Europe sure ain’t getting any younger. In 2018, nearly one in five Europeans were aged 65 or older. By the year 2100, the proportion of people aged 80 plus in Europe is predicted to more than double to 14.6%. Nine of the 10 nations with the largest populations of over-60s and over-80s in the world are in Europe. Can the continent’s pension, welfare, and healthcare systems cope if a shrinking workforce is forced to support an ever-growing cohort of elderly retirees?
Some countries are already feeling the impact. EU Member States like Italy, Germany, and Portugal already have a median age well into the 40s. Rural communities tend to be hit first (and hardest). In Portugal, for example, certain villages are experiencing devastating rates of emigration, forcing residents to question whether their communities can survive.
In order to take a closer look at the local impact of the refugee crisis, we have launched our ‘Cities & Refugees‘ project – aimed at fostering a Europe-wide dialogue between citizens, refugees and asylum seekers, NGOs, politicians, and European leaders. The emphasis is on connecting local, everyday life at the city level to decisions made in Brussels and national capitals.
Today, we are looking at Penela in Portugal, a small municipality of less than 6,000 people. Roughly 30% of Penela’s population were aged 65+ in 2017 (which is more than 10% higher than the EU average). The community is one of many in Portugal which have welcomed Syrian refugees with open arms; they now host more than 20 refugees (and their first Syrian-Portuguese child was born in 2018).
So, could refugees be part of the solution to Europe’s demographic crisis? Obviously, the number of asylum seekers coming to Europe is still small (even the one million estimated to have arrived in 2015 represents just 0.1% of the EU population, and would not be enough to slow down Europe’s demographic decline). Yet, in small communities like Penela it could make a real difference (especially considering that over 80% of asylum seekers in Europe are younger than 34).
What do our readers think? We had a comment from Marion, who questions why an ageing population is such a bad thing. She thinks a decreasing population might actually be better in the long-run. Is she right?
To get a response, we spoke to Luís Matias, Mayor of Penela. How would he respond to Marion?
There is no development without people, so we need people to develop our land, our territory. We need people able to work and to have different ideas, different perspectives of our town. I think that’s much better than worse. So: people, people, people. That’s the main issue to have in the developing process.
To get another perspective, we put the same question to Gonçalo Saraiva Matias, Director of Research at the Fundação Francisco Manuel dos Santos, a Portuguese foundation dedicated to evidence-based debate about policy solutions to the challenges facing Portugal. What would he say?
The welfare state we have in Europe has been designed over a perfect demographic pyramid. It means that the pensions scheme, for instance, depends on having a large contributing and active population, larger that the recipients. The demographic crisis and the ageing of the population inverted the pyramid and represents a challenge to the system. Decreasing population, among other economic impacts, will have a direct negative impact on social security and the welfare state as a whole.
Next up, we had a comment from Catherine, who is concerned about resources given to local governments. She’s worried that any funds being allocated to integrate refugees with the local population mean less for ‘native inhabitants’ in the country or municipality. What would the mayor of Penela say to her?
Well, the Penela programme provided benefits for 6 months for the hosting of these refugees. After those 6 months of help, refugees started earning their own money. They are now paying taxes like any citizen. That’s the way to make it. But if we have a walled Europe, we have less labour capacity. In fact we need young people to work and we need children who in 20 or 25 years will be the working force of Europe. I’m sorry, I can’t see it that way. I think they are part of the richness of Penela.
I think the integration process is more efficient in the little towns, in the low density areas because in fact people are more concerned with integration than hosting. We want them to become part of our community. We don’t want them to isolate themselves, because they share the same spaces: the same schools, the same health centres, etc.
Finally, we had a comment from Paul, who is concerned that refugees may not have the skills required to enter the labor market. How has Portugal approached this issue? What would Gonçalo Saraiva Matias say?
First and foremost, when talking about refugees we are concerned about people fleeing from conflict situations where they are persecuted and their lives are at risk. According to International Law, it is a fundamental obligation of the member states do the Convention on the Protections of Refugees to provide asylum. The skills are thus irrelevant when considering admitting someone as a refugee.
Having said that, refugees often are highly skilled and trained people. Because they face persecution in a conflict situation, highly skilled people tend to flee from conflict and find shelter in other countries. If we think about historical examples, Einstein was refugee during the Second World War. Chances are that highly skilled people will move to other countries because of persecution rather than just as an economic migration decision.
Are refugees the solution to Europe’s ageing population? Or are there simply too few refugees to make a difference? And is a greying population really such a bad thing? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!