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Why Demography Matters. Population and Policy in the 21st Century

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Demographic change is one of the megatrends of our time. In the face of ageing populations, shrinking workforces and growing regional disparities, the policy challenge is to promote fair, competitive and sustainable economies, while maintaining social and territorial cohesion across the European Union. 

Close collaboration and dialogue between high-level experts and decision-makers from the scientific and policy communities can address these challenges by bringing together cutting-edge research and the latest data, practitioner experiences at all levels of decision-making, and best practice assessments. Given the interconnectedness of population developments within each Member State, region and the European Union as a whole, comparative perspectives and learning from different contexts is also vital. 

This was the context of the conference Why Demography Matters. Population and Policy in the 21st Century, hosted by the German Federal Institute for Population Research (BiB) and Population Europe on 3 May 2024. The event brought together leading demographers from the Population Europe network and eminent policy-makers to share their visions and priorities concerning present and forthcoming demographic trends. Details on the agenda and speakers are below, but first, there is a summary of key messages from the experts who spoke during the conference.

Research and experience show that some key perspectives are needed to face the demographic shifts occurring in Europe, including…

  • taking growing heterogeneity into account: Tackling regional disparities, population diversity and social inequalities, including in living conditions and for families in all forms, is an integral foundation for social cohesion and democracy.
  • applying a life-course perspective: Investing in early education and lifelong learning is central to this, as education is a key determinant of resilience throughout the life course. Continuous education is also a vital element of adapting to changing workplaces.
  • creating a positive narrative about our “longevity societies”: This involves applying a more nuanced picture of life at older ages and empowering people at all ages to participate in all aspects of life.
  • recognising and valuing investments made by families: Families are vital for care work and the education of the next generation, but they need support for this from society.

The speakers spoke about policy approaches that…

  • centre individuals’ subjective well-being and build resilience. Resilience aids individuals and institutions in overcoming unexpected challenges, and it is an essential skill in navigating demographic change.
  • plan for short-term and long-term developments, while also being prepared for unforeseen events. For example, there should be better societal support available for people who go through separations and divorce at any time in their life course. 
  • are science-based, meaning that besides data, analyses and planning for the future are key. 

These elements are needed for these policy priorities to be accomplished: 

  • Policy guidance: For example, the European Commission’s Demography Toolbox includes concrete policy approaches for harnessing human capital and is structured around 4 pillars: parents, younger and older generations and migration. 
  • Permanent institutions and resources: Technical infrastructure and scientific advice on demographic trends are needed at the national and EU levels to plan for and to address long-term demographic shifts.
  • Investment at the local level: Demographic trends shift, and are determined at, the local level. An example was given from Poland, where more young people stayed in rural areas when more childcare was provided.
  • High-quality data: Despite the reliability of demographic data across Europe, optimising its use, including the integration between datasets, still needs to be accomplished. Additionally, exploring new sources of data collection, such as digital traces, offers an avenue for further research.
  • Support from the research community: Research can support policy makers in enhancing their understanding of demographics and breaking down technical silos by improving communication and ensuring data is easily accessible, understandable, and well-visualized.

The event was hosted by Population Europe in cooperation with the Bundesinsitut für Bevölkerungsforschung (BiB).

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