Fade to Grey: The Failing Demographics of Spain

A couple of weeks ago, I had cause to be out and about in my neighbourhood in Madrid mid-morning on a working day. I was startled by the difference between eleven o’clock on a Saturday morning and eleven o’clock on a Tuesday. With no school children, university students or people of a working age — besides me — on the streets, there seemed to be nothing but masses of old people going about their morning shopping or simply out for a stroll. This, together with a number of recalled snippets of newspaper articles and news bulletins that had lodged in my head over the past couple of years, led me to pose the question to myself: Is Spain really as grey a population as my eyes are telling me and the media would have one believe?

I hit the internet in search of statistics. Apparently, it’s all about the population pyramid, something that everyone who studies economics or biology in secondary school eventually comes across. According to good old Wikipedia a population pyramid, also called an age pyramid or age picture diagram, is a “graphical illustration that shows the distribution of various age groups in a population (typically that of a country or region of the world), which forms the shape of a pyramid when the population is growing”.

Near-pyramidal population pyramids from three developing countries. Source: populationpyramid.net.

Near-pyramidal population pyramids from three developing countries. Source: populationpyramid.net.

The thing about Spain’s population pyramid is that it is not by any stretch of the imagination a pyramid, meaning that the country’s population is not growing. Your classic population pyramid, such as those shown above, has more children than middle-aged adults and more of the latter than retirement-aged adults. There is a pronounced “youth bump” at the foot of the pyramid, which tapers off for older age categories. In 2012, Spain’s bump was decidedly not youthful, occurring at the 35-39 interval, while the predicted pyramid for 2020 places the bump at the 45-49 interval. In 2019 it is estimated that, for the first time in the country’s history, deaths will exceed births (by over 8,000, to be precise).

Current and projected population pyramid for Spain. Source: fdbetancor.com.

Current and projected population pyramid for Spain. Source: fdbetancor.com.

OK. So the grey tide I saw that Tuesday morning on the streets of my neighbourhood was not due to residues of the night before’s Bushmills sloshing around in my bloodstream and creeping from my interstitial fluid into whatever few neurons I may have left: it’s a real phenomenon. The question now is why? It’s not rocket science. Combine low birth rates with longer lifespans and your population gradually loses its youth bulge. These days, your average Spanish family consists of mamá, papá and 1.3 niños. To win the battle of the bulge, your average family would need to be made up of 2.8 children. Spain enjoyed a huge influx of immigrants from the mid 90’s onwards, which papered over the cracks of the low birth rate for a while (see graphic below). But now, as I described in my previous post, because of the recession, these young, fertile immigrants are returning home. Next question: what does this extreme greying of the population mean for Spain (besides a steep increase in society’s Crankiness Index — har har!)?

The population pyramid for native Spanish and immigrants resident in Spain in 2012. Source fdbetancor.com.

The population pyramid for native Spanish and immigrants resident in Spain in 2012. Source fdbetancor.com.

Another key factor describing a country’s demographic profile is the dependency ratio. This compares the size of the dependent population (those under 16 and over 65 years of age) with the working age population. It is a useful measure of the “burden” on the work force to maintain the “unproductive” segments. The smaller the ratio, the better: this implies that there are lots of workers supporting relatively few dependents. Unfortunately, because of its large proportion of retired folk, Spain’s dependency ratio is not small; it is inside the world’s top twenty highest. An “adjusted” dependency ratio (to take into account the  circa 26% unemployment rate) gives an figure of 119, which means every worker is supporting both him or herself (and their 1.3 children) and 1.2 unproductive fellow members of society.

High dependency ratios place a heavy burden on a country’s social welfare, health and education systems. Rich countries with traditions of technological innovation and high productivity such as Germany, Sweden or Japan and which have had high dependency ratios for decades now can just about handle the greying of their populations. High taxes, long-term strategic planning, controlled immigration policies and incentives for couples to have children all play their part in tackling the problems that greying brings. So how is Spain doing in its battle against its demographic dilemma?

Not very well. As stated above, unemployment is riding above 26% and not looking like it is coming down any time soon. This pushes up the dependency ratio. A massive efflux of youth from the country is also underway. As reported in last week’s blog, half a million young, fertile foreign workers left the country last year, as did up to 150,000-200,000 young natives. This is at a time when the country needs as many people under 40 as it can get. If this trend continues until 2020, the country will be significantly more grey than at present, with less people working to support an increasing number of retired folk. How can a country that is already seriously under the financial cosh be expected to deal with these increased burdens? Out of which budgets will come the money for education and R & D, two sectors which have the potential to transform Spain’s prospects, when one is weighed down with payments for hip replacements and pension schemes?

Is there even talk of measures to promote higher fecundity? Not a chance. There is virtually no state support for opting to have a child: no children’s allowance, poor tax breaks and a laughable state day care scheme. The decision to have a child here is definitely not one that couples make based on economics. Add to this the long hours put in by Spanish workers (they are one of the European workforces that puts in the longest hours, but strangely one of the least-productive) and backward and inflexible timetables (the Spanish for flexitime is yeah right!) and one quickly comes to associate being a working parent with a mind-boggling process of juggling this, that, and the other to find time to take a kid home from school or to the dentist, pleading with neighbours grandparents and babysitters for a dig out and wishing you lived in an enlightened Nordic country.

It really seems that Spain is stuck in a rut. People are talking about lost decades and the country slipping into the kind of one-step-forward-two-steps back morass reminiscent of a second-world country. Possibly the only hope is the EU; that we can return to the structural funding that characterised much of the 1980s and that with the help of the north, the south, Spain included, can be pulled out of depression.


About ucronin

Microbiologist, brewer, writer, fan of James Joyce, guitar player and gardener, U. Cronin was born in the county town of Ennis, Co. Clare. He's spent much of his adult years moving country — between Spain and Ireland — and at present he is to be found back in his native town. Author of five novels and working on a sixth, U. is back in the lab and engaging his passion for looking for bugs using very bright lasers. Let's hope it turns out well!
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4 Responses to Fade to Grey: The Failing Demographics of Spain

  1. We here in the U.S. are experiencing the same problems. The only people breeding are the ones on government support already. We take in many immigrants and put them on support also. Now the working class gets taxes to death to give to the poor. Our president is a fool.

    • ucronin says:

      The problem here is that nobody is either breeding or working. In the context of Europe, where countries with aging populations have a sore need for young workers, immigration is seen in a mostly positive light. The problem with Spain is that the doo-doo has hit the fan so much that immigrants are jumping ship, which is a very bad sign.

  2. I’m with you on the “enlightened Nordic neighbors.” How difficult would it be to have our leaders spend a little more time identifying the wheels that are working rather than attempting to blaze the trail with reinvention that’s clearly falling flat?
    Terrific post!

  3. ucronin says:

    I sometimes think we should let Denmark et al. annex the rest of the world and run everything!
    Thank you.

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