Society Migration and populations

Demographics: Will the Portuguese be extinct by 2204?

18 July 2012
Expresso Lisbon

Empty street in Monsaraz, Alentejo region, Portugal.

Empty street in Monsaraz, Alentejo region, Portugal.

Portugal is being emptied of its population. Its people are getting older, the birth rate is falling and immigration is receding. And that's without the added pressure of the crisis which is pushing young graduates to seek a better future abroad.

The headline is deliberately provocative. It is also an exaggeration, but the goal is to call attention to a serious threat facing Portugal. For if the Portuguese population fell in 2010 and again in 2011, there is every indication that this trend will continue. Over the past two years, between a negative natural balance (the difference between the number of births and of deaths) and a negative migration balance (the difference between the number of people immigrating and those emigrating), Portugal has lost 85,000 inhabitants.

Population levels had not dropped since the 1990s. The natural balance was negative once in 2007 but that was compensated for by the rate of immigration. The shift towards a long-term trend came in 2010. There is a series of bad news on the demographic front, be it in terms of birth rates or of migratory flows.

Foreigners returning to home countries

According to the latest available data (based on the number of Gutherie tests made on new born babies), a drop in the birth rate is expected this year. In 2011, 97,000 births were registered in the country, the lowest figure in decades and it could fall further in 2012, to 89,000.

At the same time, the number of deaths has always exceeded 100,000 per year – 104,000 on average since 2007. These figures negatively affect the natural balance which was -6,000 in 2011 and could fall to -12,000 this year if the trend, is confirmed.

To that must be added a migratory balance that is also unfavourable to Portuguese demographics. Many foreigners settled in Portugal are beginning to return to their home countries, while the Portuguese themselves, pushed by the crisis and by unemployment, have begun to emigrate at a faster rate than had been seen in previous decades.

The rate of unemployment is the best indicator of the attractiveness of an economy. During nearly 20 years, until 2010, the Portuguese economy posted a positive migration balance. This corresponds to a period in which unemployment receded to as low as 4%, in 2000. There had not been a negative balance since 1980, which coincided with an intervention by the International Monetary Fund and a 10% rate of unemployment (in 1984).

A country without inhabitants is a desert

The flight of the Portuguese abroad has direct consequences on demographics in general and not only on the migration balance. Those that leave are, on average, younger than those who stay. Thus, their departure also lowers the birth rate. Not to mention that many of these Portuguese emigrants, after having gotten a diploma (engineers for example) in the best schools in their country, go "offer" their talents to Germany or Belgium.

A demographic crisis is bad news for all economies. First because a lasting declining trend will lead, in time, if nothing is done, to a total disappearance of the population. This should happen in 2204, according to a simple projection based on: a continued negative migration balance as projected for this year; the expected birth rate; a stable mortality rate; and the same average migration balance as in the past two years.

In other words, that is the year the Portuguese population will become extinct if the country continues, as is the case today, to lose 55,000 people each year (Portuguese living abroad are not included in the projection).

This is also bad news because the fall in the birth rate and the rise in emigration add to the aging of an already elderly population, with all the consequences that ensue in terms of health care, public spending, productivity and economic growth.

Unfortunately, this threat, although serious for Portugal, has not been given the attention it deserves by political leaders. This is not a problem due to the [austerity] programme imposed by the Troika [European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank]. It is a trend that tends to get worse and that is self-sustaining. A country without inhabitants is a desert – yet, with few exceptions, no one dreams of living in a desert.

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