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Reeling from COVID-19 slump, Turkey's demographic challenges loom large

As part of his nationalistic agenda, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been encouraging families to have at least three children, but soaring brain drain and falling birth rates stand as major predicaments in front of his ambitions.
Protesters move away as Turkish police officers intervene during a demonstration in support of Bogazici University students, at Kadikoy in Istanbul, Turkey, April 1, 2021.

Berke Guney Boz is in his last year of high school at a private school in Eskisehir in northwest Turkey. Although he still has many years of education in Turkey ahead of him, he has already made plans for his post-university life. “I want to study computer engineering at a top university, then use the opportunity to study abroad for a few more years, before getting a job in a foreign country,” Boz said. 

“I don’t see any situation where I would want to stay [in Turkey],” he added.

Boz feels left behind by his country’s economic and educational policies, and he isn’t alone -— thousands of young people in Turkey want to leave the country, where the economic situation has gone from bad to worse over the past year.

Having been faced with economic and fiscal troubles for years, Turkey finds itself in a particularly tight bind now as it looks forward to its eventual recovery from the coronavirus-induced economic downturn. With young people looking to leave the country for both economic and political reasons, Turkey’s conservative, populist leadership has been hard pressed not only to incentivize skilled citizens to stay in the country, but also to deal with the long-term, two-headed dilemma of an aging population and a declining birth rate among Turkish citizens. 

But according to experts, the problems facing Turkey’s post-pandemic recovery are only partly demographic ones, and are tied in large part to the economic policies of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and increases in corruption nationwide. Under such conditions, Turkey’s steadily growing immigrant and refugee population will likely serve as a boon to the economy in the coming years. 

As part of his nationalistic agenda, Erdogan has been encouraging Turkish families to have at least three children since the early 2010s, calling birth control “treason” in 2014. In 2015, his government went so far as to offer families cash payments for having children. However, these efforts have largely failed to achieve their goals — the Turkish government’s Turkish Statistical Institute (TurkStat) reported that the country’s total birth rate fell below the replacement rate of 2.1 for the first time in 2018, and dropped further to 1.88 in 2019. 

“It is not easy to manipulate fertility trends by public policy,” said Azer Kilic, a sociology professor at Istanbul Bilgi University. “The kind of incentives introduced by the Turkish government such as one-time cash payments after the birth of a child is also quite weak.”

Long-term estimates for Turkey’s peak population range widely, and include figures like a median projection of 97 million according to the United Nations, and 112 million according to a study by The Lancet

Although Turkey continues to grow more rapidly than its European neighbors, Attila Yesilada, a country analyst in Istanbul for the emerging markets research firm GlobalSource Partners, agreed that a lower population growth rate could become a problem for Turkey. However, he also highlighted several necessary factors a country needs in order to benefit from a large and growing population.

"First you obviously need to find jobs for your young population, educate them, train them and place them in a job. Second, what really matters for long-term economic growth is not necessarily population, but total productivity growth,” Yesilada said. “Unfortunately, we don't have either of these conditions.”

Buffeted by an economic and monetary crisis since 2018, Turkey’s population was rocked even further by the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in poverty rates of around 20%, according to Arab News. Turkey’s unemployment rate according to TurkStat was 12.9% in November 2020, while youth unemployment stood at 24.9%.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, polls show that young Turks are eager to move abroad. Some polls have reported that up to 76% of young people wanted to leave Turkey in 2020, and according to one study, almost half of young supporters of Erdogan’s own Justice and Development Party wanted to leave as well. Overall, the rate of emigration from Turkey increased by 2% in 2019, according to TurkStat.

Bektas Aras, a freelance translator, teacher and journalism student living in Istanbul, said some of his friends have taken out bank loans to finance efforts to move abroad, increasingly for political reasons as well as economic ones. “A couple of years ago it was mainly financial, but [now] it’s mainly legal. People who want to share their political views on social media or in society are anxious and they don’t feel comfortable,” Aras said. “It was not like this a couple of years ago.”

Since the failed military coup attempt in 2016, Erdogan's government launched a massive crackdown on alleged followers of US-based Sunni preacher Fethullah Gulen whom Ankara accuses of masterminding the coup attempt. The crackdown was also extended to journalists, dissidents and government critics with hundreds of thousands currently in jail.

At the same time that Turkey’s population growth has slowed, its share of elderly people has grown — TurkStat reported that the population of senior citizens in the country grew by 21.9% between 2014 and 2019, even though the youth population remains large.

“It's a huge opportunity for the economy because it means that a large portion of the population are either at the productive age or they will be at the productive age for a while,” said Murat Somer, a professor of political science and international relations at Koc University in Istanbul. “The opportunity is not closed yet, but it is very rapidly closing.”

One segment of Turkey’s population that is growing quickly is its immigrant population, which is composed of not only 3.6 million Syrian refugees according to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, but also hundreds of thousands of other nationalities including Iraqis, Turkmen and Afghans as well.

Anas al-Ahmad is one such foreigner living in Turkey. A native of Aleppo, Syria, Ahmad fled the country for Lebanon at the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011, and arrived in Turkey in 2016. He has since gotten married, has two daughters and found work in construction while living in the city of Adapazari in northwest Turkey.

“With respect to Syrians in Turkey, there is a lot of work available for Syrians that Turks do not want to do” he said. “For example, before Syrians came to Turkey, Turks performed manual labor, but now, they don’t.”

Guven Sak, a Turkish economist with the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, is optimistic about the long-term growth of Turkey’s economy and population due to people like Ahmad.

“[M]igrants will buttress the working population of the country and maintain its economic growth,” Sak wrote on Twitter in December, citing a new study from The Lancet on global population scenarios.

But such changes may be accompanied by disruptive social consequences as well, claimed Yesilada. As Turkey’s problematic trends continue to pose challenges for its citizens, dissatisfaction with the status quo has once again been on the rise. And for young people like Boz, the country is rapidly approaching a breaking point.

“How can they expect me to stay when people get jobs just because they have connections, and meanwhile the people who actually deserve it can't?” he concluded.