the state.

    The over all world population however do continually explodes’

    When I was a young fellow the world’s human population was at the brink of two (2) billion (in Hungarian 2 milliard), today it’s over seven and half billion (7.5 milliard) and it will double in the next 40 years.
    But experts agree that the Earth is able to support only 10 billion (10 milliard) humans.

    We will reach that number in about 17-18 years.
    So what shall we than ?

    Remember there is only so much of everything, as matter of fact less and less of everything that’s essential to human survival. Only humans in increasing numbers every single day.

    There is today more garbage in the oceans than fish.We live also in a reducing atmosphere. Having less and less oxygen, as everything else.

    Yet, politicians want more and more humans. They obviously want more people they can push around to feed their ego.
    Or what benefit they could see in having more humans to inhibit this Earth ?

  4. I think, I think, I think, scientist know. And what I know is, Hungary have a Climate that makes People to go.

    • Scientists look at facts! Latest fact is that there are some signs showing that there is a net reversal of the emigration trend, with people coming back. In the last year, net 19,000 people who were working on placement abroad returned to Hungary. Maybe it has to do with the fact that Hungary’s economic climate has been fixed to some extent since 2010? Scientists observe correlations? Scientists do not let ideology cloud their judgement?

      • Don Kichote says:

        I have a Neighbor, he has worked in München at BMW for only three month. He came bag, because the Money is enough for one year.

        But I did not meant only the economic climate. If you can´t get air, than you can´t breath.

      • Reality Check says:

        Scientist also look at 19,000 and look at it as fraction of the total that emigrated or died. If the Hungarian population has declined by 1,000,000 in 40 years, adding 1.9% back into population is trivial. They then conclude, that it’s a small fraction that hardly makes a dent in the population growth rate.

        And you’ve thrown this number around a few times. where did it come from? If it’s a reliable number, then were did these folks return from? If they are mostly from Great Britain, then it could be temporary returns those being impacted by changes brought on by Brexit. Have the returnees been polled to understand their motivation for returning?

        Before you get all excited by that small sum, you should dig a little deeper. Perhaps it is you that is letting ideology cloud their judgement.

        So, if you provide me evidence that that is a reliable figure, and we come back in ten years and Hungarians are consistently returning at that rate or better, then maybe your optimism about demographic increase will be something other than ideological excitement.

      • Reality
        The incessant repetition of fake news is a pillar of the Orban agit prop machinery, just as Dr Goebels was reported to say. The trolls apply it here, but most readers already know it’s propaganda.

  5. PETER;
    But “scientists” like to publish lots of BS figures, often intentionally contradictory figures.
    That is how they can be sure that the new research money keeps flowing their way.
    The self-interest.

  6. Bendy: You say: “No one ever was able to back up allagation of being “fascist”, or “dictator”, nor that “corrupt”, at least presented NO evidence of it. Neither Dr. Adam, nor myself has ever called Hungary a fascist dictatorship on these pages or anywhere else for that matter. Maybe your granny did, when she was trying to yank your head out of the sand. But seriously: I certainly can”t help you , because you are a troll that is either unable to follow the hundreds of independent studies which have proven, with empirically verifiable evidence, that Orbán is a corrupt, pro-Russian autocrat, or an obsessive who needs to come here every day to declare that the earth is flat. Hungary”s Academy of Sciences, Hungary”s Civil Liberties Union, Freedom House, The American Enterprise Institute, The Center for Democracy, The Hoover Institute, Transparency International, the European Parliament, the most reputable scholars writing in Europe and America, not to mention Hungary, have done what you keep coming here to deny like a dumb ostrich with his head up his own rectum. Why you are given this privilege to display your ignorance on a daily basis on a portal dedicated to civilized and learned discourse beats me. Have you ever tried flying a kite ?

  7. The Orban BS re increasing the fert.rate to 2.1 and the troll brigade paid-for-optimism notwithstanding, the Hungarian stats are muddled by the way Hungarians living abroad and their newborn are counted – almost all of those are counted as Hun born, so the real f.r. in the country is exaggerated (as many of the emigrants will not go back).
    That said, the gradual (manageable) population decline is not necessarily a bad thing. Finally, linear projections of population grown 50 years ahead are nonsense.

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