Migration, fertility levels, life expectancy and the respective strength of job markets are all altering the make-up of Europe’s population.
Analysing the demographics has become increasingly important, since most projections suggest that ageing populations will be a major challenge for the EU in the future.
And 2015 was the first year on record when there were more deaths than live births across the 28 countries that currently make up the EU.
The information is contained in an extensive annual yearbook compiled by Eurostat, the statistical office of the EU, and recently released for the year 2015.
While migration can play an important role in the population dynamics within many of the EU member states, the report notes, it’s unlikely to reverse the overall trend of population ageing.
In search of safety and jobs
Although the number of deaths within the EU exceeded the number of live births by 117,000, the EU’s overall population still grew because of migration.
Migration includes both asylum seekers – who are escaping violence or persecution – and economic migrants who chose to move hoping for a higher standard of living.
The war in Syria had a dramatic impact on migration patterns in 2015, with more than a million people arriving on Europe’s shores after travelling by boat to escape conflict.
But there was also a significant amount of internal migration. Within the EU there is a clear trend of younger people leaving Europe’s south, especially from rural areas, in search of work in the job-rich northwest.
Between 2006 and 2016, Romania, Lithuania, Greece, and Portugal all saw their median ages increase by more than four years. That rise is partially due to an increase in life expectancy, but also because young people are leaving as they start their careers, Bernd Parusel, a migration expert at the European Migration Networks told CityLab.
The biggest recipient of migrants, thanks to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy, was Germany, which received 1.2 million refugees in 2015.
Germany is a pertinent case study of the challenges of an ageing population.
The percentage of Germans under 15 is forecast to fall to 13% while the proportion of those over 60 is expected to rise to 39% from 27%.
The economy continues to grow and unemployment is already low, creating a very real need for more people in the workforce.
Meanwhile pensions and healthcare costs are expected to rise more rapidly than the long-term economic growth rate, increasing the burden on a shrinking working population.
All of which may help Merkel’s case for migration, although the subsequent difficulties of integration and political pressure have now forced her to introduce a cap.
Falling fertility rates
The ageing population, of course, is only half the challenge; lower rates of childbirth are also at work.
In developed economies, a fertility rate of 2.1 live births per woman is considered to be the natural replacement rate, or the level at which the size of the population would remain stable without any migration.
The fertility rate across the 28 EU countries is just 1.58 children per woman, with the highest rates in France, Sweden and the UK and the lowest in Portugal and Poland.
Meanwhile socio-economic factors have led to an increase in life expectancy over the longer term, despite a small drop in 2015.
Life expectancy in the EU has risen from an average of 77.7 years in 2003 to 80.9 years in 2014, dipping slightly to 80.6 years in 2015.
Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, has emphasised the positive role that migrants can play in mitigating demographic pressures.
“Migrants can boost a country's labor force, encourage investment and boost growth. Preliminary IMF calculations show a modest positive impact on growth from migrants in EU countries, for example,” she wrote in this article.
“More importantly, migration can also help address the challenges from aging populations in a number of advanced countries. Over the medium term, our research shows that migrants could help reduce pressures on pension and health spending; and in the near term, the net budgetary impact tends to be relatively small.”