Written by Monika Kiss, Mar Negreiro, Maria Niestadt, Carolien Nijenhuis and Christiaan Van Lierop.
The latest available statistical data on demographic trends in the EU show that population features present in the EU-27 in previous years have persisted, but that the picture is slightly worse due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The population of the EU represents a progressively shrinking proportion of the world population. While the latter is increasing steadily and is getting proportionally younger, the population of the EU is ageing rapidly, with a median age of 43.9 years in 2020, compared to 38.4 years two decades ago. This is due to increased longevity (a life expectancy of 81.3 years in 2019 compared to 69.86 in the 1960s), but also to a shrinking birth rate, amounting to 4.05 million live births in 2019, compared to 6.79 million in the 1960s. The pandemic led to an increase in ‘excess mortality’ in 2021, the two biggest peaks being in April and November, coinciding with two waves of Covid-19 infections.
Owing to vaccination campaigns and economic incentives, employment figures in 2021 were more positive than during the previous year. This positive development is also due to another phenomenon, the acceleration of the digital transition.
A digital revolution is transforming the world as we know it at unprecedented speed, and there is a growing awareness among EU citizens that digital technologies play an important role in their daily lives; on a societal level, digital technologies have the potential to improve living standards, life expectancy and quality of life. Looking at prospective demographic trends, this technological dependency is expected to continue. According to a 2021 Eurobarometer survey, more than 80 % of EU citizens think that the use of digital tools and the internet by 2030 will be important in their lives, and that they will bring at least as many advantages as disadvantages to them. However, there are differences according to demographic groups, among whom there remains a digital divide. For instance, younger users are more likely to be intensive internet users, and are also twice as likely to worry about the difficulty of disconnecting and finding a good online/offline life balance than those who are aged 55 and over. The use of digital technologies requires a sufficient level of digital skills, and in this respect the EU is still far away from its target (of 80 % of citizens with basic digital skills in 2030, compared to 58 % in 2021), but this is also strongly influenced by socio-demographic aspects.
Children and young people born after 1996 in the EU – sometimes called ‘Generation Z’, ‘Gen Z’ or ‘iGeneration’ – are the first digital natives: they are used to smartphones and tablets, and most have internet access at home. Demographically, though, their part in society is shrinking. Often young people are ahead of older family members in terms of technical competence (such as ICT skills) or time spent on the internet. The Covid-19 pandemic, which led to school closures and restrictions on physical contacts, also led, for the younger generation, to increased screen time and an abrupt transition to distance learning. The EU, its Member States and even private actors put in place initiatives to try and remedy these difficulties – for example, by providing access to hardware and software for pupils in need, partially opening schools, and providing non-digital home-learning resources.
Digitalisation is also changing the work life of young people, by reducing demand for routine and manual tasks while increasing demand for tasks requiring problem-solving and interpersonal skills. Young people often struggle to find a job, or jump from one precarious job to another. This in turn means that young people find it difficult to make the transition to independent life and depend financially, in large part, on their parents.
Apart from a small slice of ‘Generation Z’, it is ‘Generation Y’ or the ‘Millennials’ (those born between 1981 and 1996), as well as ‘Generation X’ (those born between 1964 and 1980) and some of the ‘Baby Boomers’ (the generation born between 1946 and 1964) who are present on the labour market and responsible for meeting the needs of the younger and older cohorts who depend on them. From the point of view of digital technologies, this heterogeneous group faces a lot of work-related challenges. These concern mainly automation, digitisation, the expansion of digital platforms and teleworking. While automated workflows and robots can make up for a lack of workers or perform physically demanding or hazardous tasks, they can also lead to job losses, relating mainly to routine tasks.
Digital technology enables people to work from any location at any time. Teleworking and digital platforms, which witnessed unprecedented growth during the pandemic, also have some drawbacks, mainly concerning work-life balance, digital privacy, and physical and mental health.
An ageing society brings challenges relating to growing demand for health and care services, loneliness, and social inclusion of older people. Digital technology could offer a solution to these problems. For example, it creates significant potential to improve support for older adults’ (often complex) healthcare needs and their need to stay connected with their social circle. However, the digital transformation also poses challenges. It has increased the exclusion of those who are digitally illiterate, who cannot access or afford digital tools or the internet, or who lack motivation and interest. Moreover, the onset of physical or cognitive impairments and inaccessible technology design renders digital engagement more challenging. The EU is aware of these issues and is backing initiatives and projects to overcome the digital gap and stimulate innovation for ageing well.
The EU’s digital transformation is taking place at an uneven pace, with clear differences visible across Europe in a number of different areas. In terms of digital literacy and skills, internet use is generally lower in southern and eastern EU regions than in the north and west, with a similar geographical division for e-commerce. The EU’s outermost regions have some of the lowest levels of digital literacy in the EU, particularly when it comes to social media participation, while residents of rural areas generally have lower levels of digital skills than people living in cities, often linked to low levels of digital connectivity in rural areas. Indeed, a significant urban-rural digital divide exists in all EU Member States, in large part due to the high costs and risks involved in the roll-out of digital infrastructure in less built-up areas. However, the recent expansion in the use of telework and ICT-based mobile work could represent one of the keys to the future development of rural areas.
Read the complete study on ‘Demographic outlook for the European Union 2022‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.