Population structure and ageing

Data extracted in July 2019.

Planned article update: July 2020.

In 2018, nearly one fifth (19 %) of the EU population was aged 65 and more.
The share of people aged 80 years or more should more than double by 2100 to reach 14.6 % of the whole population.

Increase in the share of the population aged 65 years or over between 2008 and 2018

This article looks at the impact of demographic ageing within the European Union (EU), which is likely to be of major significance in the coming decades. Consistently low birth rates and higher life expectancy are transforming the shape of the EU-28’s age pyramid; probably the most important change will be the marked transition towards a much older population structure, a development which is already apparent in several EU Member States.

As a result, the proportion of people of working age in the EU-28 is shrinking while the relative number of those retired is expanding. The share of older persons in the total population will increase significantly in the coming decades, as a greater proportion of the post-war baby-boom generation reaches retirement. 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.

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The share of elderly people continues to increase

The population of the EU-28 on 1 January 2018 was estimated at 512.4 million. Young people (0 to 14 years old) made up 15.6 % of the EU-28’s population (see Table 1), while persons considered to be of working age (15 to 64 years old) accounted for 64.7 % of the population. Older persons (aged 65 or over) had a 19.7 % share (an increase of 0.3 percentage points compared with the previous year and an increase of 2.6 percentage points compared with 10 years earlier).

Across the EU Member States, the highest share of young people in the total population in 2018 was observed in Ireland (20.8 %), while the lowest shares were recorded in Italy (13.4 %) and in Germany (13.5 %). Regarding the share of persons aged 65 or older in the total population, Italy (22.6 %) and Greece (21.8 %) had the highest shares, while Ireland had the lowest share (13.8 %).

Table 1: Population age structure by major age groups, 2008 and 2018
(% of the total population)
Source: Eurostat (demo_pjanind)

The population structure of the EFTA and candidate countries was similar to that generally observed in the EU, the main exceptions being Iceland and Turkey (where the population structure was similar to that of Ireland): in these two countries, the proportion of the youngest age group was high (19.3 %, and 23.6 %, respectively) and persons aged 65 and above accounted for a comparatively low share of the total population (14.1 % and 8.5 %, respectively). Albania and North Macedonia also had a relatively low share of people aged 65 and above (13.6 % and 13.7 %, respectively ). Nevertheless, the trend of an ageing population is also visible in these countries (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Increase in the share of the population aged 65 years or over between 2008 and 2018
(percentage points)
Source: Eurostat (demo_pjanind)

Median age is highest in Italy

The median age of the EU-28’s population is increasing and was 43.1 years on 1 January 2018 (see Figure 2). This means that half of the EU-28’s population was older than 43.1 years, while half was younger. Across the EU Member States the median age ranged between 37.3 years in Ireland and 46.3 years in Italy, confirming the relatively young and relatively old population structures recorded in each of these two Member States. The median age recorded in the EFTA and candidate countries in 2018 was lower than the EU-28 figure, except for Lichtenstein (44.0 years ) and Serbia (43.5 years).

Figure 2: Median age of population, 2008-18
Source: Eurostat (demo_pjanind)

The median age in the EU-28 increased by 2.7 years (on average, by 0.3 years per annum) between 2008 and 2018, rising from 40.4 years to 43.1 years. It increased in all of the EU Member States, rising by 4.0 or more years in Portugal, Spain, Greece and Lithuania, except in Sweden, where it remained stable (40.6 years). Albania experienced the biggest increase in the median age over the past 10 years: this raised by 18.8 % (or 5.7 years, from 30.4 years in 2008 to 36.1 in 2018) (see Figure 2).

Slightly more than three persons of working age for every person aged 65 or over

Age dependency ratios may be used to study the level of support given to younger and/or older persons by the working age population; these ratios are expressed in terms of the relative size of younger and/or older populations compared with the working age population. The old-age dependency ratio for the EU-28 was 30.5  % on 1 January 2018 (see Table 2); as such, there were just over three persons of working age for every person aged 65 or over. The old-age dependency ratio ranged across the EU Member States from a low of 20.6 % in Luxembourg and 21.2 % in Ireland, with almost five working age people for every person aged 65 or over, to highs of 35.2 % in Italy, 34.2 % in Finland, 34.1 % in Greece, thus with less than three working age people for every person aged 65 or over.

Table 2: Population age structure indicators, 1 January 2018
Source: Eurostat (demo_pjanind)

The combination of young and old-age dependency ratios provides the total age dependency ratio (calculated as the ratio of dependent people, young and old, compared with the population considered to be of working age, in other words 15 to 64 years old). In 2018 this was 54.6 % in the EU-28, indicating that there were approximately two working age persons for every dependent person. The lowest total age dependency ratio among the EU Member States in 2018 was observed in Luxembourg (43.8 %) and the highest in France (60.7 %).

A generally increasing trend can be observed for the EU-28's old-age and total dependency ratios. The old-age dependency ratio increased by 5.0 percentage points (or by 19.6 % of its former value) during the past decade (from 25.5 % in 2008 to 30.5 % in 2018), whereas the total dependency ratio increased by 5.6 percentage points (or by 11.4 % of its former value) over the same period (from 49.0 % in 2008 to 54.6 % in 2018).

Past and future population ageing trends in the EU

Population ageing is a long-term trend which began several decades ago in Europe. This trend is visible in the transformations of the age structure of the population and is reflected in an increasing share of older persons coupled with a declining share of working-age persons in the total population.

Population pyramids (see Figures 3 and 4) show the distribution of the population by sex and by five-year age groups. Each bar corresponds to the share of the given sex and age group in the total population (men and women combined). The EU-28 population pyramid on 1 January 2018 is narrow at the bottom and is becoming more like a rhomboid due to the ’baby boomer’ cohorts resulting from the high fertility rates in several European countries in the mid-1960s (known as the ‘baby boom’). These ’baby boomers’ continue to represent a major part of the working-age population. The first of these large cohorts born over a period of 20–30 years are now reaching retirement age, as illustrated by the comparison with the 2003 population pyramid. The ’baby boom’ bulge is moving up the population pyramid, leaving the lower part of the working-age population and the base narrower — as can be seen in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Population pyramids, EU-28, 2003 and 2018
(% of the total population)
Source: Eurostat (demo_pjangroup)

The share of the population aged 65 years and over is increasing in every EU Member State, EFTA country and candidate country. The increase within the last decade ranges from 4.9 percentage points in both Malta and Finland and 4.6 percentage points in Czechia, to 1.3 percentage points in Germany and 0.3 percentage points in Luxembourg . Within the last decade (2008–18), an increase of 2.6 percentage points was observed for the EU-28 as a whole (see Figure 1). On the other hand, the share of the population aged less than 15 years in the EU-28 population decreased by 0.2 percentage points (see Table 1).

The growth in the relative share of older people may be explained by increased longevity, a pattern that has been apparent for several decades as life expectancy has risen (see mortality and life expectancy statistics); this development is often referred to as ‘ageing at the top’ of the population pyramid.

On the other hand, consistently low levels of fertility over many years have contributed to population ageing, with fewer births leading to a decline in the proportion of young people in the total population (see fertility statistics). This process is known as ‘ageing at the bottom’ of the population pyramid, and can be observed in the narrowing base of the EU-28 population pyramids between 2003 and 2018.

In an attempt to look at future trends for population ageing, Eurostat’s latest set of population projections were made covering the period from 2018 to 2100. The EU-28’s population is projected to increase to a peak of 525.0 million around 2040 and thereafter gradually decline to 492.9 million by 2100.

The comparison of age pyramids for 2018 and 2100 (see Figure 4) shows that the EU-28’s population is projected to continue to age. In the coming decades, the high number of ’baby boomers’ will swell the number of elderly people. However, by 2100, the pyramid will take more the shape of a block, narrowing considerably in the middle of the pyramid (around the age 45–54 years).

Figure 4: Population pyramids, EU-28, 2018 and 2100
(% of the total population)
Source: Eurostat (demo_pjangroup) and (proj_18np)

Another aspect of population ageing is the progressive ageing of the older population itself, as the relative importance of the very old is growing at a faster pace than any other age segment of the EU’s population. The share of those aged 80 years or above in the EU-28’s population is projected to increase by two and a half times between 2018 and 2100, from 5.6 % to 14.6 % (see Figure 5).

Figure 5: Population structure by major age groups, EU-28, 2018-2100
(% of total population)
Source: Eurostat (demo_pjanind) and (proj_18ndbi)

During the period from 2018 to 2100 the share of the population of working age is expected to decline until 2100, while older persons will likely account for an increasing share of the total population: those aged 65 years or over will account for 31.3 % of the EU-28’s population by 2100, compared with 19.8 % in 2018. As a result of the population movement between age groups, the EU-28’s old-age dependency ratio is projected to almost double from 30.5 % in 2018 to 57.3 % by 2100 and the total-age dependency ratio is projected to rise from 54.6 % in 2018 to 82.9 % by 2100 (see Figure 6). The median age is expected to increase by 5.4 years, rising from 43.3 years in 2018 to 48.7 years in 2100.

Figure 6: Projected total-age and old-age dependency ratio, EU-28, 2018-2100
Source: Eurostat (demo_pjanind) and (proj_18ndbi)

Source data for tables and graphs

Data sources

Eurostat collects data from EU Member States and other countries participating in its demography data collection exercise in relation to populations as of 1 January each year. The recommended definition is the ‘usual resident population’ and represents the number of inhabitants of a given area on 1 January of the year in question (or, in some cases, on 31 December of the previous year). In accordance with the United Nations international recommendations, the definition of the ‘usual residence’ is based on a 12 month reference period, in other words, those included should have lived in their place of usual residence for a continuous period of at least 12 months before the reference date, or arrived in their place of usual residence during the 12 months before the reference date with the intention of staying there for at least one year. However, countries may report to Eurostat population figures based on data from their most recent census, adjusted by the components of population change that have been produced since the last census, or alternatively population figures that are based on the registered/legal population.

A population and housing census was conducted in all EU Member States, EFTA countries and EU candidate countries in 2011. It is usual practice for countries to revise their annual population estimates once the results of the population and housing census have become available. Population estimates based on the results of the census may introduce breaks in series for the size and structure of populations.

Eurostat provides information for a wide range of demographic data. Data on population includes breakdowns by several characteristics, such as age, sex, marital status and educational attainment.

Eurostat produces population projections at a national level every three years. These projections are what-if scenarios that aim to provide information about the likely future size and age structure of the population based on assumptions of future trends in fertility, life expectancy and migration.


Eurostat’s population projections are used by the European Commission to analyse the likely impact of ageing populations on public spending. Increased social expenditure related to population ageing, in the form of pensions, healthcare and institutional or private (health)care, is likely to result in a higher burden for the working-age population.

A number of important policies, notably in social and economic fields, use demographic data for planning actions, monitoring and evaluation programmes — for example, population ageing and its likely effects on the sustainability of public finances and welfare provisions, or the economic and social impact of demographic change.

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Population projections at national level (proj_18n)