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Third Exploratory Meeting Between the Vice-President of the European Commission for Democracy and Demography Dubravka Šuica & Leading Demographers in the EU

Democracy & Demography, Population Decline and Demographic Resilience

Third Exploratory Meeting


On Tuesday, 30 November 2021, Population Europe hosted a meeting between the Vice-President of the European Commission for Democracy and Demography Dubravka Šuica and leading demographers in the EU. The purpose of this third meeting in the series of meetings with Vice-President Šuica was to discuss: a) how demographic change is influencing and might influence European democracies and b) how to understand trends on population decline and support regions to adapt to population changes while strengthening social cohesion.

Participants included: Gunnar Andersson, Professor of Demography, and head of the Stockholm University Demography Unit (SUDA); Jakub Bijak, Professor of Statistical Demography at the University of Southampton; Francesco Billari, Professor of Demography and Dean of the Faculty at Bocconi University, Milan; Agnieszka Chłoń-Domińczak, Professor at the Institute of Statistics and Demography at the Warsaw School of Economics; Ivan Čipin, Professor of Demography at the Faculty of Economics & Business, University of Zagreb; Aline Désesquelles, Senior Researcher and Deputy Director for Research at the French Institute for Demographic Studies (INED); Helga de Valk, Professor of Migration and the Life Course at the University of Groningen and Director of the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI); Juho Härkönen, Professor of Sociology and Director of Graduate Studies at the Department of Political and Social Sciences, and Co-Director the Comparative Life Course and Inequality Research Centre (CLIC) of the European University Institute; Wolfgang Lutz, Professor of Demography at the University of Vienna and Founding Director of the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital (IIASA, OeAW, University of Vienna); Melinda Mills, Nuffield Professor of Sociology and Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science at Oxford University; Dubravka Šuica, Vice-President of the European Commission for Democracy and Demography; Pieter Vanhuysse, Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of Southern Denmark, Founding Board Member of the Interdisciplinary Centre on Population Dynamics at the same university and Senior Fellow at the Danish Institute for Advanced Study; and Emilio Zagheni, Managing Director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research and Affiliate Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington.


Linkages between Democracy and Demography – the Key Role of Human Capital

  • Democracy and demography have a common object, the demos. In both areas, human capital is key, where for example, individuals’ empowerment through education allows them to become active agents and demographic actors. Accordingly, when we talk about demographic change, we should not only look at changes in the age structure of populations but also at (1) education composition and labour force participation as the two main elements shaping future productivity and (2) the well-being of societies as it constitutes the basis for active democratic participation forming a strong society.
  • To properly consider human capital needs for the future, we need to think beyond higher education credentials and upskilling and also include agile vocational education, as well as training to improve both cognitive and non-cognitive skills.


Population Structure and its Implications for Democracies

  • In an ageing Europe, we have fewer dependent younger citizens, a shrinking and often overburdened middle-aged productive segment of societies and a bigger share of older people with higher life expectancy and more dependent older citizens. Independent of numbers, all age groups have the same importance for societies and prioritising a group over others in any policy should be avoided.
  • Accordingly, looking at ‘the younger’, ‘the older’ and ‘the middle-aged’ reinforces a trichotomy in societies that distinguish groups in the population by age groups as if they were not linked and part of the same life course. Rather, we should look at it from a life course perspective and avoid such age segregations to increase intergenerational solidarity and community belonging feelings. If this is missing, we cannot expect people to vote in elections for the benefit of others.
  • Regarding fertility and family dynamics, one element explaining fertility decline is a loss in social trust, which is also related to a decline in trust in democratic institutions.
  • The argument that younger people are less satisfied and believe less in democracy in comparison to other age groups should be questioned as this argument has often been contested by empirical research.


Demographic change – Time and Speed

  • On the one hand, the demographic process of ageing operates over long time scales and allows us to predict its progress with a high level of accuracy.
  • On the other hand, we have demographic processes – such as fertility or migration – that operate at different speeds because they involve many individual-level decisions driven by many factors. Some of them, like migration, can be very volatile and respond very quickly to events or policy decisions. The problem arises when there is a disconnect between the time scales at which demographic processes operate and the time scale of democratic processes, i.e. the electoral cycle (usually 4 or 5 years).


Direct and indirect Effects of Demography on Democracies

  • The relationship between democracy and demography includes both direct and indirect effects of demography on democracies that reverberate across Europe directly or indirectly through other societies.
  • For example, if we consider one element of demographic change, migration, we see how flows of people can lead to changes in host societies. The direct impact of new arrivals is mediated by communication and residents’ perceptions of migration.
  • The direct effects of migration in the countries of origin also have indirect effects on our societies. For example, remittances can lead to the financing of undemocratic governments or favour grass-root support for democracy outside Europe. In turn, the state of democratic institutions and the level of development and economic growth outside Europe affect the size of migration flows, typically with increases in flows in the early stage of economic development. In the long-run, economic development tends to lead to reductions in flows.


Freedom of movement and brain drain

  • We should not only pay attention to policies establishing barriers to migration from outside Europe but also barriers within Europe. Freedom of movement in Europe should be, by all means, defended.
  • If we consider mobility as an essential part of the European project, it should be possible for European migrants to be politically active everywhere in the EU.
  • When well-educated people move from low- and mid-income countries to high-income ones, having more high-educated people in receiving countries strengthens democracy, but their absence in the countries of origin may have the opposite effect. This is one of the reasons why we need to consider indirect effects and long-term consequences when thinking about the impact of brain drain in both sending and receiving countries.


Demographic Resilience and Depopulation

  • The notion of resilience is relatively new in the field of demography. In the debate surrounding sustainable development, it has gained a new connotation, and the International Science Council – the umbrella organisation for scientific organisations around the world – recently issued a statement that we should understand resilience not as bouncing back but rather bouncing forward. This means making societies better able to cope with new challenges.
  • What does it mean in precise policy terms? This depends on the country. On depopulation, what needs to be understood is demographic complexity: it is not only about fertility or only about selective emigration.
  • Another question is to what extent demographic resilience is actually achievable. If the goal is to slow down depopulation in a certain area and policymakers are doing it with subsidies, then the subsidies are actually not a very resilient instrument as chances are high that once the subsidies stop, the situation would quickly deteriorate.
  • It also brings the question of time: resilience is a long-term objective, yet the costs of interventions need to be paid in the short run. Incorporating a long-term perspective into planning is essential.
  • Demographic resilience is clearly related to democratic resilience. For example, when looking at fertility decline in Sweden, we can see that there are no structural factors behind it that could explain this trend.  It is more about personal experiences and perceptions, about realities in specific contexts and people’s perceptions of it. And these perceptions are what end up affecting democratic processes.   


Reversing depopulation?

  • Reversing depopulation trends can also cause problems: one has to maintain and re-establish infrastructures, and there might be a substantial environmental impact. In addition, discussions around reversing depopulation can lead to dangerous and polarising arguments, particularly when it touches international migration.
  • Having children should be a personal decision, and, if we aim to support individuals in this direction, we need to think about work-life balance and childcare.
  • We should pay attention to one of the main drivers of migration to big cities (both internal and international migration): technological change. Over the last 30 years, this change has led to growing wages for high-skilled individuals, while, at the same time, lower wages for middle- and lower-skilled individuals.
  • Linked to that, what we see nowadays are clusters of big firms that are non-mobile. They are geographically embedded in big city agglomerations. Going against this trend would be counterproductive. Younger people will continue moving to big centres for an education or (higher-paying) jobs. One solution is to redefine peripheries and other geographical areas for other purposes such as tourism or agriculture and care for better connectivity, using structural funds.
  • It may be much more achievable to increase the quality of life than reverse depopulation trends. Access to good social and economic services is a major factor contributing to the quality of life. A useful indicator of a good quality of life in a certain area is the number of accessible medical doctors. For example, it is often observed that medical doctors do not want to work in primary care clinics in rural areas, even for much higher salaries.


Policy Recommendations

  • Governments should invest in boosting human capital with a long-term perspective: the focus should not just be on how to boost it now within Europe but also on how to boost it for the future. As we move to a new digital economy, it is key to retrain professionals and create new jobs in new fields.
  • To ensure every woman has the number of kids she desires to have, job security, work-life balance and affordable childcare should be guaranteed.
  • It is important to promote and support the participation of younger people in political dynamics so that their voices are heard. Among other options, decreasing the minimum voting age is advisable.
  • Communication campaigns explaining how demographic change includes opportunities for our societies should be promoted, while being realistic and open about the challenges they bring.
  • Miscommunication of facts and trends is often driven by a lack of accurate data. This leads to the problem that fake narratives cannot be easily disproven.  If this is not addressed by producing and disseminating accurate data, the arrival of migrant waves will always leave the door open for right-wing populism.
  • Many European migrants do not have voting rights in their EU country of residence. This should be tackled, making it be possible to be politically active everywhere.
  • Creating demographic resilience societies demands a long-term perspective into planning at all public administrative levels.
  • To avoid losing population, governments should ensure a good quality of life for all citizens, including appropriate access to social and economic services independently of the geographic area.



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