October 8, 2015

Refugee surge brings youth to an aging Europe


The ongoing surge of refugees into Europe from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other war-ravaged countries presents a striking demographic contrast: hundreds of thousands of predominantly young people trying to get into a region where the population is older than in almost any other place on earth.

FT_15.10.05_agingEuropeRegion_2_420pxEurope has been graying for decades, primarily because of longer life expectancies and low birthrates (and, in some countries, high levels of emigration by young people of child-bearing age). In 1950, according to our analysis of data from the U.N.’s Population Division, 8% of the continent’s population was 65 or older; by 1990 that share had risen to 12.7%, and this year it’s estimated to be 17.6%.

In fact, 27 of the 30 countries and territories globally with the largest 65-and-older shares are in Europe. That includes six European countries – Italy, Greece, Germany, Portugal, Finland and Bulgaria – where a fifth of the population or more is age 65 or older. (The only country with a higher 65-and-older percentage is Japan, where 26.3% of the population is at least 65.)

Coping with rising numbers of older people, and concomitant declines in working-age people, already is posing considerable social, economic and political challenges in countries such as Germany and Italy, and likely will do so in other societies as they age (including the U.S., where 14.8% of the population now is 65 or older).

Previous waves of non-European migration have already altered the culture and demographics of several European countries – think Turks in Germany, North Africans in France, or West Indians and Pakistanis in the United Kingdom. But the current wave of migration into Europe, unprecedented in its sheer scale since the end of World War II, could change the continent’s underlying dynamics.

FT_15.10.05_agingEuropeAsylum_310pxAccording to data compiled by Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical agency, 81% of the 689,000 people who had formally applied for asylum in EU countries this year (through August) were younger than 35; more than half (55%) were ages 18 to 34. Hundreds of thousands more refugees are expected to arrive before year’s end; one news report states that German authorities expect as many as 1.5 million asylum-seekers in that country this year.

Some analysts argue the refugee influx could be a long-term benefit to an aging Europe, renewing the supply of younger workers on whom the continent’s retirees depend. Christian Bodewig, the World Bank’s human development sector leader for central Europe and the Baltics, wrote recently: “The real policy question for the countries of Central Europe and the Baltics today is therefore not whether to accept migrants or not but, rather, how to turn the challenge of today’s refugee crisis into an opportunity. … [Many migrants] have the potential to not just alleviate declining numbers of workers but also to boost innovation through bringing fresh ideas and perspectives.”

But others are skeptical that migration, even on the scale being seen this year, can do much more than dent the long-term aging trend. A 2001 report from the U.N.’s Population Division, for instance, estimated that Germany would need a net total of 17.8 million migrants between 1995 and 2050 (an average of 324,000 per year) to keep its overall population from shrinking; even then, the ratio of working-age people to elderly would still fall.

In addition, the near-term costs of managing the flow of refugees, providing them with housing, health care, education and other social assistance, and ultimately resettling and integrating them into new societies are daunting. Germany, by far the preferred destination for the migrants, expects to spend $6.6 billion this year alone. Turkey, which is not in the EU but houses more refugees than any other country (many of whom are making their way into EU countries) says it has spent $7.6 billion so far this year. (Turkey may get some help from the EU, which has pledged to spend at least $1.1 billion to aid nations bordering Syria that are housing millions of refugees from that country’s civil war.)

Aside from the cost, some countries have objected to taking refugees on religious, cultural or nationalistic grounds. Last month, for instance, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban stated bluntly that “We do not want a large number of Muslims in our country.” Slovakia has said it will take Syrian refugees only if they’re Christian; an Interior Ministry spokesman told the BBC, “We could take 800 Muslims but we don’t have any mosques in Slovakia so how can Muslims be integrated if they are not going to like it here?”

Topics: Europe, Generations and Age, Migration, Syria

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.


  1. SGM Bob2 years ago

    Mr. DeSilver has missed a VERY important issue which will become a “game-changer” within just a few years. Clearly, the EU population is aging beyond the point of repopulating itself. Then, steps in masses of migrants from the Middle East – and almost all of those migrants are of the prime age for reproduction. Add the second ingredient into this mix — these migrants are predominantly all Islamic-faith. Those of Islamic faith DO NOT change their religion or culture when migrating to a non-Islam land. Instead, the Islamic-faith demands the new country change to accommodate THEIR faith and culture. People of the Islamic faith are the fastest reproducing population in the world – some banter around a statistic which says Muslims reproduce up to 9 times faster than any western culture. If that is true, do the math yourself: If Europeans are beyond repopulating, and suddenly have an invasion of the fastest reproducing group of people in the world — who do you think will become the majority population within the next 10 years. Wake up Europe — your current culture is doomed. There will be no turning back. Sad, but true.

  2. S.2 years ago

    Japan is graying at a far speeder pace:

    As of 2015, 26% of the Japanese are 65 or older, while 12,5% are 15 or younger.

    The fertility rate of Japan has been stable at around 1.4, after more than one decade around 1.25 – 1.35.

    Japan is loosing almost 300 000 citizens a year – a mere 8 years after it registered its first “natural” population drop.

    Yet, nobody seems to coerce Japan into accepting 300 000, 800 000 or 1 million Eritreans, Yemenis, Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans, Syrians and Pakistanis /year for its survival (sic).

    What is advocated here is to replace “missing” Italian, German, Greek or Polish youths with mainly-Muslim, often-tribal, Iraqi, Afghan, Eritrean, Pakistani, Syrian, Libyan and Pakistani youngsters.

    Very interesting perspective.

    Even more considering the fact that +50% of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Greek youths are either unemployed or under-employed and can’t settle down, marry and raise kids.

    The few exceptions are certain Scandinavian countries, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. But all countries are already struggling with higher-than-average unemployment rate among 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation Turks, Arabs and Africans.

    So the solution is: importing large numbers of Arab, African and West Asian youths, in spite of either massive youth-unemployment for the whole citizenry or for the pre-existing Arab, African and West Asian populations.

    Very rational.

  3. Maleku Bribri2 years ago

    It is embarrassing that you believe in the myth that these economic migrants are seriously going to benefit any nation, or that you believe in the immigration myth in general. The immigration myth that countries “need” immigrants is a myth, unsustainable, and extremely dangerous. It’s a Ponzi scheme. If our country need economic growth, they need a larger population, so you import immigrants. As quality of life declines, the economy still needs to grow because now those unskilled immigrants birth rate are declining, so you need even more immigrants. Eventually, we will reach a point where this model becomes unsustainable as birth rates across the world decline, there will be more country that “need” immigrants then people who actually exist. The Earth can’t handle infinite economic growth because that requires infinite population growth. It doesn’t matter if economic growth declines, that’s inevitable. What matter is whether we have a high quality of life, and Japan, more then others, understand this perfectly. So what if they lose 50 million people in their overcrowded country. They’ll still live in a highly advanced nation, and will probably be even happier about it then the unfortunate future that Germany is about to face.

    1. JLM2 years ago

      Excellent comment, Sir.

    2. Dan2 years ago


    3. Anonymous1 year ago

      So what if they lose 50 million… What a ridiculous comment. What gradually losing a workforce will do to the actual economy but not to future economic growth outstrips any virtual benefits you are reffering to… So what, if they live a good life that simply cannot be sustained… Ever had a look at Japan’s population pyramid over the next 100 years? Who pays for the increasing old people? The ever more efficient pension funds (haha), or some kind of parallel population momentum fund? Who cares for all the people with degenerative sicknesses? With decreasing public expenditure, services and standards will deteriorate….. Living in a spa like country full of sick old people with 1000 years till extinction doesnt seem like a promising future. But driving fear-mongering bandwagon though cultural rubbish is surely easier than constructive commenting

  4. Muthyavan.2 years ago

    Current surge of immigrants to Europe is the largest in recent history. Beside from the conflict areas arrround Mediteranian and middle east, a large Ammount of immigrant is surging from central and south Africa. Will it be possible for the European countries at the current economical level to handle this huge influx?. It is more or less is an international problem. UNO must step in into this problem creating peace in these troubled countries. Strengthening the peace keeping process and creating good governments in these troubled and failed nations around the world. Simply only by accepting refugees in large numbers will only creat many more troubles arrround the world nations.

    1. SGM Bob2 years ago

      Now, just what the heck do you think the UN will (or can) do to achieve peace in the Middle East countries. You’re a dreamer. The UN is a totally powerless organization that does nothing more than blow HOT AIR!

  5. Choko2 years ago

    As a british Pakistani, I urge the british people to open their doors to millions of deserving refugees from the middle east. Germany can do it, why can’t you?
    Britain is more indebted because she carried out the supreme crime of
    invading iraq that destabilised Syria.

    1. JLM2 years ago

      I suggest that as a British Pakistani, you should respect the British people (who were apparently kind enough to let you, or your parents/grandparents, into their country) and their right to choose who else they decide to let in, which (glancing at UK opinion polls) would certainly not favour following the German lead. Furthermore, while I (along with the bulk of the British public) was no supporter of the invasion of Iraq, to blame that for the current situation in Syria is to draw a very long bow: the Syrian state faced a similar challenge to its legitimacy back in the 1970s, although due to a more static international scene, managed to crush it quickly and effectively. Much more responsible are Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, who have been rather less than forthcoming about housing Syrian refugees, despite sharing a language and religion with them, as well as no shortage of money.

  6. Tom Brown2 years ago

    Here in Australia we have four of the top ten most liveable cities in the world. Attracting immigrants to avoid the problem of an ageing problem is not a problem. However Australia’s recent approach to refugees is an embarrassment.

    1. Tom Hankes2 years ago

      I would be interested in knowing which cities those are.