Low birth rates and higher life expectancies are transforming the composition of Europe's age pyramid

Europe’s demographic situation requires drastic measures and more targeted policies at EU level, argues Elena Kountoura.
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By Elena Kountoura

Elena Kountoura (EL, GUE/NGL) is a member of the European Parliament’s Transport and Tourism Committee

06 Oct 2020

Demographic change is about people, their lives and livelihoods. However, the situation in Europe right now is alarming as our rapidly declining population may well have major consequences that will become increasingly evident in the coming decades and absolutely a­ffect our overall well-being.

Persistently low birth rates and higher life expectancies are transforming the composition of the age pyramid, resulting in a gradual transition towards a much older population, as is already apparent in several EU Member States.

Indeed, in 2018 the fertility rate stood at 1.55 children per woman, while 2.1 is the minimum required to maintain a consistent population size in the absence of migration. Almost no region in Europe meets this level. Some regions are registering even lower rates, of less than 1.25. This is the case for instance in the north-west of the Iberian Peninsula, South East Italy, Sardinia and some parts of Greece.

In Greece, deaths have exceeded births for the ninth year in succession and the average age of the population is increasing, while the active population is decreasing. According to a recently published Greek Parliament report, Greece’s population will have fallen by 2.4 million by 2050.

Similarly, EUROSTAT data shows that by 2070 the country’s population is projected to contract by more than three million to only 7.6 million.

By 2050, the percentage of over-65s is expected to have risen to almost a third of the country’s population (between 30-33 percent), while the number of those under 18 years of age is expected to shrink to around 1 percent. The risks associated with this demographic time bomb are monumental.

“In Greece, deaths have exceeded births for the ninth year in succession and the average age of the population is increasing, while the active population is decreasing”

Furthermore, the impact of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis, poverty, unemployment, insecurity, uncertain job prospects and the brain drain of young people are aggravating an already critical situation.

The fact is that young workers bolster the economy, increase productivity and support the health, insurance and pension systems. However, the economic crisis has driven hundreds of thousands of qualified young people away from Greece, making the problem even more acute.

As a result, the potential consequences on insurance funds are incalculable, as is the impact on the job market and on productivity and growth. The demographic problem is thus a major challenge. For example, lower productivity can lead to lower growth and in turn result in very negative consequences for debt sustainability and more generally on public finances.

Apart from the severe economic dangers associated with demographic changes, there are several social aspects that should be seriously considered. Economic uncertainty increases stress related to providing for one’s family. It especially a­ffects young people and their decisions and plans for when to start their own family.

This situation leads eventually to lower fertility rates, a defining factor for even sharper shifts in demographics in the coming decades. This evolving situation requires drastic measures and more targeted policies at European level.

Undoubtedly, as sustainable development and inclusive economic growth require human capital and new, innovative solutions, demographic renewal needs to be urgently supported in all EU Member States as a matter of priority.

It should therefore be anticipated and reflected in all future Commission initiatives and placed high on the agenda, given that it is directly linked to Europe’s own future.

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