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European Demographics

Ryan Thomas is a university student with extensive interest in the histories of various societies and cultures around the world.

A map of European states by population growth

A map of European states by population growth

Demography is the statistical study of human populations: their growth, decline, and changes of composition through time and space. Every population and every society is affected by demographic considerations, but few have the same level of depth and import as those of Europe. From history to the present day, Europe provides a broad variety of examples for study that provide insight to understanding their history, present economic trends, and cultural dynamics. Demography helps predict future European trends and world position with other industrialized societies.

An overview of European population trends reveals that by 2013, the population will peak at 526 million people from the 507 million of today. However, by 2060 population, is expected to decline to 523 million. This will, of course, vary by nation. For example, Germany’s population is expected to drop, whereas the United Kingdom and France could become the most populous of the European nations. Overall, the EU’s share of global population is projected to decline from 7.2% to 5% by 2060.

This work explores European demographics within three disciplines:

  1. Historical analysis, with particular emphasis of the French demographic model in the 19th century as it compares to trends in Europe today;
  2. How demography is reacting to present day economics and vice versa; and
  3. How changing European demographics are affecting the cultural geography of today.


Obviously, historical European demographics could fill many volumes. For the purpose of this paper, however, I would like to focus on its development following the industrial revolution and specifically, France, as a comparison to the trends of today.

The age of industrialism in Europe improved sanitation and medical care which consequently led to a healthier populace with lower mortality rates. Before the development of an industrial society, fertility trends were typically characterized by both high birth and death rates. When industrialism transformed Europe, death rates fell quickly, although conversely, birth rates did not match this speed. Ultimately however, birth rates did reach the same level or below death rates, thus entering the modern post-industrial stage, with low death and birth rates. The result was a demographic boom for many of the countries, with only a few exceptions. One key exception is France, which maintained a much lower demographic growth than its neighbors.

Population structures and demographics play a key role concerning a society’s perception of itself, its social and economic structure, and relations to other societies. Fast growing demographics are well recognized for their demographic dividend, but there are cultural effects too, especially societal reaction to periods of high or low fertility. For example, low fertilities express themselves in the case with the intense “denalite” (fall in birthrate) campaign of interwar France, which also after WW1 necessitated securing a strong settlement at Versailles. This was due to the weakness of its fertility rate as compared to its eastern neighbor, Germany, and evidenced by Clemenceau’s statement, “For if France does not have large families, it will be in vain that you put all the finest clauses in the treaty, that you take away all the Germans guns, France will be lost because there will be no more French". The population of France rose from 30 to 40 million during 1800-1945. This limited demographic growth makes it unique for the period. Various explanations include the rise in contraceptive use, inheritance laws, secularization promoting a demographic transition, agricultural reform, and Napoleonic war casualties. Regardless of reasons, the French model is an excellent historical example for studying the relationships between low demographic growth and subsequent cultural reaction.

France’s low fertility rates prompted policy responses encouraging immigration. Consequently, France had the largest immigrant population in Europe during the period, reaching some 2.7 million by 1930, or 6.6% of the total population, second only to the United States.Furthermore, the lack of manpower resulted in extensive use of colonial troops, which was characteristic of the time, if not today. This, in turn, led to phobic concerns over the “other” (the stranger, the foreigner, the alien, the non-French) and integration conflicts between cultures, as society struggled with the challenges of national identity and the need for immigration. During this time period, economic output in France dropped in comparison to other nations. However, it is important to note that the relationship between the two may have been decreased fertility due to decreased economic growth, rather than the other way around. This was due to the more limited French industrialization as compared to other European countries.

Ultimately France’s demographic malaise was reversed by an unusually vigorous post-war baby boom, one that would last until the 1970s. Recently, with the advent of economic crisis in Europe following the oil shocks, fertility rates have dropped again, leaving behind a large age cohort of baby boomers with potentially dangerous consequences to old age social systems. This also marked the beginning of a dramatic shift in fertility rates on the European continent itself.

Prior to the 1980s, fertility rates had been highest in the southern part of the continent (Italy, Spain, Portugal) where women were less prevailing in the workforce, and lowest in the north with highest female worker participation. During the 1980s this flipped, so that by the end of the decade the countries with the highest fertility rates were those with the highest female participation in the workforce, and those with the lowest fertility were those with the lowest female participation.

Today, fertility rates across Europe are almost all uniformly less than 2.1 replacement rates. (Please examine Eurostat’s overview of fertility rates). Based on historical context we can expect economic and cultural changes to follow suit. An aging work force, employment shifts, and population changes are all to be expected, as modern society grapples with the unprecedented challenges of a dramatically aging civilization.


European demographics plays a dynamic role in its economics. Today, as a consequence of falling fertility rates and an aging population, European societies face challenges in their demographic position. These problems include a workforce decline with a shift from an age balanced system to one with older workers . This not only stresses the pension system, but reduces the vitality of the workplace economy at large. Although this is not a unique factor to Europe, it is more acute and is politically and culturally different from other cases. Study of European demographics from an economic standpoint enables important analysis of modern industrial societies, as well as determining their impact in global economy. The effects of a declining, older workforce in Europe could potentially send ripples worldwide.

Workforce Decline

As a population ages and/or decreases in numbers, it naturally tends to see a decreased labor force. In the case of Europe today, the workforce is expected to fall from some 308 million to 265 million by 2060, with levels varying heavily by nation. For example, in the United Kingdom the workforce is expected to only fall 100,000 by 2051 from 38.4 million in 2001.

One potential positive of this reduction in labor is increased productivity. A shrinking work-base promotes heightened wages, and increased productivity. For example, it is possible that the avoidance of the “guest worker” phase in Japan during the 1960s and 70s encouraged the fast automation and productivity gains of the Japanese work force. In the west, widespread recruitment of overseas workers has had at times deleterious effects on various institutions, such as the British NHS, which, because of heavy reliance on overseas labor, has delayed reforming training institutions and forced reliance on foreign workers. In addition, immigrants represent a cost to the public sector through the need for public benefits, although like other factors this is limited in impact, and immigrants will heavily vary themselves in “value” depending on education and age level—older and/or less educated immigrants being net losses to public finance.

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Conversely, in past times of a decreased workforce, immigration has been encouraged to fill the market for employees. Immigrants have relatively little impact upon the wages of native workers, even in the case of widespread labor market fluctuations, typically only several percentage points at most. However, they tend to affect workers in various sectors differently. Typically immigrants who are substitutes will decrease the wages of workers in immediately related industries, while at the same time increasing those in complementary industries. Unemployment levels too, are relatively little affected by changes in immigrant populations

Of course, the benefits of “foreign” workers must be weighed against the cultural opposition and conflict that comes with the package. Low population growth is a contributing factor to European economic projections, and European economic growth projections stand at 1–1.5% per annum under baseline and risk scenarios. This is obviously lower than in the past, and principally dependent on productivity improvements. A stronger workforce base and greater innovation would be necessary to raise productivity levels and ensure that economic growth does not tumble precipitously.

Aging Population

An older population is dependent on pension funds, health care and other social services. Without younger people joining the workforce, no money will be paid into the pension funds; funds will only be paid out. This is obviously a drain on economics. By 2060, the European old-age dependency ratio will have risen from 27% to 51% This means that there will be two

workers per every person above current retirement ages, as compared to the current four workers per every person above retirement age. Furthermore, the share of those over 80 years old will have increased from 5% to 12 %. This places an increasing amount of workers out of the currently accessible workforce. Attempts to counter this problem have already begun. Under the Europe 2020 plan and the preceding Lisbon Strategy, there is a call for raising labor participation rates to 75% for 20-64 year olds, and the labor participation rates of older generations will naturally rise for women as cohorts with higher labor participation rates replace cohorts with low labor participation rates. Active aging—the policy of greater participation in society on the part of aging members—has also been vigorously promoted by the European Commission. This policy promotes extending the retirement age by a year or two and keeping seniors involved in business and society. This could alleviate the pressure on pension funds temporarily and have the added benefit of keeping seniors productive as well. As lifespans continue to increase—from 77.6 to 84.7 for males and from 83.1 to 89.1 for females—the young elderly may increasingly be available for work as health-related issues decline due to advances in medical technology. Also, it is important to note that , due to the longer lifespans of women, their percentage of the population will climb, making their effective integration into the workforce even more vital.

Cultural Aspects

Culture is a broad concept due to its depth and complexity. By definition, it is the collective beliefs, customs and arts of a particular society in time. This paper seeks principally to examine the concrete nature of current European cultural trends including changes in age ratios, immigration, family structure, and new trends in women’s fertility—and their interrelation to demographics today.

Aging Population Revisited

As previously noted, due to low fertility and longer lifespans, Europe’s population is aging. Current projections estimate that by 2060 the European population will have aged from the current mean of 40 years (2010) to 46 years. An aging population will have significant cultural effects on top of weakening the dynamics of economics through pensions and decreased work-force size. An older population puts more pressure on healthcare systems as well as long term care centers. In these tough financial times, senior poverty levels could be a problem. Family structures may change to include retired parents living with children . . . creating even more of a financial and social burden on younger families. Political policies will have to be adapted to fit an older society, with the support systems in place to secure necessary care.

Women in particular may face challenges relating to this problem. Over two-third of informal caregiving are reliant on unpaid help and three-quarters of primary caregivers are women, of which the portion in the labor force (30%) acknowledge that they face conflicts between caregiving and work. As the percentage of the elderly increases, this will pose an increasing impediment to the effective integration of women into the workforce as desired by European societies.

Of political import will be that the elderly will form an ever-growing share of the European electorate, and presumably representing the highest voter turnout rates. This significant growth in power could have potential consequences concerning future reforms of pensions and other social systems affecting those of advanced age. It may also make these reforms advisable in the immediate future before political circumstances change.

Family Structure

Economic problems have encouraged a current trend for young adults to stay at home longer and couples to wait to have children later. For example, in the Italy housing market, trends encourage purchase of expensive homes instead of renting, dramatically undercutting the potential for new households to be formed. Housing prices in both Italy and Spain are also partially driven by immigration, which may be a negative impact on fertility rates of the native population. As a result of these factors, there is a “wait and see” attitude with young couples, who are waiting to get married and have children until there is an improvement in economics. And, on top of the current economic downturn, there are also some worries amongst young couples to start a family with the prospect of future environmental problems. Issues like global warming and dwindling resources paint an ambiguous future. Together, all of these factors have changed the dynamics of the demographics of Europe. Many of these trends will not disappear soon.

A potentially positive aspect of current fertility predictions is that while they are currently low, this does not capture the entire picture. Fertility trends show that women are increasingly moving childbirth to an older age—women are having children later. Since Total Fertility Rate (TFR) captures fertility during a single year, delayed childbearing leads lower recorded TFR values, while advanced childbearing leads to higher recorded TR values. Given the trend of rising age of childbearing across the globe, it is thus probable that some TFR values are lower than they would realistically stand otherwise.

In addition, European fertility rates rose between 2000-2010, although they ultimately dropped off again with the financial crisis. However, in all probability this is not a permanent decline and the upwards trend will resume in the future. After all, most analyst’s projections do take into account a rising European fertility rate. Thus, although current fertility levels are at a worryingly low level, there is a chance that they may be temporal, reverting back to higher numbers—although still quite probably below the 2.1 replacement rate.


Immigration is an important aspect of demographics and one in which Europeans will probably see major changes in the next decade. A key problem when studying immigration in the European Union (EU) is determining which immigration sector is being discussed. This paper principally seeks to examine the movement of foreign groups into the EU, rather than internal movement within the EU.

Politically, we can expect major changes to occur. Recently, the European political landscape has been reshaped by the emergency of political parties, such as the British National Party or Front National, opposing immigration. One would predict that as the immigration population grows these parties will gain further power, in reaction to the increasing target of their attention. However, at the same time, an important system that undercuts this prediction is contact theory. This theory asserts that as people mingle and meet on equal terms their negative assumptions cannot be as effectively supported. Evidence for this in theory has amplified, and therefore, as immigrant populations increase, anti-immigration political parties may conversely lose support. However, this is also dependent on the equality of meeting, that is, one in which both persons are of the same social rank—a stranger in an enclosed car fearfully making their way through a poor immigrant neighborhood will probably not form a good impression of the people living there. Global trends towards increasing wealth disparity and ghettoization of immigrants may thus nullify its positive effects. According to contact theory, meetings of individuals who are not equals tend to reinforce negative stereotypes and are detrimental to social cohesion.

As discussed in France’s historical context, increase in immigration changes the dynamics of society. There is both excessive fear of a rapid collapse of European identity in the face of foreign immigrant ‘hordes”, and an under-representation of their effects. Immigrants have historically played a real role in the European political landscape in a variety of ways and manners. This is also true today, perhaps even to a greater extent. It is important in all of the cases of future projections of immigration populations to be aware that the numbers can be affected by policies and rules on immigration as well as unexpected social dynamics of immigrants already arrived.

Analyzing the Past to Learn About the Future

European demographics is a field of great relevance to modern day policymakers, economists, and common citizens interested in their future. As the ever changing mosaic of human population changes, its influence can be felt across a country’s landscape. Age, gender, and race ratios all create an impact, together molding a nation’s identity. As such, today’s falling birth rates and an aging population will have major impacts upon the composition of society, spurring changes to economic, cultural, and political systems.

These trends can be compared and contrasted to historical examples to further understand the implications. For example, by analyzing France’s past demographics, we are able to glean insight into today’s declining European fertility rates, plan policy, and predict the future. These lessons in demographics are applicable worldwide.

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This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2017 Ryan Thomas

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