Written by Monika Kiss,
Demography matters. The economy and the labour market, but also social protection, intergenerational fairness and healthcare, the environment, food and nutrition are all driven by demography. The population of EU countries has grown substantially – by around a quarter since 1960 – and currently it stands at almost 450 million. The numbers are now beginning to stagnate however and are expected to decline from around the middle of the century. With the world population having risen still more substantially and growth continuing, the EU represents a shrinking proportion of the global population. The EU population is also ageing dramatically, as life expectancy increases and fertility rates fall below past levels. This has serious implications across a range of areas including the economy, healthcare and pensions. Free movement within the EU and migration from third countries also play an important role in shaping demography in individual Member States and regions. The ‘in-focus’ section of this year’s edition of the demographic outlook examines food and nutrition-related demographic challenges. It shows that, even if improving food quality and healthier eating habits lead to higher life expectancy, the EU still has to tackle the harmful consequences and prevent the causes of diet-related chronic conditions, such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. This paper is the third in a series produced by EPRS on the demographic outlook for the European Union.
In common with many other developed (and developing) parts of the world, the EU population is also ageing, as life expectancy increases and fertility rates drop compared to the past. At EU level, both men and women saw their average life expectancy increase by over 10 years between the early 1960s and today, although women continue to live longer than men on average. Meanwhile, the number of children being born has fallen from an EU-28 average of around 2.5 children per woman in 1960, to a little under 1.59 today. This is far below the 2.1 births per woman considered necessary in developed countries to maintain the population in the long term, in the absence of migration. Indeed, migration has become increasingly important for expanding or maintaining the EU population. In 2017, the natural population change (live births minus deaths) was slightly negative, and net inward migration was therefore key to the population growth seen in those years.
Combined, these trends are resulting in a dramatically ageing EU-28, whose working population (aged 15 to 64) shrank for the first time in 2010 and is expected to decline every year to 2060. By contrast, the proportion of people aged 80 or over in the EU-28 population is expected to more than double by 2050, reaching 11.4 %. In 2006, there were four people of working age (15 to 64) for each person aged 65 or over; by 2050, the ratio is projected to be just two people. This outlook is essentially set in the shorter term, at least, meaning the focus is on smoothing the transition to an older population and adapting to its needs.
While the starting point, speed and scale of ageing varies between the Member States depending on differing fertility rates, life expectancy and migration levels, all will see further ageing in the coming years. Free movement, as well as external migration, will also play a role in the population size and age profile both of countries and of regions within them. As a general trend, the population is growing in certain urban areas, while rural areas are suffering from depopulation, owing to a stagnating economy, lack of professional opportunities and increasing poverty.
The ‘in-focus’ section of this edition looks at the relationship between food and nutrition and demographic changes. Improved food quality and healthier eating habits have led to higher life expectancy in EU societies. However, this tendency is tempered by rising levels of obesity and diabetes, leading to an increasing number of deaths from heart disease and strokes. Certain age groups, such as children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to the effects of malnutrition because of their specific nutritional needs. Moreover, a number of regions and social groups are facing food-related problems, such as hunger, scarce resources and climate change. Food insecurity also plays a significant role as one of the triggers for migration towards the EU, and is affecting the EU in other ways as well.
Read the complete study on ‘Demographic outlook for the European Union 2020‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.
Listen to policy podcast ‘The demographic challenges linked to food and nutrition‘ on YouTube.