Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Younger people are fleeing rural areas, migrating northward, and having fewer children. Here’s how that’s changing the region.
Europe’s population is on the move, and a new report suggests exactly where and why.
Released last week by Eurostat, the statistical office of the E.U., this blockbuster annual yearbook offers a dizzying number of insights into the state of a changing Europe.
Among the sheer volume of detail, some clear trends emerge: younger people are leaving Europe’s south, especially its rural areas, in search of work in urban areas of the continent’s job-rich northwest. That’s creating a demographic hole that might presage extended, continuing decline.
The chart below provides some clues to this movement. Looking at median ages, it shows what might be expected: Europe’s rural areas tend to have older populations, while capital cities (marked by blue dots) are more likely to be younger than a country as a whole. Greece’s Evrytania region posted the oldest population; it’s a rural area where outward migration of young people has pushed the median age up to 53.6 years. While rural regions are seeing the sharpest rises in median age, this phenomenon is both national and local.
Between 2006 and 2016, Romania, Lithuania, Greece, and Portugal all saw their median ages increase by more than four years. That rise can’t simply be accounted for by an overnight spike in life expectancy; this is clearly because people—especially young people—have been leaving in large numbers.
“Median age rises can stem from two things: young people leaving [and] a low birth rate, which of course can be combined,” says Pernd Parusel, a migration expert at the European Migration Networks. “I know that some Central and Eastern European countries, such as the Baltic States, for example, have a significant out-migration, especially young people at the beginning of their careers.”
So between a falling birth rate and a high rate of youth migration, which one is the primary cause of these countries’ rapid aging?
Birth rates: Low and lower
Looking at the map above, low birth rates are clearly an issue across Europe. Across the map, Spain, Italy, Slovakia, and Greece show the most consistently low birth rates. This is probably a sign both of people choosing to have fewer children for economic reasons and of people who actually decide to have children choosing to leave their countries of origin.
There doesn’t seem to be an automatic link between population aging and birthrate. While the Lithuanian and Romanian populations have aged rapidly, both countries have a relatively high birthrate by the standards of the region. It’s thus clear that youth migration is a major factor, albeit one not working in total isolation from a lowering proportional number of births.
Migration: Head to Germany
So where are these young people heading? We don’t get clear-cut answers from the report, because any migration increases also include arrivals from outside the E.U.—a group whose numbers spiked in 2015 as a result of the migrant crisis. But the map below shows that, within the E.U., Germany was a center of gravity. Having accepted 1.2 million migrants in 2015, it was the most common end point for migrant journeys that year—although the greater refugees from war in Syria remained in the eastern Mediterranean.
It would nonetheless be mistaken to let the effects of the migrant crisis mask other important, ongoing trends.
“It’s certainly true that Sweden and Germany have received a lot of asylum seekers during the European migrant crisis, but the interesting case in Germany is that they also had of E.U. nationals at the same time,” Parusel tells CityLab. “If you look at the nationalities moving to Germany in 2015, the main national group was from Syria, but followed by Romania, Poland, Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Italy. It's a very mixed picture of people coming from both conflict countries further afield and from people from within the E.U.”
Employment: Flee the South
A quick look at the European employment map explains why Northwestern Europe (and especially Germany) are attractive destinations.
Employment rates for 2016 were far higher in Germany, Scandinavia, and the U.K. than elsewhere, with notably low employment levels in Southern Spain, Southern Italy, and Greece. If you were looking for a job, the south was not the place to go.
When it comes to how employment rates are changing, however, a slightly different picture emerges. Eastern Germany, Poland, and Hungary show evidence of high levels of job creation, with Poland’s Lower Silesia region posting the strongest job gains in Europe, with an employment rate rise of 12.5 percent in the decade running up to 2016.
Still, Poland and Hungary aren’t major destinations for migrants; their rise in employment rate is a recovery from a period of severe unemployment. Despite this improvement, overall employment levels still fall short of the most economically vibrant regions of the European northwest. They may still become major migration destinations in the future, however, if their economic growth continues. Indeed, Parusel says that this is something they are already considering.
“I hear from my Polish colleagues that they are increasingly looking for ways to become more attractive to foreign labor, especially highly skilled people,” he says.
You might expect this significant amount of population movement around Europe to create some turmoil—the acceptance of refugees has certainly been deeply controversial in many countries.
It is not, however, the automatic case that the arrival of migrants is causing intense friction in the communities they arrive in. To understand why these major movements have still occurred fairly smoothly, you need to understand the vacuum created by Europe’s low birth rates. In no E.U. country was the 2015 birthrate around 2.1 births per woman, the rate generally considered necessary to maintain a static population size. Germany’s birth rate was notably low given its economic success—and many Germans are aware of this.
“The comparatively low birthrate in Germany has been a major topic for a long time, showing that society is aging and needs migrants,” Parusel says. “That discussion has certainly contributed to willingness to accept both refugee and migrant workers, to some degree. The overall picture is that Germany has been willing to accept people because the economy can absorb them.”
Life expectancy: It’s not just wealth
But while Germany and other countries in Northwestern Europe have greater economic resilience, they don’t necessarily have every advantage on their side.
With the notable exception of Norway, the European regions with higher life expectancy all cluster close to the Mediterranean. It would be facile to suggest that there is no link between wealth and longevity. The regions of Spain and Italy that show the highest life expectancy for children born today are not their countries’ poorest. It is still clear that longevity is not a straightforward reward stemming from higher income.
Life expectancy is nonetheless an area where no European state can afford to be complacent. Between 2014 and 2015, life expectancy across E.U. nations actually dropped for the first time since an expectancy figure was complied for the existing union in 2003. The drop is a small one—0.3 years, leaving a union-wide expectancy of 80.6 years. It nonetheless rings as a warning, correcting assumptions that Europe, like the West beyond it, is automatically on an upward slant toward better living conditions and general health. We can only hope that next year’s figures reveal this to be a blip.