Europe is confronted with a strong demographic crisis. This is nothing new to anyone casually following social trends on the continent. At Rethink, we have reported on both the background demographic crisis and on it worsening further in 2022 and early 2023. Nevertheless, not all countries are affected the same. We want to highlight four countries that are particularly vulnerable to the demographic crisis, discussing their specific circumstances and identifying key vulnerabilities. We will also discuss how the demographic crisis is affecting Europe as a whole.
The most demographically vulnerable European state is likely Ukraine. There is no clear overview on the number of residents remaining in the territory controlled by Kyiv, just as there is no clear evidence of births and deaths since the Russian invasion. But the situation was already quite dire even before. In 2021, there were only 272,000 births for 714,000 recorded deaths. The population declined by 442.000 even before migration was factored in. Moreover, even before the war, the labor needs of the European Union have facilitated the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens to Poland, Czechia, Italy or Germany. Additionally, relatively well-populated areas such as Crimea and the southern area of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts had been outside the effective control of the Ukrainian state since 2014.
The conflict in 2022 led to several million more Ukrainians leaving the country. Initially, refugees headed to neighboring countries. Today, Germany has surpassed Poland as the host of the largest number of Ukrainian refugees, and the movement westward comes with increased chances that some of the refugees may not wish to repatriate. Meanwhile, there are signals from within Ukraine of a genuine collapse in the birth rate of the remaining population, though the situation in the country makes any data likely to be subject to considerable revisions.
The extension of the conflict over several years, its conclusion on unfavorable terms for Ukraine, or a suboptimal reconstruction process all risk worsening the demographic situation even further. But Ukraine’s key vulnerabilities stem from the overlap of the war with the last fertile years of the large generations born in the 1980s. This will make it difficult to stabilize the rapidly declining population later, especially after the year 2030.
Total demographic decline: N/A, probably between -30% and -40%, including temporary territorial losses
Vulnerabilities: refugees become permanent emigrants, sharp decrease in the number of women of fertile age, lack of potential to attract immigrants
Latvia has faced multiple demographic challenges over the past decades. The fertility rate fell below the population replacement level as early as the 1950s-1960s. Latvia was among the first European states to be confronted with this phenomenon, only temporarily rising above replacement level in the 1980s. The population grew nonetheless throughout the Soviet years, largely due to the arrival of immigrants from other regions of the vast communist country, but this “compensation” led to a decrease in the share of ethnic Latvians to only 52% of the population in 1989. Independence prevented the transformation of Latvians into a minority but resulted in the collapse of many demographic indicators. In the 1990s, Latvia stood out for its low life expectancy and exceptionally low birth rate.
In 2021, the census recorded a population decrease to only 1,893,000 inhabitants, a fall of 29% compared to the level of 2,667,000 in 1989. In fact, Latvia was more populous in the late 19th century than it is today. Even worse, Ukrainian refugees notwithstanding, this trend seems to be intensifying. Thus, in 2021 and 2022, Latvia’s demographic indicators deteriorated further, and the country is now looking at deaths outnumbering births 2:1. Early data for 2023 see demographic indicators worsening further still, with births declining at a rate of over 12% in the first 6 months of the year.
Latvia’s numerous demographic vulnerabilities arise from its small population relative to its territory, negative demographic trend, and the small size of the titular Latvian ethnic group. With nearly 40% of the population living in the metropolitan area of the capital Riga, the rest of the country is littered with depopulating settlements or sparsely inhabited wilderness. In the long term, Latvia’s renewed statehood itself is threatened by current demographic trends.
Total demographic decline: -29.7%
Vulnerabilities: low density, small population, negative demographic momentum
Another demographically vulnerable state is Bulgaria. The East Balkan nation is confronted by sharp population decline, strongly influenced by an inverted population pyramid. A distinctly Bulgarian feature is the pronounced depopulation of rural areas and certain regions, chiefly the northwest of the country.
The population decline is 27.1% between the censuses of 1985 and 2021. At its peak, Bulgaria’s population was 8,950,000 inhabitants, only to decrease to 6.5 million in 2021. Over 20% of the population now lives in Sofia, and many regions are facing extreme ageing and severe depopulation. In recent years, there have been fewer than three births per every five deaths, and regions like the northwest have had a birth-to-death ratio of 1:3 for many years now. In 2022, the Vidin region saw one birth for over 4 deaths.
The communist regime urbanized Bulgaria intensively, which is why rural regions – especially those far from urban cores – face some of the most severe cases of demographic aging and depopulation in the EU. Many rural settlements no longer have the demographic mass needed to support even basic services or a locally focused service economy. In the last decades, the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Bulgarian citizens has exacerbated the demographic issues faced by the country. And while other CEE countries have seen many citizens return, there is yet little evidence of a mass reverse exodus in the case of the small Balkan nation.
Bulgaria’s ongoing demographic vulnerabilities arise from the abrupt pace at which the population is decreasing. In the years 2020-22, there were 175,000 births and over 390,000 deaths recorded. Birth rates further declined in the first half of 2023, and it’s hard to believe that Bulgaria can avoid a demographic decrease of less than 60,000 people per year in the next decade, assuming zero migration. The 1% annual population decline exceeds the level recorded in Japan, which is often cited as the posterchild for demographic decline (yet has better demographic indicators than many European countries). Zero migration forecasts now indicate a decrease in the Bulgarian population to below 5 million by the middle of the century.
Ironically, Bulgaria has a comparatively high fertility rate, above the EU average. It is, however, still below replacement level and insufficient to compensate for the negative demographic momentum that is inbuilt into the age structure of the population.
Total demographic decline: –28.2%
Vulnerabilities: low density, rural and regional depopulation, negative demographic momentum
Italy differs from the first three cases as a notable decline in the total population has not yet occurred. Immigration and continued increases in life expectancy (which is considerably higher than in former communist states) have prevented a decline on the scale of Latvia or Bulgaria.
On the other hand, Italy’s situation is problematic from several points of view. The number of births is over 60% lower than during the peak of the baby boom in the 1960s. This almost guarantees natural declines of over 400-500 thousand people annually after 2040. Moreover, this 60% decline would have been even greater without the immigration of several million foreigners in recent decades.
Here, the second weakness of Italy’s demographic situation becomes evident. The country has become an attractive destination for immigrants starting with the 1990s. However, it has attracted immigrants that are among the least educated in Europe. Over 50% of non-EU immigrants have at most the equivalent of lower secondary education, levels that are often associated with dropping out of formal education. Against a backdrop of already problematic numbers for early school leaving and low access to tertiary education, Italy faces the risk of having one of the least educated workforces in Western Europe. In fact, the country’s productivity woes over the past two decades are probably shaped by demographic factors.
In this light, Italy needs an urgent change to the way it responds to demographic decline if it is to retain the demographic basis of remaining a developed economy well into future decades. ]
Total demographic decline: -2.5%
Vulnerabilities: deep negative demographic momentum, poor educational attainment among migrants, below-average results in the education system
The demographic crisis: Europe’s foremost emergency?
Why did we cover these 4 countries in this article? For the mere reason that they are particularly eloquent examples of what we believe is now Europe’s primary crisis. The demographics are worsening across the continent, often taking a turn for the worst in an abrupt fashion. And while we’ve often covered this crisis in Romania, there are countries with even more hostile demographic headwinds.
Shockingly, the demographic crisis is treated as an almost “as a matter of fact” background phenomenon shared by European nations. If we look at the very idea of crisis and debate it in a European context, we see a strong emphasis being placed on the climate crisis or on energy independence. Without a doubt, these are hugely important given that Europe is predicted to be one of the most rapidly heating regions on the planet. And, obviously, due to the threat that global heating places on humanity as a whole. Crucially, Europe is already leading on this front. Its share of global emissions has fallen from 16.8% in 1990 to 7.3% in 2021. It has, however, failed to see any comparable results in tackling rampant ageing and steep demographic decline.
And minimizing it doesn’t mean that the demographic crisis in Europe is going away. It is, in fact, worsening rapidly. Early data for 2023 point to steep falls in birth rates. Even worse, Europe’s quest to attract more skilled immigrants has struggled to move from discourse to reality up to this point. Migrant children struggle in school, and non-EU migrants have low employability rates in many countries. And, amid global falls in TFR and the ever-present risk of the USA finally weaponizing its immense attractive power and large salaries by building a skills-centered immigration system, it is likely that reliance on foreign talent will remain a challenge and a risky bet.
Europe needs to make the demographic crisis the center of its long-term planning and adaptation priorities. This shift needs to be made in a dramatic fashion. For while we have correctly identified net 0 as the only long-term solution to the climate crisis, the demographic crisis is still being tackled in wishful terms such as ”active ageing”. That is not enough, given the scale of Europe’s demographic predicament. And the scale is difficult to comprehend. We think in arithmetic progression as opposed to geometric. We do not fully internalize the immense and disastrous implications of countries racing to mean ages close to 60 later this century. Or of how difficult it will be to operate a decent economy or maintain a fiscal balance when new entrants to the labor market are half the number of retirees.
Unfortunately, ideological purists often limit the range of debate surrounding the demographic crisis to a single facet. For some, human reproduction is a charged subject and migration is the most likely solution. For others, a desire of preserving European culture “as is” implies a focus on pro-natalism. And, in between, the odd tech-optimists focus on the use of digital tools and automation to increase productivity among a dwindling workforce.
The truth is that the extent of the crisis is underappreciated by most political and social actors, and a combination of all three dimensions is likely needed. There are many issues which cost to fix but must be adequately tackled: financial security for families, generalized access to affordable housing before people reach their 30s, access to universal free childcare. And there is the need to radically overhaul immigration. At the present time, there is a skills gap between migrants heading to continental Europe and those heading for major Anglophone economies. This has been observed in PISA tests, can be seen when looking at employment rate differences and in educational attainment differences. It, too, needs to be reversed if Europe is to minimize the risk of becoming ever less competitive. And, of course, resolving the rut in productivity growth is also necessary to ensure that existing workers aren’t saddled with the costs of an ageing society. Tech and investment are both crucial here.
All of these measures require immense political will, a focus on long-term goals and an end to political and ideological obscurantism. There also needs to be a radical change in public discourse, putting the demographic crisis at the center of policymaking in Europe. Some of the topics that need to be addressed are very challenging politically, including the issue of personal responsibility for the direction taken by society. It won’t be comfortable, but it’s a debate that needs to be had. And it’s a debate that must be short and decisive, as we are way past the ideal time to take more resolute measures.
Referințe 1 Data retrieved from the statistical service of Ukraine’s official website https://www.ukrstat.gov.ua/ 2 According to a release by Latvian public broadcasting https://eng.lsm.lv/article/society/society/latvias-census-shows-sharpest-population-decline-among-baltic-states.a406618/ 3 Data retrieved from the Latvian national statistics databases available at https://data.stat.gov.lv/pxweb/en/OSP_PUB/START__POP__ID__IDS/IDS010m/table/tableViewLayout1/ 4 See 2021 census results at https://www.nsi.bg/en/content/19807/nsi-announces-final-results-population-number-bulgaria 5 From Bulgarian statistics data at municipality level retrieved from https://www.nsi.bg/en/content/2920/population-demography-migration-and-projections 6 See Eurostat https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Migrant_integration_statistics_-_education#Educational_attainment 7 https://joint-research-centre.ec.europa.eu/jrc-news-and-updates/global-co2-emissions-rebound-2021-after-temporary-reduction-during-covid19-lockdown-2022-10-14_en 8 See an OECD comparison across member states at https://www.oecd.org/education/school/1A-Piacentini.pdf 9 See Eurostat data at https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Migrant_integration_statistics_%E2%80%93_labour_market_indicators#Employment_rate