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Can Spain Defuse Its Depopulation Bomb?


July 21, 2023

Over the past 40 years, no party has dominated the Spanish political landscape like the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, or PSOE, now headed by Pedro Sánchez. Yet frustration over its handling of key issues — from the economy to immigration to regional separatist movements — has provided an opening for the centre-right People’s Party (PP) to win a plurality in national elections this Sunday. Were this to happen, it would likely enter into a governing coalition with the hard-Right Vox party. 

If the conservatives take the reins this autumn, however, the biggest long-term issue facing them and the nation as a whole will not be immigration or separatism: it will be the collapse of the Spanish family. Fertility rates have been steadily declining for decades, with the marriage rate falling more than 50% in the same period. When data from last year showed that the Spanish birth rate had plummeted to an all-time low, Vox took to Twitter to describe the situation as a “demographic emergency”. 

In 1980, the Spanish total fertility rate (TFR) was 2.2 births per woman. Today it has fallen to a historic low of 1.2 births, one of the lowest fertility rates among European Union countries, and far below the 2.1 rate required for a population to replace itself. As a result, for the first time over 20% of Spain’s population is above the age of 65, and this proportion is rising fast. 

Former director of the UN population division Joseph Chamie said: “In 2050, Spain will be the country with the highest percentage of old people in the world.” This demographic shift will put severe strains on the Spanish economy as its labour force shrinks and the government struggles to support so many old people. These trends also portend surging loneliness and economic vulnerability for ageing citizens without immediate kin in the country.

There are several reasons why the Spanish fertility rate is falling, one of which is changing gender roles and an increase in women’s participation in the workforce. In 1990, the women’s labour force participation rate was 34.5%. Fast forward to 2022 and that figure has increased to 47.1%. Consequently, many women are choosing to delay childbirth until later in life to pursue careers. In 2020, the average age of childbearing in Spain was 32 years, one of the highest in the world. 

What’s more, since the financial crisis in 2008 Spain’s unemployment rate has been unusually high, standing today at around 13%. The financial uncertainty associated with inflation, slow job creation and high rates of unemployment for young adults have all contributed to many deciding to postpone having children, or to have fewer children than desired.

Also noteworthy is a cultural shift in Spain, pushed in part by PSOE, by which many Spaniards are abandoning older family-orientated values and norms. In the past, larger families were seen as desirable and a source of pride, but this has changed in recent years, with fewer than 30% of women having at least two children, and instead favouring smaller units.

Spain has not been as aggressive as countries such as France and Hungary in advancing tax and other pronatalist policies that prioritise families with children. The country did temporarily enact a generous child allowance that led to a 3% increase in birth rates between 2000 and 2017, but this was discontinued in 2017, contributing to a 6% decline in birth rates afterwards.  

To address the formidable family challenges facing Spain, PP — should it win the election — will need to reform a labour market which is currently inhospitable to young adults searching for work. More, it should push through new tax and spending measures that prioritise families with children, and begin experimenting with new cultural measures — from school curricula to public campaigns — that revive the value of family in 21st-century Spain.

Without measures like these, the country could saunter off a demographic cliff, losing an estimated 11% of its population by 2050. This implosion, and the rise of a large dependent elderly class without enough workers and taxpayers to support it, will make the other issues now occupying Spanish leaders pale by comparison.

About the Authors

Tim Sprunt
W. Bradford Wilcox