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28th Sep 2020

European life expectancy up by 2-3 months each year

  • Europe's population is getting older (Photo: EUobserver)

The average life expectancy of Europeans is increasing by two to three months every year, but a modest rise in fertility rates will not be enough to prevent overall population decline from 2050 onwards, according to a new EU demography report.

"Life expectancy is increasing while Europe's workforce is shrinking and, in some member states, this is happening very fast," EU social affairs commissioner Laszlo Andor told ministers gathered in Budapest on Friday (1 April) for an informal meeting on family policy.

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In 2008, the average life expectancy for citizens of the EU-27 was 76.4 years for men and 82.4 years for women, with considerable differences between member states.

At the top of the scale were Spain, France, Italy and Sweden, with life expectancy nearing 80 years for men and 85 for women. At the other end were Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary and Romania, with men living closer to 70 years of age, and women around 78.

Rising life expectancy is a key factor behind Europe's ageing population, coupled with the bloc's low fertility rates. The report highlights how children born in the post-WWII 'baby-boom' years are now reaching their 60s and retiring from the workforce.

Again, ages vary between member states, with the oldest populations last year seen in Germany and Italy, with median ages of respectively 44.2 and 43.1 years. The youngest by far was in Ireland, where the median age was 34.3 years in 2010.

Irish citizens digesting news of further bank bail-outs may also find some modest cheer in the country's fertility rate, the highest in Europe at just over two children per woman in 2009. The lowest rate are in Latvia, Hungary and Portugal, where women gave birth to an average 1.3 children.

The EU average experienced a modest increase on previous years, rising to 1.6 children, a figure still below the 2.1 children that experts say is necessary to maintain a stable population. As a result, the EU-27's population is expected to start decreasing at some point between 2050 and 2060.

Inward migration into the EU has helped to slow the rising average age of the bloc's workforce, but Europe should not rely on this in the future, said Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

"He who waits for help from elsewhere will sooner or later have to pay the price for it," Orban said.

The EU report also highlights the changing shape of European families, with the number of marriages decreasing while the number of divorces and births outside marriage is on the rise.

There are now about four divorces per every ten marriages and more than one-third newborns are born outside a marriage, again with large differences between member states.

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