For an innovative country like Finland, firsts are usually a sign of good things to come.
But according to new data from the federal statistics bureau Statistics Finland, the small Nordic country saw its death rate eclipse its birth rate for the first time since 1940.
While 52,645 children were born in 2016, 53,629 people — a difference of just 984 — died in the same period.
Declining fertility rates have been a common trend in recent years throughout much of Europe and other industrialized countries in Asia and North America. People are largely choosing their careers over starting a family, either delaying one for the other or ignoring child-rearing altogether.
Japan, for example, recently saw its own death rate pass its birth rate for the first time in 117 years. The situation there is so dire, economists have taken to calling it a “demographic time bomb.”
In Finland, the decline seems to stem from a mixture of growing individualism and a tough job market making professional success a greater priority.
Esa Iivonen, a family policy expert at the Mannerheim League for Child Welfare, tells the Helsinki Times that many young men and women live and work far away from one another. Men often live in rural areas, while women tend to be city-dwellers.
“People don’t have a partner to have children with and finding one is increasingly difficult,” Iioven said.
Despite the dip in fertility, Finland’s population still grew in 2016 as immigration rates continued to climb. Roughly 16,000 more people came to the country than left by November’s end, Statistics Finland reports.
Iivonen concedes the country is wrestling with a similar problem to Japan’s. Economies don’t fare well when the ageing population depends on smaller younger generations to support them through social-security programs. If each person has to bear a greater share of the burden, that limits spending opportunities and can shrink the economy as a whole.
“We’ll have to increase immigration considerably, with the birth rate dropping so sharply,” Iivonen told the Helsinki Times.
Demographers refer to the fertility rate at which populations hold steady as the replacement rate. It’s 2.2 children per woman. Below that, populations begin to shrink.
Finland’s fertility rate in 2016: 1.75.