For some time now, Spain's falling birth rate and ageing population has had the country's demographers calculating just when the two curves will cross, and deaths will begin to outnumber births. The National Statistics Institute (INE), which last month published its findings in the report Projections for the Spanish Population 2013-23, says that if current trends continue, that moment will arrive in 2017. The country has not faced such a situation since the Spanish Civil War, or the flu epidemic of 1918-19. The birth rate fell steadily throughout the 1990s, but picked up again in 1998, maintaining a positive trend for a decade, largely due to a sharp increase in immigration.
From 2017, any increase in the birth rate will be due to migratory flows, which will make it much more difficult to predict long-term demographic trends.
The INE's survey also forecasts that Spain's population will shrink by a further 2.6 million people due to emigration - equivalent to the combined population of Barcelona and Valencia - falling to 44,082,671. "This is a reflection of how bad the situation in Spain is: less immigration, more emigration, and nobody wanting to start a family," says Teresa Castro of the CSIC Spanish National Research Council's Human and Social Sciences Center.
Population decline will no longer be a problem related to rural or underdeveloped areas, but will manifest itself throughout the country, with the Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco the only areas to register an increase in the number of inhabitants.
A country's population increase is, in simple terms, an equation depending on three variables: births (which increase the population); deaths (which decrease it); and migration (which can increase or decrease the number of inhabitants). To work out where Spain is headed, according to the INE's forecasts, all three factors need to be analyzed, and all three point to a population decline. But the key to what will happen in the future, says Albert Esteve of the University of Barcelona's Center for Demographic Studies (CED), lies with migratory trends.
The INE says that in the coming decade, immigration into Spain will remain stable, while emigration will continue to rise: for every person who comes into the country, two will leave.
But Esteve says that this forecast will not necessarily pan out. He says that migratory trends are very difficult to predict, and all the more so if calculations are being made, as they are at the present time, on "very particular conditions that are difficult to make generalizations about," such as the worsening economic situation.
He says that the shifting changes in migration need to be borne in mind: "It is very difficult to measure the dynamics of migration. Data tends to arrive late [migrants rarely inform the authorities that they are leaving, and it takes time for the electoral roll to register such departures], and is simply another variable to be taken into account when analyzing the country's economic circumstances."
The experts say that the size of Spain's population will depend in large part on the difficult-to-predict trends in migration. The other two key factors, the birth and death rates, are much easier to forecast.
The INE's figures show that population decrease will arrive in 2017, when the number of annual births (estimated at 397,714) will no longer be able to match deaths (404,054). This imbalance will continue until at least 2023, says the INE.
Castro says that having a specific date when the turnaround takes place is not that important. "We have known for some time that sooner or later there would be more deaths than births," she says, adding that Spain's situation is not that different to most of the country's EU partners. "Around 90 percent of population growth in Europe is due to immigration," says Castro. She says that Germany has been suffering from negative natural population growth since at least 1975. The increase in population that the country has experienced over the last four decades has been due to the arrival of foreigners. It's the same story in Bulgaria, Estonia, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, Portugal, Romania, and Croatia, according to figures from 2011. "This is nothing exceptional in the countries around us," says Castro.
The INE's figures suggest that the birth rate will continue to fall in the coming years. Between 2013 and 2023, a total of 3.9 million babies will be born in Spain, a 17-percent drop on the previous decade. By 2023, the annual number of births is forecast at 339,805, a quarter of this year's figure. And this is despite the relatively optimistic prevision that the number of children produced per woman will rise from 1.34 to 1.41. The trend is clear, and can be explained by several factors: on the one hand, the reduction in the number of women of child-producing age. In 2023, there will be 9.3 million women aged between 15 and 49; the current figure is 11.2 million.
The country has not faced such a situation since the Spanish Civil War
To this figure, another needs to be factored in: women are having fewer children than they used to. The reasons are varied, and not all to do with the current economic downturn. In 1997, when not even the most pessimistic naysayers were predicting the catastrophe that was to befall the country a decade later, the average woman produced 1.1 children, which is lower than the current 1.34.
For Constanza Tobío, professor of Sociology at Madrid's Carlos III University, the question is not why women don't want children, but why they want to have them, when "everything seems against them" - from the need for women to work, to the fall in state aid (for example, childcare facilities).
At the same time as the birth rate will fall, the INE says that life expectancy will continue to increase. By 2022, the average life expectancy for women will be 87, and 81.8 for men; 2.5 and 1.9 years more, respectively, than at present. There will be 23,428 people aged over 100, more than double the current number. Ageing will increase, a process that will be aided by the number of younger people leaving the country. There will also be an increase in the death rate: in 2022, it is estimated there will be 411,617 deaths in Spain, compared to 403,785 last year.