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

The Role of Demography in the Recovery Phase

Second Exploratory Meeting


On Wednesday, 28 April 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 second meeting in the series of meetings with Vice-President Šuica was to discuss: a) the role of demography in the recovery plans for Europe and b) population decline and brain drain.

Participants included: Gunnar Andersson, Professor of Demography, and head of the Stockholm University Demography Unit (SUDA); 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; 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; Iñaki Permanyer, ICREA Research Professor and Head of the ‘Health and Demography’ Unit the Centre for Demographic Studies in Barcelona; Zsolt Spéder, Professor of Sociology at the University of Pécs, Head of the Demographic Program at the Doctoral School of Demography and Sociology, and Director of the Hungarian Demographic Research Institute; Dubravka Šuica, Vice-President of the European Commission for Democracy and Demography; Magda Tomasini, Director of the French Institute for Demographic Studies (Institut national d'études démographiques, INED); and Emilio Zagheni, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research and Affiliate Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington.

The definition of Demography by the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP) states, ‘Demography is the scientific study of changing population size and structures.’ While population size is influenced by three major phenomena – mortality, fertility and migration – population structures refer to characteristics such as age, sex, place of residence, educational attainment, labour force participation, ethnicity, nationality and marital status, among others. Taking this overarching definition into account, participants in the meeting agreed that achieving sustainable, resilient and green economies in the EU is inextricably linked to the basic tenets of demography, particularly in the following areas:


Generational divides and social cohesion

  • The demography and specifically the age structure of different nations and regions shaped how hard they were impacted by COVID-19, with older populations being hit harder. Now in the recovery phase, demographics and age structure will once again play a key role.
  • It is important to acknowledge links between generations – a policy targeting one age group may affect all generations as individuals transfer resources.
  • Labour force participation is affected and affects demographic trends. Working-age populations will need to fuel the recovery. For that, supporting older workers – in terms of health and employment – and the integration of women and young people in the labour market is crucial.
  • Since vaccinations are often distributed based on risk factors with the oldest populations obtaining them first, there is a concern that younger populations will be more exposed or related to the spread of infections and new variants. Generational divides must be avoided at any cost.
  • A fundamental part of the recovery will be restoring confidence in populations after a period of high uncertainty. The high levels of uncertainty have translated into lower birth rates in many countries, with low fertility related to the strength of the economy, employment rates and other types of uncertainty. In this sense, fertility may be used as an indicator of recovery and of ‘healthy democracies’ where individuals have trust in the future.
  • To allow people to realise their fertility intentions in a new post-COVID-19 era that has transformed ways of living and working (e.g. with more home office arrangements), attention will need to be placed on flexible work arrangements, childcare and gender equity to build more resilient societies.


Social Inequalities

  • Increases in inequalities and upsurges of new vulnerabilities should be avoided. Demography plays a central role in unearthing its determinants, thus contributing to stronger and socially cohesive societies. 
  • Reasons behind increases in inequalities vary depending on contexts, but demography and the economy go hand-in-hand.
  • Generations and gender policies are key. Gender impact assessments should be promoted as a way to prevent policies and programmes from having negative consequences in terms of gender equality. This is of particular importance when considering the future of work and home office.
  • It is often assumed that remote working is here to stay. Much has been said about its advantages, however, this also means a new real challenge for reconciliation policies, especially for work-life balance. On the one hand, remote working can bring flexibility and help families to combine work and care obligations, on the other hand, there is a danger that the office/work responsibilities will crowd out time for family and private matters.


 Health and Mortality Trends

  • The COVID-19 pandemic puts into question the continuation of positive long-term trends in Europe: Will the rise in life expectancy –  as has been observed in EU countries in the last decades – resume? How will the simultaneously increasing number of old and vulnerable persons and the increasing frequency of potentially health-threatening events (i.e. extreme temperatures, other epidemics) impact health care needs and health care systems?
  • Healthy life expectancy sometimes increases slower than life expectancy. Preventing issues related to detrimental effects on one’s health is key in ageing societies.



  • Many indirect effects of the pandemic were at play for the young population, for example in terms of worsening mental health and educational performance. Negative consequences due to the COVID-19 pandemic on the life trajectories of young people should be mitigated as it will impact their future access to the labour market, housing opportunities and family formation.


Strengthening Human Capital

  • Based on the multidimensional understanding of demography that also includes education and labour force participation as relevant demographic characteristics in addition to age and sex, a key for recovery will be massive investments to strengthen human capital and skills in Europe in all segments of society. If a quarter of young men do not have comprehensive reading skills (based on results from PISA tests), this is a major challenge for all our efforts in the direction of digital and green recovery and the creation of new smart jobs. 
  • The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in school closures and distance learning, which led to the lower acquisition of knowledge and skills, especially among youth with lower socio-economic status. This educational gap should be reduced.
  • Investments in social capital formation are just as important as investments in human capital in educational systems.



  • A large part of the demography agenda is migration, which is fundamental for the recovery agenda. COVID-19 has limited travel and the crossing of borders. Differences in levels of infection, roll outs of vaccinations and travel certification systems must be linked to the understanding of migration and who needs to travel and cross borders for employment, family reunification, holiday and other purposes.
  • Demographic trends outside of Europe are important as it influences who moves to the region. This is particularly relevant for policies aiming at attracting high-skilled individuals, including caregivers.
  • Signs of increased inflow of return migration in eastern European countries do not represent permanent choices. It is important to create policies to support those who have returned so that those who wish can stay more long term.


Investing in Data

  • Strengthening data availability is key, independent of the type of data. In this sense, participants in the meeting fully support the creation and future developments of the Atlas of Demography.
  • It is important to ensure that longitudinal data covering all age groups for all EU countries is available in order to monitor changes in individuals’ socio-economic characteristics and the efficiency of policy interventions during the recovery phase. Currently, before-and-after comparisons are only available for a few countries that have established socio-economic panels or comprehensive population-register systems decades before the pandemic started.
  • More European coordination and investment in FAIR (data that meet principles of findability, accessibility, interoperability and reusability) and open data infrastructures are urgent.



  • Population decline is not necessarily a bad trend.
  • Concerns about population decline should not be part of narratives related to demographic trends. The main demographic argument towards revitalising rural and underserved communities should be centred around allowing individuals to fulfil their life intentions, independent of where they live.
  • It is important to consider the scale, the speed of changes and its reversibility when looking at population trends. Depending on the size of places, migration may play a more or less important role. Migration affects population trends in a faster way compared to fertility.
  • When looking at the impact of migration on depopulation, both internal and international flows should be taken into consideration. Most people leaving small and underserved communities move to bigger cities inside the same country. The ratio of those leaving the country strongly depends on whether a country is primarily a sending or receiving country. Therefore, while in some countries only a minority move abroad, in others, this represents a much higher share.
  • In order to slow down depopulation, it is important to look at the role of provinces’ capital cities in attracting or losing population and inequality patterns inside countries.
  • If there are strong streams of highly educated people (eg. doctors, engineers, information specialist, mathematicians, namely intellectual with universal knowledge) leaving, then the country is clearly experiencing ‘brain loss’. It is especially a brain and a financial loss if their education was publicly financed. Regarding emigration trends: how individuals assess their opportunities in a place or another location influences their decisions to move. In addition, social networks play a central role in movements; highly educated individuals are more likely to emigrate than lower educated; connectivity and accessibility are key (public transport, roads, internet).


Policy Recommendations to Mitigate Depopulation Trends

  • Support families, particularly with childcare.
  • Promote more accessibility for remote areas.
  • Strengthen the role of regional capitals in remote areas. Invest not only in economic development but also in creating knowledge centres to mitigate long-distance migration.
  • To mitigate ‘brain loss’, it is key to strengthen the educational sector and knowledge sector of the sending countries and to promote more cooperation and knowledge transfer from Western/Nordic countries to Southern/Eastern European countries (i.e. in teaching, research, innovation, etc.).
  • Countries should invest more in the integration of migration children, establish more European schools and standardise curriculums.
  • Promote a full, free movement of citizens inside the EU, as legal barriers are still important (portability of rights) and often create barriers to return.
  • Support flexible retirement and educational programmes involving the older and younger populations as a way to promote ‘brain boosting’.
  • Regarding immigrants’ integration, do not wait to start integration programmes for the newly arrived, particularly in terms of learning the local language.



Peer-reviewed publications and book chapters

  • Andersson, Gunnar (2021). “Family behavior of migrants”. In: Schneider, N., and Kreyenfeld, M., Eds., Sociology of the Family: in press. Research Handbooks in Sociology. Edward Elgar Publishing.
  • Anelli, M. & Balbo, N. (2021). Fertility Drain or Fertility Gain? Emigration and Fertility During the Great Recession in Italy. Demography, 58(2), 631-654.
  • Beaujouan, E. & Berghammer, C. (2019). The Gap Between Lifetime Fertility Intentions and Completed Fertility in Europe and the United States: A Cohort Approach. Population Research and Policy Review, 38(4), 507-535. DOI:
  • Billari, Francesco (under review). Demography: Fast and Slow. Population and Development Review.
  • de Jong, P.W. & de Valk, H. (2020). Intra-European migration decisions and welfare systems: the missing life course link. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 46(9), 1773-1791.
  • Kotowska, I., Mynarska, M. & Gauthier, A.H. (forthcoming). Family transformations and sub-replacement fertility in Europe. In: Castrén, A.-M. et al (Eds.), Handbook of Family Sociology in Europe. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Lutz, W. & Gailey, N. (2020). Depopulation as a Policy Challenge in the Context of Global Demographic Trends. Human Development Series, UNDP Serbia,
  • Mooyaart J.E. & de Valk H.A.G. (2021) Intra-EU migration 2010-2020. QuantMig Project Deliverable D4.2. The Hague: Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI-KNAW)/University of Groningen.
  • Spéder, Zsolt – Kapitány, Balázs (2014): Influences on the Link Between Fertility Intentions and Behavioural Outcomes. In Philipov, Dimiter - Liefbroer, Aart C. - Klobas, Jane E. (eds): Reproductive Decision-Making in a Macro-Micro Perspective. Springer, pp. 79-112.


Population Europe

  • Anelli, M. & Balbo, N. (2021). Missing New Births? The impact of emigration during the Great Recession on fertility levels in Italy. Policy Insights, Berlin: Max Planck Society/Population Europe.
  • Čipin, I., Klüsener, S., Recaño, J. & Ulceluse, M. (2020). A Long-Term Vision for the Development of Rural Areas in Europe. Insights from demography. Population & Policy Compact 27, Berlin: Max Planck Society/Population Europe.
  • De Jong, Petra (2020). Intra-EU Mobility and the Welfare Magnet Hypothesis: Research demystifies arguments on welfare abuse and points towards the key role played by origin countries. Policy Insights, Berlin: Max Planck Society/Population Europe.
  • Lines, E. (2020). Demographic Change – Are Equal Living Conditions Falling to the Wayside? Population & Policy Compact 24, Berlin: Max Planck Society/Population Europe.