The other day, Marcel Fratzscher, a famous German economist, tweeted a Europe map showing regional differences in age. Since his tweet was related to Germany's National holiday (celebrated on the 3rd of October commemorating the German reunification in 1990), it focused on the part of Europe that was once the GDR.
Fratzscher's message is quite shocking: 19 of the 20 oldest regions in Europe are in East Germany (the region with the oldest population in Europe is Spree-Neisse).
The tweet led me to two questions: Why is that? And: How is the rest of Europe doing?
First, about Germany.
The reason why East Germany has a strongly ageing population is easy to explain: the young have gone.
Like most Eastern European countries, after the fall of the iron curtain, the GDR no longer had a competitive economy. Those who had it easy to leave left. And it was easier for young people to leave. And it was especially easy for the young people of the former GDR because they could move to the Western part of Germany. Same language, better job opportunities. So they left.
More than thirty years later, the effects are still noticeable. Although the living conditions between East and West Germany have become much more similar (not least as a result of redistribution measures), in many cases, the East still lacks a healthy economic structure. Especially in rural areas. By the way, many young people live in the big cities in eastern Germany (e.g. in Leipzig or Berlin).
Germany is a small reflection of Europe. At the European level, the reasons are the same: Economic migration from the East to the West and the tendency to move to metropolitan areas.
Overall European Union is ageing. And it is ageing quite fast. The share of the population aged 65 years or older increased between 2010 and 2020 by three percentage points. This trend is the same in every EU country. The reasons: consistently low birth rates and (fortunately) higher life expectancy.
The economic effects of this development will be far-reaching. Again Eurostat:
"As a result, the proportion of people of working age in the EU is shrinking while the relative number of those retired is expanding. The share of older people in the total population will increase significantly in the coming decades. This will, in turn, lead to an increased burden on those of working age to provide for the social expenditure required by the ageing population for a range of related services."
And how old is Europe exactly? 43.9 years.
This is the median age in the EU. This means that half of the EU's population was older than 43.9 years, while the other half was younger.
If you look at the individual states, you can see significant differences. Across the EU Member States, the median age ranged between 37.7 years in Cyprus and 47.2 years in Italy. (If you want to dive deeper into this topic, this is the site you should read.)
Final remark: The rural exodus not only has economic causes and causes economic effects. The consequences can also be observed politically. In the rural areas of Eastern Germany, the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) has its strongholds. At September's national election, the party came in first in the eastern German states Saxony and Thuringia with 24.6 per cent and 24 per cent, respectively. On the national level, the AfD won just 10.3 per cent of the vote, down from 12.6 per cent four years ago. - Obviously, the demographic shift driven by the exodus of younger people is playing into the hands of right-wing populists.