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The Warsaw Voice » Other » February 18, 2009
POLAND 1989-2009
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The Transformation Through Our Own Eyes
February 18, 2009   
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The socioeconomic changes that have taken place in Poland since 1989 are almost always discussed in terms of a system transformation and great political change. But it is also worth looking at this period from the point of view of the fundamental social processes that have occurred in the country.

Education boom
One the most important of these are changes in education, including what is known as the education boom. What happened in Poland in this area is unprecedented in the history of Europe and the world. In just 20 years, the percentage of the adult population with a higher education has doubled, from about 7 percent to more than 15 percent. While in the 1990-91 academic year there were just under 410,000 university-level students, in the 2007-08 academic year they numbered about 2 million. The number of university-level schools has multiplied, mainly in the non-public sector. They can be found not only in traditional academic centers, but also in every provincial capital and a dozen or so towns of smaller administrative importance, such as Nowy S±cz, Pułtusk, Ostrołęka and Zamo¶ć.

The occupations and specializations that today's students can choose from is extremely diverse as well. However, these changes have been accompanied by some problems related to the competencies of teachers and consequently the quality of education, and also with adjusting education to the needs of the labor market. Issues such as school bankruptcies, the lack of job opportunities for graduates and a low level of competence for certain professions have also appeared.

One very positive trend has emerged in the education sphere, namely adult education. The most recent Central Statistical Office (GUS) survey shows that among people aged 25-64 nationwide, 35.8 percent are involved in some form of education (41.8 percent in cities). This means, for example, that half the people aged 25-29 take part in education, and over 43 percent of people aged 30-39.

This boom has affected all areas of life and its importance for modernization-and for improving the efficiency of different sectors of the economy-is hard to overestimate. This was the deciding factor in the huge changes visible in computer technology and information, real estate and financial services, trade and repairs, as well as many areas of personal services for consumers (culture, tourism, sports, recreation). The education boom has also had an impact on activating people's economic activity, mainly through setting up and operating their own companies.

Fewer children
Accompanying this extremely positive trend of 1989-2009 is a negative one: the extraordinary demographic collapse that occurred in Poland after 1983. In 2003 the number of live births per 1,000 residents was just over 40 percent of the number of births in 1983, when more than 730,000 births were recorded in Poland.

This huge depression in the birth rate has lowered the fertility rate to about 1.3 children per woman, whereas just to keep the population stable it should be at least 2.13. The factors behind this trend include the continually dropping number of marriages, higher age when entering marriages, higher age of giving birth to the first child and subsequent progeny and, most importantly, concerns about the financial consequences of having and raising children.

At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the age at which people entered into marriage moved to the 25-29 bracket, and the average childbirth age shifted from 24 to 27 years. It is a paradox that this trend is partially the result of the education boom, but another factor is the inconsistent government policy towards families. The problem of women's professional activity as well as unemployment, low pay, financial problems in families, housing problems (often dramatic), inadequate care offered to families, exacerbated by changes in the system and structure of values, means that Poland's demographic prospects are unusually grim.

Economic transformation
The third area we need to mention when assessing the past 20 years is ownership transformation in the Polish economy. The first five years were a stormy time of privatization and reprivatization. The next period involved privatization of most of the economy as well as solving some problems from the distant past, related to prewar owners of estates, factories, and other properties. This process continues, causing a lot of controversy and consternation, and still is not fully resolved.

Significant ownership processes occurred in rural areas. Land became the object of the rural community's biggest concerns, as it became the greatest material resource defining people's social position and financial status and their future.

The economy is also the object of completely new problems and trends under conditions of European integration, because economic processes, as well as local and regional integration processes, are aimed at evening out the situation in Poland and the countries of the old EU. The keys to this development are European funds, which Poland has to utilize as quickly and as rationally as possible. In this development, a huge and unfortunately negative impact will be that of the global crisis and its echoes in Poland.

While predictions are tricky, we need to remember that this is a society that remembers shortages, and, worse, remembers hunger. We are not a society in which people die of starvation, but still about 16-18 percent of the population is below the official poverty line (they are entitled to government aid) and about 6 percent (about 2.5 million people) live below the subsistence minimum estimated by the Institute of Labor and Social Policy. The poverty syndrome involves long-term unemployment, low qualifications, living in a small town or in the country, disability and a large number of children. Public measures to combat poverty are very costly and tough to carry out, and implementing them will be even more complicated in crisis conditions.

The fourth area in which we can record major changes over the past 20 years is food management, the food market, supply of food, and satisfying the food needs of the population. All that has taken place in this area is comparable to the education boom. Today's range of products, the retail network, the standard and quality of distribution, and efficient supply means that food needs are satisfied to a degree comparable with most countries of the Western world. The quality and assortment of food, enhanced by attractive packaging and advertising, have made Polish consumers an element of the greatest addiction to appear in post-transformation Poland, namely an addiction to spending on the wide range of consumer goods.

At the same time this situation has revealed the painful diversity of people's consumer capacity depending on their living conditions. In the budget for household expenses, spending on food keeps decreasing and in 2007 was 25 percent of the total on average. However, the differential here is huge, as the self-employed assign under 20 percent of their spending to food, while for those living off benefits the figure is 34-35 percent. In the former case we are talking about a very high-quality "consumer palette", with a large share of spending on imported goods, while in the latter case this is a basic consumer basket with a prominent share of basic goods (cheap sausage, bacon, pork shoulder, bread and potatoes.).

TV generation
The fifth and final dimension of the changes that have taken place over the past 20 years concerns the civilization leap Poland experienced during this time. The most important area is mass media and mass communication, especially in the segments of television and television media, TV transmission and cable TV. In terms of TV, our lives have reached full saturation. The recent sales during which households purchased hundreds of thousands of pieces of television equipment such as plasma TV sets means Poland theoretically has 130 color TVs per 100 households. This saturation with advanced technology applies to all the different equipment used in households (including washing machines, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, and food processors).

An element worth highlighting in this area of change is mobile telephony. Almost 80 percent of individuals have a mobile phone-a device that has not only become a surrogate of communication, family bonding, information and education, but also is the single most important factor for building the identity not only of teenagers but also most adults.

Internet revolution
A separate area of change in mass communication is computerization and the development of the internet. An estimated 50 percent of households have internet access and over 60 percent have access to a computer. GUS surveys show that over 90 percent of medium-sized and large businesses use a computer in their work. Computerization, or more broadly, the development of information technology, concerns not only individuals and households but also society as a whole, and intellectual and political elites in particular. In most cases the TV screen or radio microphone has become a podium or pulpit for presenting one's views. This process will continue and there is every reason to suggest we are closer to becoming addicted to machines in the Japanese manner than to remain the traditional society we were just 25 years ago.

This assessment of the two decades of 1989-2009 has primarily a positive significance and highlights the fact that the balance sheet of our changes, apart from the demographic situation, is positive. Another argument in favor of good prospects is EU membership. The years from 2004, the time of our EU accession, have provided us with a huge impulse for development. Polish society has shown enormous adaptation skills and has become a population that learned amazingly quickly about how the "old market economy" functions. Unfortunately, this does not guarantee that the threat of a crisis will subside on its own, or that its problems will solve themselves.

Wiesław W. Łagodziński GUS press spokesman
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