Ambitious and free-thinking, East European youths are spurning the age-old institution of marriage to the point where the formerly communist region now has one of the lowest marriage rates in the world. \n"You can't rely on relationships to make you happy," said Judit, a 24-year-old, curly haired lawyer working at a multinational firm in Budapest. "You have to be happy with yourself, that's the most important thing." \nMore and more young people share Judit's views in Hungary and the region, where the transition to democracy and a market economy has brought about a noticeable shift in the way younger generations view life and relationships. \nDuring communist times in Hungary, most young people still married to conform with social norms, even though divorce rates were high. \nBut in a new world that places more emphasis on individualism, social norms seem to be the last thing on young people's minds. A focus on working hard to get ahead and a preoccupation with having fun during free time can be deadly to traditional relationships, sociologists say. \n"Old and new values are colliding after the transition," said Zsolt Speder, director of the Population Research Institute at the Central Statistics Office (KSH) in Budapest. "The new capitalist system has brought about a largely self-centered society where the compromise needed in any marriage is shunned." \nAccording to KSH, the number of new marriages in Hungary last year was less than those in 1970, and the country now has at 4.3 marriages per 1,000 residents one of the lowest marriage rates in Europe, lower than in the Scandinavian countries, which are know for their permissiveness. \nThe pattern is the same in many of the East European nations, eight of which -- the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia -- are due to join the EU next year. \nLithuania and Latvia have had spectacular declines in marriage rates since the fall of communism 14 years ago, from over 10 marriages per 1,000 people in 1989 to 4.5 and 3.9 respectively last year. \nIn Slovenia, marriage rates dropped by 20 percent over the decade of the 1990s. \nIn strongly Catholic Poland and traditionally minded Romania, however, marriage rates are higher, over five per 1,000 residents. \nMagdalena Picsova, of the Slovakian Academy of Sciences, said that under centrally planned communist economies many were motivated to marry so that authorities would give them easier access to a new apartment. \nBut now some couples shy away from marriage since apartments are too expensive. \nMany couples do live together, of course, but still choose not to get married. \nSociologist Agnes Utasi of the University of Szeged in southern Hungary said that cohabitation rather than marriage was becoming the norm in Hungary, a mostly Catholic country where the Church's influence nonetheless is limited. \n"Society has grown much more accepting of this," Utasi said of couples living together without getting married. "It seems to better suit the faster pace of life where everything, including relationships, is uncertain." \nSome couples decline to tie the knot, even when they have children. \nIn Bulgaria, the number of children born out of wedlock has quadrupled since the fall of communism, "from 10-12 percent before 1990 to 44 percent" last year, Yordan Kaltchev, a demography expert at the Bulgarian Statistics Institute, said. \nThe trend has also shown up in Hungary. \nBori has lived with her boyfriend for seven years and now they have a two-year old child, said the 27-year-old media researcher in Budapest, who did not want to give her last name. \n"There are a lot of negative stereotypes about marriages, that most of them end in divorce," she said. \n"Instead of legally chaining myself to somebody, as a modern woman I want to prove that with a career and a family, I can be happy in a relationship."
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