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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

How to Save Portugal From “Demographic Suicide”

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

Portugal has the third oldest population, after Japan and Italy. (Photo by Ana Baiao)


Portugal’s fast-aging population shocked experts who called for jobs and higher pay to keep the young in the country and a policy to attract immigrants.

Almost one-quarter of the population (23.4 percent) is 65 or older, which places it only behind Japan (28.4 percent) and practically on a par with Italy (23.5 percent). For every 100 young people, there are 182 elderly people, “a figure that has surpassed all predictions and shows an ever-accelerating rate of aging,” according to the Expresso (December 18).

The National Statistics Institute (INE) released the provisional results of the 2021 Census on December 16.

The aging rate even surprised the researchers who, at one time, estimated 167 elderly for every 100 youths.

“It shows that the tendency is stronger and faster than what we thought,” Maria Joao Valente Rosa, demographer and professor at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa.

At the same time, the birth rate is one of the lowest in Europe as the number of women of childbearing age has decreased in the past decade.

“The only solution to achieve some economic vitality, essential for the economy, is to attract more foreigners. An active policy to lure immigrants is needed,” said the demographer in the Expresso (December 18).

The number of foreigners living in Portugal increased 40.6 percent in the last decade, according to the Expresso (December 17). Foreigners number 555,299, or 5.3 percent of the population as compared with 3.7 percent 10 years ago. A total of 81 percent are from countries outside of the European Union.

The rise in the number of immigrants has not been enough to offset the sharp drop in birth rates. Portugal has 10,344,802 people and has lost 217,376 in the past 10 years, or 2.1 percent, which is the first decrease in population since 1970. At that time, Portugal had registered a population loss “as a result of the high emigration verified in the 1960s”, reported the INE in SIC Noticias (December 16).

The numbers are lower than that reported from preliminary data in July. There are 3,090 fewer inhabitants.

The vast majority of immigrants are in the south of the country, particularly in the Algarve and the Lisbon Metropolitan Area, according to the Expresso (December 17). The municipalities with the highest proportion of immigrants are Odemira (28.6 percent); Aljezur (26.3 percent); Vila do Bispo (26.1 percent); Lagos (23.4 percent), and Albufeira (20.4 percent).

Since 2011, the general population has increased only in the Algarve (3.7 percent), which has 467,475 people, and in the Lisbon Metropolitan Area (1.7 percent), which has 2,870,770, reported SIC Noticias (December 16).

The general population decreased in all other regions: the Alentejo suffered a loss of 6.9 percent leaving it with 704,707 people; the Autonomous Region of Madeira lost 6.4 percent and now has 250,769, and the Central Region lost 4.3 percent and has 2,227,567.

The Autonomous Region of the Azores, with 236,440 people, lost 4.2 percent, and in the North, with 3,587,074, lost 2.8 percent.

The national population comprises 5,423,632 women and 4,921,170, according to SIC Noticias.

“The working age population has decreased significantly, and we are going to start having labor shortages in various sectors,” said the demographer, Valente Rosa, in the Expresso (December 18). “The growth in the number of foreigners is positive but still very insufficient. In Spain, Austria or Germany, for example, immigrants already represent 10 percent of the population. It is essential that we are able to attract more.”

Joao Peixote, a migration specialist, agreed that there is a need for a concrete immigration policy.

“Portugal is facing a perfect storm with very few births and a level of departures of Portuguese that is still substantial,” said Peixote, who is a professor at the Lisbon School of Economics and Management. “Despite everything, we are managing to attract foreigners. Without them, the whole country would be in a situation of demographic suicide as is already happening in some regions of the interior.”

Despite being “a balm”, the arrival of immigrants will never be enough, by itself, to stop the aging of the population, said Peixote.

According to the Expresso:

“Portugal would need more than 75,000 entries per year to be able to maintain the same volume of working-age population in the coming decades, a figure that is considered unrealistic,” according to a 2017 study.

“Therefore, it is necessary, at the same time, to stem the departure of Portuguese, who continue to emigrate significantly. In 2019 alone, it is estimated that 77,000 have emigrated. They are mostly young people, many qualified, and the majority end up not returning. And the future is not rosy, considering that almost a third of young people intend to leave the country, according to a survey by the Francisco Manuel dos Santos Foundation, released in November.”

The researcher, Joao Peixote, said: “It is urgent to create conditions so that the level of emigration is not so great. And this implies, for example, fighting youth unemployment and precariousness, and raising wages.”

Aside from a very aging population, the 2021 Census data revealed significant changes in education, marriage and divorce, and household composition.

Since 2011, the percentage of secondary school graduates has risen from 11 percent to 17 percent, according to the Expresso. Of the graduates, 60 percent are women.

A total of 21.3 percent had secondary or post-secondary education compared with 11.8 percent in 2011, according to SIC Noticias (December 16).

The Expresso reported that 538,000, however, have not completed the first cycle of education, which is Year 1 through Year 4. The vast majority are elderly.

“It is the result of a very heavy legacy left by the Estado Novo, which will take decades to overcome. It’s a big black spot that shames us,” said demographer, Maria Joao Valente Rosa.

Census data also confirms a trend toward a reconfiguration of society. Single people outnumber married people and are now 43.4 percent of the population compared with 41.1 percent a decade ago. The married population fell by 2.1 percent, while the divorced population rose by 8 percent, which is 2 percent more than 10 years ago.

“Marriage is losing its social value, and there are more and more people living alone. This has to do with aging and widowhood, but not just that. Divorce is on the rise, and many people no longer start a love life after that,” said Valente Rosa.

Coupled with this trend is a decreasing size of households. There are fewer and fewer families with four and five people living in the same house. Two-person households continue to be the most prevalent (33 percent). However, single-person households have increased by 18.6 percent and represent one-quarter of the total in the country.

The highest percentage of people living alone are in the Lisbon Metropolitan Area (28.2 percent). The lowest percentage is in the Azores (20.3 percent).

With smaller households, there has been a 2.6 percent increase in their number, but more on the coast than in the interior.

The Alentejo is the only region where there has been a decrease in the number of households. However, it is the second region, after the North, in which institutional households such as senior citizen homes, long-term care homes, and other institutional residences have increased the most.

The INE released its provisional results of the 2021 Census on December 16, weeks before the scheduled date of February 28, 2022. It released preliminary results on July 28. The census was carried out on April 19.

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