Wednesday 28 February 2024

What the latest statistics tell us about a changing Malta

This column first appeared in Malta Today

When people lament about how much Malta has changed they are not wrong; but the changing face of the country is not necessarily only attributed to the usual suspects. We cannot keep blaming purely outside influences and economic migrants when the internal changes over the last ten years have, in themselves, also been considerable.

The data from the third volume of the Census of Population and Housing 2021 from the National Statistics Office (NSO), which was published on Friday, reveals how much the Maltese themselves have changed on matters which have little to do with the decisions taken by politicians.

For example, when it comes to language, nearly a quarter of Maltese children under 10 now consider English to be their first language. 15% of those aged between the ages of 10 – 19 said the same thing. This is in complete contrast to older generations who in their majority cite Maltese as their first language. While there is the usual predominance of English in the traditional areas of Swieqi, Sliema and St Julian’s, the fact that, over all, more young children are speaking this language seems to point to conscious decisions by parents to encourage English usage. The reasons for this can be various: more mixed marriages between Maltese and other nationalities, more awareness about the value of being fluent in English in today’s world and, more significantly, the gradual dilution of the prejudice against those who speak in English.

I find the latter reason the most interesting and one which I come across on a regular basis. Many couples who grew up speaking Maltese at home and who slip into the mother tongue more comfortably than they do in English, have deliberately raised their children to speak in English. The fact that the previous barriers which used to divide Malta into two distinct sub-cultures (those who only speak in Maltese vs those who only speak in English, those who went to state schools vs those who attended church/private schools) are being slowly dismantled, is a good thing. As more lines become blurred, it will become more and more difficult to automatically pigeon-hole people according to their language of choice, their accent in English, which school they went to and so many other subtle and not so subtle social signifiers. I have noticed a distinct shift in English accents since the predominance of church schools with their insistence on using RP (which immediately identifies anyone over the age of 40) gave way to the popularity of independent schools (which use a more generic accent).

Of course there will always be those who have an automatic bias against others, and whose hackles are raised purely based on social class, which is a knee-jerk reaction that is impossible to eradicate. Hopefully, however, it won’t continue to be as harsh and unforgiving as it was in the not too distant past, when you could never be accepted because you are not “one of them”. I was reminded of this rather absurd side of Malta by the film Saltburn which brilliantly depicts the casually cruel snobbery of a rich, aristorcrratic family which crosses paths with a young man who is from the wrong side of the tracks. But let’s face it, these days, wealth and a big mansion do not necessarily determine class any more and the real Maltese aristocracy has been reduced to a handful of families. In any case, social class is in a constant state of flux and with good manners going out the window across the board, it has become even more of an intangible quality.

But back to the statistics – with English becoming more widely spoken among the young, where will that leave our mother tongue? Ideally one should not be used at the expense of the other, but it is still an uphill battle to convince people that bilingualism is not only possible but crucial. Now, more than ever in this multicultural job market, knowing how to communicate in both languages should be viewed as an advantage by young Maltese job seekers who (one would think) would realise that this gives them an edge over their competitors from other countries . Perhaps rather than forcing them to study endless literary texts at school to pass an exam, the emphasis should be on discovering the beauty of the spoken language which is rich and expressive when used well (and not just when we want to swear and be vulgar).

The other statistic which struck me from the NSO data was that the majority of households (76.1%) have no dependent children, a marked increase from 65% in 2011. It was reported that “single-person households are the most prevalent household type (18.1%), characterised by people aged 30-64 years. In total, there are 6,378 households comprised of single parents with dependent children, an increase of 922 households from the last census.”

What this tells us is something that we already know: that with an increase in marital breakdowns, one if not both parties will end up living somewhere else on their own. In many cases it is the man but eventually as the children grow up and leave, the woman too ends up as a single person household. Another factor, of course could be the death of one’s spouse. This statistic of 18.1% is significant because it shows how many people are perhaps preferring to remain single or, if they are in a relationship, they prefer to live in separate households. On the other hand, the rise in the number of people living by themselves might also explain the other recent study conducted by the Faculty for Social Wellbeing about the increase in loneliness. According to the census, a greater proportion of single males emerged, constituting 42.8% compared to 34.5% for females.

The data also points to another demographic: the rise in households with no dependent children. With more young people either leaving Malta or simply moving out of their parents’ home, these could be couples who are empty nesters or else those who have never had children. With the falling birth rate over the last 60 years this will become more common. Imagine the difference when people had ten kids and how many years it took until the last one finally left the house, compared with today with just one or two children which means that a family of four can be reduced to just the couple again within a few years.

In the NSO table there are also 36,903 who are described as “other households without dependent children” but this is not adequately explained so I am not sure if it is referring to the new phenomenon of multiple single people who are unrelated living in the same household.

The census was taken on 21 November 2021 and as has often been pointed out, it provides a portrait of a moment in time. The follow-ups of data collection, compilation, validation and analysis were carried out throughout 2022. This means that any abrupt spikes in the country’s demographics since then have not been accounted for. However this snapshot of 2021 can still serve to explain at least some of the socio-economic changes we see happening around us.

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