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.
Birth rate falling sharply
Spain's birth rate has continued to fall since 2009, with an increase in the trend in recent months, according to the National Statistics Institute's most recent survey of demographic projections. The report notes that in the first quarter of this year there has been a six-percent drop in births over the same period last year (when there were was a 2.5-percent decline compared to 2011.)
In the first six months of this year, 210,778 babies were born, compared to the 224,782 in the first half of 2012, or the 230,568 for the same period in 2011. The reasons lie not just in the fact that women are having fewer children - which is partly to do with the worsening economy - but also because there are fewer women of child-producing age.
The reduction in the birth rate is also reflected in the immigrant population, which has registered an even sharper downturn in births: 9.4 percent over 2012. In general terms, the number of births produced by non-Spanish women made up 18.3 percent of the total in the first half of this year, compared to 20.4 percent last year.
In regional terms, only the Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco saw an increase in births. The biggest decline has been in the Canary Islands (minus 15.8 percent), and Navarra (minus 11 percent).
The death rate has also increased in recent years. Between 2008 and 2011, between 199,000 and 194,000 people died in Spain each year: the figure for this year is forecast at 204,395.
Deaths have fallen compared to 2012, which produced an anomalous increase in the first months of the year: between February and March, the death rate shot up by nine percent on the previous year.
As a result of the falling birth rate and the steady increase in deaths due to ageing, the gap between births and deaths is now widening more and more, meaning that the difference for the first half of this year is 6,384 more births than deaths, a 10-percent decrease on last year, and an 88-percent drop on the first half of 2008, when the current economic crisis kicked in.
Despite this, the INE warns that the first half of this year will be characterized by increased mortality and a lower birth rate than the second half, meaning that the outcome for this year "is clearly positive." Not until 2017, the INE says, will there be more deaths than births in Spain.
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.
Analysis: Forecasts suffering from optimism
The evolution of Spain's population is the outcome of an equation between the number of people who leave the country and those who enter, as well as the difference between births and deaths. According to the National Statistics Institute, in 2012, the population fell by almost 114,000 people; based on its short-term population figures for between now and 2013, this year will see the population fall by a further 242,000 people. This decrease will continue in the coming years, and by 2018 will fall by around 270,000 people.
The population decline that began last year is largely due to immigrants returning home, but new forecasts suggest that from 2017 onwards, deaths will begin to outnumber births, a process that will continue up until at least 2023. The negative migratory trend that began in 2010 has increased sharply on previous years: in 2008, more people were still arriving than leaving, with an overall surplus of 310,000. But the crisis that hit the country in 2008 has seen numbers fall sharply, with some 300,000 people leaving, a trend that has begun to diminish. An estimated 591,000 people will have left the country by the end of this year, with around 292,000 entering.
The overwhelming majority of people emigrate for economic reasons, heading to new countries in search of a better life for themselves and their families. With this in mind, the forecast of 2.6 million immigrants entering Spain in the coming nine years is perhaps a little optimistic, particularly when bearing in mind that the country's economic outlook is so far showing no signs of any real recovery or ability to create demand and employment.
At the same time, the reduced number of women of childbearing age largely explains the negative trend shown by the declining birth rate. That said, the number of children each woman has is expected to increase to 1.41 by 2022. This increase will also depend on how the economy develops, and is subject to similar uncertainties.
Spain's demographic trends in the coming years will likely be less bright than these projections may suggest. It is clear that there will be a sharp drop in the number of people aged between 20 and 49, with progressive ageing and the consequent increase in the number of elderly dependents. This means that the need to create more jobs becomes increasingly urgent, given that this is the main reason immigrants come in the first place, and why people leave to look for work abroad.
Margarita Delgado is a demographics researcher.