Europe is aging, as confirmed by population projections from the European Union’s statistics agency, Eurostat. If demographic trends persist, the average age on the continent will rise to 49.1 years by 2050, a leap of four years from 2019. And in 30 years’ time, four of the European regions with the oldest populations will be in Spain. Zamora tops the list, with an average age of 62.7 by 2050. León comes in fourth place, with an average age of 60.5; and Asturias and Ourense come in ninth and 10th with an average age of 59.1. According to Eurostat’s projections, the number of people aged 65 and over living in the 31 countries analyzed – the EU plus Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland and Iceland – will increase by more than 40 million, from 93 million to 134.5 million.
However, demographers stress that, as with all population projections, these figures depict a scenario that will only play out if the demographic trends calculated by Eurostat on January 1, 2019, are maintained regarding the three variables of births, deaths and immigration. If any one of these variables shift, so will the scenario. It is also worth noting that the study predates the coronavirus pandemic, which has had a significant impact on all aspects of society, with peaks in mortality, falls in fertility and changes to migration. It is therefore unlikely that the data for 2020 and 2021 will conform to the Eurostat forecasts. Moreover, depending on the duration of the economic and social crisis, it is possible the impact will be sustained over a longer period of time. But, according to Diego Ramiro, director of the Institute of Economics, Geography and Demography at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), the major trends will persist within the 30-year time frame used by Eurostat.
The average age in Zamora will rise by 10 years from 52.4 in 2019 to 62.7 in 2050
The trends are clear. Eurostat has studied 1,216 regions – or provinces in the case of Spain – in 31 countries. Almost nine out of 10 will have a higher average age in 2050 than in 2019. Not all areas will age at the same rate. The fastest aging populations are expected to be those located mainly in Eastern Europe – the Baltic countries, Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria; and southern Europe – Italy, Spain and Portugal. For the 160 fast-aging regions, Eurostat predicts an increase in the average age of at least eight years. In Zamora, for example, it will rise by 10 years from 52.4 in 2019 to 62.7 in 2050.
“There is a perfect demographic storm,” says Albert Esteve, director of the Center for Demographic Studies at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. He explains that Zamora has “a population that is already aging, where few young people live. Those who remain have few children, and there is little immigration.” By contrast, the North African exclave city of Melilla, which is predicted to be the third region with the lowest average age in 2050 (36.6), has a high fertility rate and a great deal of immigration.
According to Esteve, “the average age is rising because there are not enough children and not enough immigrants [to lower the average age].” He also points out that residents in Spain are having fewer children than they would actually like, given that the majority want two yet the average number of children per woman is 1.24, according to the latest data from the National Statistics Institute (INE). It should be noted that this data was also gathered prior to the pandemic – a period that has exacerbated the decline in the birth rate. “They are not having children because the labor and economic conditions are not right, not because they don’t want them,” says Esteve. The age for having children is being pushed back, which can mean that, by the time people feel ready to have a family, they face fertility problems, he says.
Esteve also points out that even if the birth rate in Spain were to suddenly soar, the average age would not rise proportionally because of the high numbers of baby boomers, who are now approaching their senior years. “As they are numerous, they carry significant weight,” he says, adding that the hope is that immigration will put the brakes on the aging trend. According to Eurostat predictions, the provinces of Zamora and Ourense will continue to have the oldest populations in Europe by the turn of this century.
Meanwhile, Ramiro, from the CSIC, stresses that the rise in age has nothing to do with a general demographic decline. “Except during the last year when it lost some of its population, Spain has the largest population it has ever had, with 47 million inhabitants,” he says. He also maintains that we cannot talk about aging without talking about the quality of life, insisting that it is not the same to be 60 now as it was 30 years ago. “We have to take into account how the aging happens; whether people are active and in good health,” he says. “Many EU countries, in fact, are delaying retirement age, because many people reach the end of their working life healthy enough to continue working in good conditions.”
Two-thirds – or 802 – of Europe’s regions will have lost a percentage of population by 2050 compared to 2019. That contrasts with the 414 that will experience population growth, according to the projections. The regions with the greatest decline, percentage-wise, are those furthest east, from Finland through the Baltic countries to Romania and Bulgaria; also Greece and southern Italy; and Portugal and northwestern Spain.
“Eastern countries have experienced outgoing migration in recent years,” says Ramiro. “They mainly lose young people, who migrate to other areas of Europe. This accelerates the aging of their populations and is what is happening in Romania, Latvia and Lithuania, for example.”
Something similar is happening on the Iberian peninsula. “This can be seen clearly along the border with Portugal, known as La Raya,” adds Ramiro. “In Spain, the population in areas such as Madrid, Barcelona and the Levantine coast is growing at the expense of Castilla y León and Galicia.” A trail of young people is leaving inland Spain to move to regions with better job opportunities.
Large urban areas are not only growing at the expense of rural areas in Spain, but on the continent as a whole. Eurostat predicts that the population will grow in almost three out of five urban regions and fall in four out of five rural areas. In January 2019, 40.2% of people lived in predominantly urban areas, 39.2% in semi-urban areas and 20.6% in rural areas. Virtually all rural areas – 335 out of 423 – will lose population by 2050. And in 19 countries, urban populations will have grown, from 2.3% in Croatia to 39% in Iceland. In Spain, the increase will be 11.9%. “Young people are concentrating around the economic supply, which is located in the big cities or near the big cities,” says Esteve.
English version by Heather Galloway.