Population structure and ageing
Data extracted in February 2022.
Planned article update: February 2023.
Increase in the share of the population aged 65 years or over between 2011 and 2021
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’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. Data presented in this article can also help assess if there has been an impact by the COVID-19 pandemic on the size and structure of the EU population.
As a result of demographic change, 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 is expected to increase significantly in the coming decades. This may, 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.
The population of the EU on 1 January 2021 was estimated at 447.2 million. Young people (0 to 14 years old) made up 15.1 % of the EU’s population (see Table 1), while people considered to be of working age (15 to 64 years old) accounted for 64.1 % of the population. Older people (aged 65 or over) had a 20.8 % share (an increase of 0.2 percentage points (pp) compared with the previous year and an increase of 3 pp compared with 10 years earlier). To compare, in 2020 the three population groups, young people (0 to 14 years old), working age (15 to 64 years old) and older people (aged 65 and over) represented, respectively, 15.1 %, 64.3 % and 20.6 % of the EU’s population.
Across the EU Member States, the highest shares of young people in the total population in 2021 were observed in Ireland (20 %), France and Sweden (both 17.7 %), while the lowest shares were recorded in Italy (12.9 %), Malta and Portugal (both 13.4 %). Compared with 2020, only six Member States (Czechia, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia) had an increased share of young people in the population in 2021 while in the other Member States this share decreased or was constant. Regarding the share of people aged 65 or older in the total population, Italy (23.5 %), Finland (22.7 %), Greece (22.5 %) and Portugal (22.4 %) had the highest shares, while Luxembourg (14.6 %) and Ireland (14.8 %) had the lowest shares. In 2021 compared with 2020, the share of people aged 65 and older increased in all Member States except Lithuania, where it remained unchanged.
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 (18.7 % and 22.8 % respectively) and people aged 65 and above accounted for a comparatively low share of the total population (14.7 % and 9.5 % respectively). Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania also had a relatively low share of people aged 65 and above (around 15 %). Nevertheless, the trend of an ageing population is also visible in these countries (see Figure 1).
Median age is highest in Italy
The median age of the EU’s population is increasing and was 44.1 years on 1 January 2021 (see Figure 2). This means that half of the EU’s population was older than 44.1 years, while the other half was younger. Across the EU Member States the median age ranged between 38 years in Cyprus and 47.6 years in Italy, confirming the relatively young and relatively old population structures recorded in each of these Member States. The median age recorded in the EFTA and candidate countries in 2021 was lower than the EU figure, except for Liechtenstein (44.6 years).
The median age in the EU increased by 2.5 years (on average by 0.25 years per annum) between 2011 and 2021, rising from 41.6 years to 43.9 in 2020 and 44.1 years in 2021. It increased in almost all EU Member States, rising by 4 or more years in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Ireland and Slovakia, but not in Sweden, where it decreased (from 40.8 years in 2011 to 40.6 years in 2021). Albania experienced the largest increase in median age over the past 10 years: this rose by 5 years, from 32.6 years in 2011 to 37.6 in 2021 (see Figure 2). Between 2020 and 2021, the median age increased in 23 Member States, in all EFTA and in all candidate countries while it decreased or remained constant in Belgium, Germany, Lithuania and the Netherlands. The largest increase in the median age in the EU between 2020 and 2021 can be observed in Ireland, Spain, Italy and Slovakia, all rising by 0.4 year.
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 people 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 was 32.5 % on 1 January 2021 (see Table 2), 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 21.0 % in Luxembourg and 22.6 % in Ireland, with almost five working age persons for every person aged 65 or over, to highs of 37.0 % in Italy, 36.8 % in Finland and 35.6 % in Greece, thus with less than three working age persons for every person aged 65 or over. Between 2020 and 2021, the old-age dependency ratio increased in all Member States.
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 2021 this was 56.0 % in the EU, 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 2021 was observed in Luxembourg (44.1 %) and the highest in France (62.2 %).
A generally increasing trend can be observed for the EU's old-age and total dependency ratios. The old-age dependency ratio increased by 5.9 pp during the past decade (from 26.6 % in 2011 to 32.5 % in 2021), while the total dependency ratio increased by 6.3 pp over the same period (from 49.7 % in 2011 to 56.0 % in 2021).
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 people coupled with a declining share of working-age people 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 population pyramid on 1 January 2021 is narrow at the bottom and has a rhomboid form due to the ’baby boomer’ cohorts resulting from the high fertility rates in several European countries after World War II (known as the ‘baby boom’). These ’baby boomers’ are now increasing the retirement age population, as illustrated by the comparison with the 2006 population pyramid. The ’baby boom’ bulge is moving up the population pyramid, leaving the working-age population and the base narrower — as can be seen in Figure 3.
The share of the population aged 65 years and over is increasing in every EU Member State, EFTA and candidate country. The increase within the last decade ranges from 5.2 pp in Finland, 5.1 pp in Poland, 4.7 pp in Liechtenstein and 4.6 in Czechia, to 1.3 pp in Germany and 0.7 pp in Luxembourg. Within the last decade (2011–2021), an increase of 3 pp was observed for the EU as a whole (see Figure 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, at least until 2019 (see mortality and life expectancy statistics); this development is often referred to as ‘ageing at the top’ of the population pyramid.
However, 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 population pyramids between 2006 and 2021.
In an attempt to look at future trends for population ageing, Eurostat’s latest set of population projections at national level were made in April 2020 covering the period from 2020 to 2100. The EU’s population is projected to increase to a peak of 449.3 million around 2026 and thereafter gradually decline to 416.1 million by 2100.
The comparison of age pyramids for 2021 and 2100 (see Figure 4) shows that the EU’s population is projected to continue to age. In the coming decades, the number of elderly people will increase significantly. 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).
Another aspect of population ageing is the progressive ageing of the older population itself, as the relative significance 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’s population is projected to have a two and a half fold increase between 2021 and 2100, from 6.0 % to 14.6 % (see Figure 5).
During the period from 2021 to 2100 the share of the population of working age is expected to decline, while older people will probably account for an increasing share of the total population: those aged 65 years or over will account for 31.3 % of the EU’s population by 2100, compared with 20.8 % in 2021. As a result of the population movement between age groups, the EU’s old-age dependency ratio is projected to almost double from 32.5 % in 2021 to 57.1 % by 2100 and the total-age dependency ratio is projected to rise from 56.0 % in 2021 to 82.6 % by 2100 (see Figure 6). The median age is expected to increase by 4.9 years, rising from 44.1 years in 2021 to 48.8 years in 2100.
Source data for tables and graphs
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.
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.
The EU has been going through a period of demographic and societal change. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic will leave a lasting impact on the way we live and work together. The outbreak came at a time when Europe had already been going through a period of profound demographic and societal change. More information of the work of the European Commission 2019-2024 to tackle the impact of demographic change in Europe can be found in the European Commission dedicated pages.
Direct access to
- EUROPOP2019 - Population projections at national level (2019-2100) (proj_19n)