Is Europe facing a demographic crisis? We break down the data.
The European Union is on the brink of a major demographic shift as new projections suggest a significant population decline by the end of the century.
The estimates from Eurostat signal the bloc could see its population shrink by 6 per cent, or 27.3 million people, by 2100.
After two years of decline due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU’s population started recovering in 2022 and was estimated to have reached 451 million people in at the start of this year. This growth is largely attributed to the mass influx of Ukrainian refugees that followed Russia’s invasion of the country.
Now, the latest report from the EU’s statistics office projects the bloc’s population will continue to grow, peaking at 453 million people in 2026, before decreasing to 420 million in 2100.
The projection was established based on the continent’s fertility, mortality and migration patterns.
Europe in 2100: What does the future hold?
The 2100 population pyramid projects a shrinking and ageing society. The share of children, young people below 20, and those of working age will decline, while those aged 65 or more will grow.
In 2100, those aged 65 and over are set to account for 32 per cent of the population, compared to 21 per cent in 2022.
The projected population pyramid, as a result, will look much heavier on the top than today’s: there will be more people aged over 80 than people under 20.
The projections come after China made headlines earlier this year when it recorded its first population decline in six decades.
The country had 1.41175 billion people at the end of 2022, according to figures released by the National Bureau of Statistics, a drop of 850,000, as deaths outnumbered births.
China’s birth rate is not only plunging, but its population is also ageing, and experts warn this will result in a grim demographic cocktail that will shrink the nation’s workforce, drain its pension system and could have severe economic repercussions well beyond its borders.
What’s Europe’s fertility rate?
China’s fertility rate plummeted to 1.15 children per woman in 2021, far below the replacement level of around 2.1 live births per woman needed to ensure a broadly stable population in the absence of migration.
It’s worth noting that not a single EU country has a fertility rate above this threshold.
The average fertility rate in the EU, at 1.53 live births per woman in 2021, is slightly higher than in 2020 at 1.50 but down from 1.57 in 2016.
The lowest total fertility rates in 2021 were recorded in Malta (1.13 births per woman), Spain (1.19) and Italy (1.25).
France ranked first, with an average fertility rate of 1.84, followed by the Czech Republic (1.83) Romania (1.81) and Ireland (1.78).
However, some EU countries with fertility rates below the replacement level still have a growing population.
France, for example, has seen its population grow for the last 20 years. The country’s statistics office INSEE attributes this to several factors, notably migratory movements and the increase in life expectancy.
Births, deaths and migration
The natural population change in the EU has been negative since 2012 - meaning that for more than a decade, deaths have outnumbered births.
As of 2011, the growth of the EU population has been attributed to net migration and statistical adjustments.
However, in 2020 and in 2021, net migration did not make up for the negative natural population change in the EU and, as a result, the total EU population shrank.
The EU and China have different migration dynamics. The graphic below compares their net migration rate - the difference between the number of immigrants (moving into a country) and the number of emigrants (those leaving) over the year.
When the number of immigrants is higher than the number of emigrants, there is a positive net migration rate.
Back in 1960, the net migration rates of China and the EU were roughly comparable and painted a similar picture: at the time, more people were emigrating than moving in.
However, World Bank figures show a dramatically different trajectory over the following decades. In 2021, the EU's net migration rate was +910,755 people, while for China, it was -200,194 people.
Will all EU countries decrease in population?
Despite the EU’s projected population decline by 2100, some member states are expected to see their population grow, in part due to migration.
These are Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ireland, France, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Austria, Sweden and Iceland.
The EU population is living longer and getting older
The share of the population aged 65 and over is already increasing in every EU member state and is in fact well ahead of China, where it stands at around 13 per cent.
According to the latest available data, the countries with the biggest share of the population aged 65 years and over are Italy (22.5 per cent), followed by Finland (22.7 per cent), Greece (22.5 per cent), Portugal (22.4 per cent) and Germany (22 per cent).
Over the last decade, countries that recorded the biggest increase in the share of the population aged 65 years and over were Finland, with an increase of 5.2 percentage points (pp), then Poland (5.1 pp) and Czechia (4.6 pp). An increase of 3 pp was observed for the EU as a whole.
According to Eurostat’s predictions, 2100 will see those aged 65 to 79 account for 17 per cent of the EU’s total population, compared with 15 per cent at the beginning of 2022. The share of those aged 80 years or more is also expected to more than double, from 6 per cent to 15 per cent.
On the other hand, the proportion of children and young people (aged 0 to 19 years) is expected to decrease from 20 per cent in 2022 to 18 per cent by 2100. Similarly, the share of working-age people (aged 20-64 years) is projected to decrease from 59 per cent to 50 per cent.
In the EU, life expectancy at birth has risen rapidly during the past century, from 69 years in 1960 to 80.1 years in 2021.
The EU attributes it to several factors, including a reduction in infant mortality, rising living standards, improved lifestyles, better education, and advances in healthcare and medicine.
However, following the COVID-19 pandemic, the indicator declined from 81.3 in 2019 to 80.4 years in 2020 and 80.1 in 2021. Only four EU member states did not record a decrease in their average life expectancy: Denmark, Estonia, Finland and Cyprus.
Which EU countries have the youngest populations?
The working age population, defined as those aged 15 to 64, accounts for over 64 per cent of the population in the EU, according to 2021 data.
Over 10 per cent of the EU population is between 15 and 24 years old, over 32 per cent is aged between 25 and 49 years old, and almost 21 per cent is between 50 and 64 years old.
In 2021, the median age of the EU’s population was 44.1 years, up from 41.6 years in 2011.
This median age is expected to further increase to 48.8 in 2100. That means half of the EU’s population will be older than 48.8, while the other half will be younger.
In 2021, Cyprus had the lowest median age at 38 years, and Italy had the highest, at 47.6.