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Why is Scotland’s population shrinking and ageing?


A new research initiative tackles Scotland’s key demographic issues

Yesterday, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) announces the launch of a new two-year research initiative into the demographic trends which could transform the face of Scotland. Funded in partnership with the Scottish Executive, this £300,000 research investment will investigate three key aspects of Scotland’s demography: migration, fertility and the impact of an ageing population.

Scotland’s population is changing and this poses critical challenges for policymakers. The key demographic trend is that Scotland’s population is shrinking and ageing. Existing evidence (see notes to editors, 1) suggests that:

  • If current trends continue, Scotland’s population will fall below 5 million in 2017 and reach 4.6 million by 2042. This means, in percentage terms, the population will be about 10 per cent smaller in 2042 than at present.

  • Scotland’s population is not only ageing but is expected to age rapidly over the next few decades. The number of people aged 65 and older is expected to rise by about 61 per cent from 819,000 in 2003 to 1.3 million by 2042. The number aged under 15 is expected to fall by about 30 per cent from 943,000 in 2003 to 677,000 by 2042.

  • The number of babies born each year in Scotland has fallen substantially over the last 40 years. Just 51,270 births were registered in Scotland in 2002, the lowest figure since civil registration began in 1855: 24 per cent less than in 1991 and 43 per cent less than in 1951. Although the number of babies born in the last two years has increased (provisional figures for 2004 show 53,957), the Scottish fertility rate is still at a historically low level. It is still too early to tell whether this recent increase will be sustained in the long-term.

  • Fertility is lower in Scotland than in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Fertility is also lower than in any of the English regions, including its near neighbour, the North East of England. Scotland’s level of fertility has halved since the ‘baby boom’ years of the 1950s and 1960s. It now stands 35-40 per cent below replacement level (i.e. the number of births required to prevent population size falling).

  • Outward migration is not a factor in declining population. About 70,000 people migrate to Scotland each year and approximately the same number of people leave Scotland each year.

While many European countries are experiencing falling birth rates and an ageing population, the demographic challenges facing Scotland are particularly demanding. An ageing and declining population has important implications for public services, the labour market and the quality of everyday life. Current population trends therefore pose important policy questions, argues Professor Ian Diamond, Chief Executive of the ESRC: “What implications does changing population have for the Scottish economy? Why is the population in Scotland falling when no other EU country is experiencing a similar decline? What can the government do to influence trends of migration and childbearing, to enable people to have the children they want at the time they want? This newly launched research initiative into Scotland’s migration, fertility and ageing population aims to ensure policymakers have appropriate evidence to debate these vital questions.”

The following six research projects, funded by this partnership initiative and supported by the General Register Office for Scotland, will address some of the key issues underlying Scotland’s changing demography:

1. Why is fertility in Scotland lower than in England? Researchers from the Universities of St Andrews, Essex and Stirling will analyse the variety of factors which may be discouraging women in Scotland from having children.

2. Fertility variations in Scotland. Researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews will explore why fertility rates vary widely within Scotland.

3. Macroeconomic impacts of demographic change in Scotland. Researchers from the Universities of Strathclyde and Stirling will examine whether Scotland’s declining and ageing population does constitute a serious problem for the economy.

4. Scottish graduate migration and retention. Researchers from Edinburgh University will identify the kind of graduates who choose to stay in or leave Scotland, and the reasons which underlie these decisions.

5. Scotland’s ageing population. Researchers from Stirling University will use new modelling techniques to consider how population ageing may affect a range of policy-relevant issues such as how the care sector may change over time.

6. Scottish migration to, and return from, SE England. Researchers from the Universities of Dundee, Edinburgh and Strathclyde will investigate why Scotland no longer experiences net losses of population by migration.

Scotland’s demographic picture is complex and, at present, far from clear. These projects will, Professor Diamond argues, further develop understanding in the area of Scottish demography and assist policymakers to respond appropriately to the challenges – and perhaps even opportunities – posed by changing demographic trends.

Becky Gammon | alfa
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