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Population structure and ageing

From Statistics Explained

Data from October 2012. Most recent data: Further Eurostat information, Main tables and Database.

This article takes a look at the impact of demographic ageing within the European Union (EU), likely to be of major significance in the coming decades. Consistently low birth rates and higher life expectancy will transform the shape of the EU-27’s age pyramid; probably the most important change will be the marked transition towards a much older population structure and this development is already becoming apparent in several EU Member States.

Table 1: Population age structure by major age groups, 1991 and 2011
(% of the total population) - Source: Eurostat (demo_pjanind)
Table 2: Population age structure indicators, 2011 - Source: Eurostat (demo_pjanind)
Figure 1: Population pyramids, EU-27, 1991 and 2011 (1)
(% of the total population) - Source: Eurostat (demo_pjangroup)
Figure 2: Population pyramids, EU-27, 2011 and 2060 (1)
(% of the total population) - Source: Eurostat (demo_pjangroup) and (proj_10c2150p)
Figure 3: Change in the share of the population aged 65 years or over between 1991 and 2011
(percentage points) - Source: Eurostat (demo_pjanind)
Figure 4: Median age of population, EU-27, 1991-2011 (1)
(years) - Source: Eurostat (demo_pjanind)
Figure 5: Median age of population, 1991-2011
(years) - Source: Eurostat (demo_pjanind)
Figure 6: Population structure by major age groups, EU-27, 2011-2060 (1)
(% of total population) - Source: Eurostat (demo_pjanind) and (proj_10c2150p)

As a result, the proportion of people of working age in the EU-27 is shrinking while the relative number of those retired is expanding. The share of older persons in the total population will increase significantly in the coming decades, as a greater proportion of the post-war baby-boom generation reaches retirement. This will, in turn, lead to an increased burden on those of working age to provide for the social expenditure required by the ageing population for a range of related services.

Main statistical findings

Population structure in 2011

Young people (0 to 14 years old) made up 15.6 % of the EU-27’s population in 2011, while persons considered to be of working age (15 to 64 years old) accounted for 66.9 % of the population, and older persons (65 or more years old) had a 17.5 % share (see Table 1). Across the EU Member States, the highest share of young people in the total population was observed in Ireland (21.3 %), while the lowest shares were recorded in Germany (13.4 %) and Bulgaria (13.2 %). The reverse situation was observed for the proportion of older persons in the total population, where Germany recorded the highest proportion (20.6 %) and Ireland had the lowest share (11.5 %). The population structure of the EFTA and candidate countries was often similar to that observed in the EU, the main exceptions being in Iceland and Turkey where the younger age group had a higher share of the total population (20.9 % and 25.6 % respectively), while those aged 65 and above accounted for a relatively low share of the total population (12.3 % and 7.2 %).

The median age of the EU-27’s population was 41.2 years in 2011: this means that half of the EU-27’s population was older than 41.2 years, while half was younger (see Table 2). The median age of populations across the EU Member States ranged between 34.5 years in Ireland and 44.6 years in Germany, confirming the relatively young and relatively old population structures recorded in each of these two countries. Turkey (29.3 years) recorded a median age in 2011 that was lower than in any of the EU Member States.

Age dependency ratios may be used to study the level of support given to young and/or older persons by the working age population; these ratios are expressed in terms of the relative size of young and/or older populations relative to the working age population. The old-age dependency ratio for the EU-27 was 26.2 % in 2011; as such, there were around four persons of working age for every person aged 65 or over. The old-age dependency ratio ranged across the EU Member States from 17.2 % in Ireland to 31.2 % in Germany.

The combination of young and old-age dependency ratios provides the total age dependency ratio, which in 2011 was 49.6 % in the EU-27, indicating that there were approximately two working age persons for every dependent person. The lowest total age dependency ratio was observed in Slovakia (38.9 %) and the highest in France (54.5 %).

Population pyramids (see Figures 1 and 2) show the distribution of the population by sex and by five-year age groups. Each bar corresponds to the share of the given sex and age group in the total (men and women combined) population. The population pyramid for the EU-27 in 2011 is narrow at the bottom and is shaped more as a rhomboid due to the baby-boom cohorts of the 1960s. The baby-boom was a phenomenon characterised by high fertility rates in several European countries in the middle of the 1960s. Baby-boomers currently represent an important part of the working age population and the first of these large cohorts, born over a period of 20–30 years, are now getting close to retirement; this may be observed by comparing the 2011 population pyramid with, for example, 1991 – as done in Figure 1.

Past and current trends of population ageing in the EU

Population ageing is a long-term trend which began several decades ago in the EU. This ageing is visible in the development of the age structure of the population and is reflected in an increasing share of older persons and a declining share of young and working age persons in the total population.

In the past two decades, the share of the population aged less than 15 years in the EU-27 population decreased by 3.7 percentage points, while the share of the older population (65 years and above) increased by 3.6 percentage points; as a result, the top of the EU-27 age pyramid for 2011 widened (see Figure 1). The growth in the relative share of older people may be explained by increased longevity – a pattern that has been evident for several decades as life expectancy has risen (see and life expectancy statistics mortality and life expectancy statistics) – this development is often referred to as 'ageing at the top' of the population pyramid.

On the other hand, low levels of fertility have been maintained across most of the EU (see statistics fertility statistics) in recent years; this has resulted in a decreasing share of young people in the total population. This process, known as 'ageing at the bottom', is visible in the population pyramids through a reduction at the base of the age pyramids, as seen between 1991 and 2011.

The development of the median age of the EU-27 population also provides an illustration of population ageing. The median age increased from 35.4 years in 1991 to 41.2 years by 2011 (see Figure 4). Over the period from 1991 to 2011, the median age increased in all of the EU Member States, rising by at least six years in Lithuania, Portugal, Slovenia, Germany, Latvia, Spain, Austria, Malta, the Netherlands and Italy (see Figure 5).

Future trends in population ageing

Eurostat's latest set of population projections (EUROPOP2010) were made covering the period from 2011 to 2060 – and show that population ageing is likely to affect all EU Member States over this period. The convergence scenario is one of several possible population change scenarios that aim to provide information about the likely future size and structure of the population. According to this scenario, the EU-27’s population will be slightly higher in 2060, while the age structure of the population will be much older than it is now.

According to the convergence scenario of EUROPOP2010, the EU-27’s population is projected to increase to 525 million by 2035, peaking at 526 million around 2040, and thereafter gradually declining to 517 million by 2060. During the same period, the median age of the EU-27’s population is projected to rise to 47.6 years. The population of working age is expected to decline steadily, while older persons will likely account for an increasing share of the total population – those aged 65 years or over will account for 29.5 % of the EU-27’s population by 2060 (17.5 % in 2011).

Another aspect of population ageing is the progressive ageing of the older population itself, as the relative importance of the very old is growing at a faster pace than any other age segment of the EU's population. The share of those aged 80 years or above in the EU-27’s population is projected to almost triple between 2011 and 2060 (see Figure 6).

As a result of the population movement between age groups, the EU-27's old-age dependency ratio is projected to more than double from 26.2 % in 2011 to 52.6 % by 2060. The total age dependency ratio (calculated as the ratio of dependent people, young and old, compared with the population aged 15 to 64 years old) is projected to rise from 49.6 % in 2011 to 77.9 % by 2060.

Age pyramids for 2011 and 2060 (see Figure 2) show that the EU-27’s population is projected to continue to age. In the coming decades, the high number of baby-boomers will swell the number of elderly people. The population pyramids show how the baby-boomer bulge moves up to the top of the pyramid, while the middle and the base of the pyramid (those of working age and children) are projected to narrow considerably by 2060.

Data sources and availability

Eurostat aims to collect data from EU Member States and other countries participating in its demography data collection exercise in relation to populations as of 1 January each year. The recommended definition is the 'usual resident population' and represents the number of inhabitants of a given area on 1 January of the year in question (or, in some cases, on 31 December of the previous year). In accordance with the United Nations international recommendations, the definition of the 'usual residence' is based on a 12 month reference period, in other words, those included should have lived in their place of usual residence for a continuous period of at least 12 months before the reference date, or arrived in their place of usual residence during the 12 months before the reference date with the intention of staying there for at least one year. However, countries may report to Eurostat population figures based on data from their most recent census, adjusted by the components of population change that have been produced since the last census, or alternatively population figures that are based on the registered/legal population.

A population and housing census was conducted in all EU Member States, EFTA countries and EU candidate countries in 2011. It is usual practice for countries to revise their annual population estimates once the results of the population and housing census have become available. The following countries have already transmitted data to Eurostat based on the results of their 2011 censuses: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Ireland, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia and Montenegro as regards the population on 1 January 2011 and 2012; Luxembourg as regards the population on 1 January 2012. Population estimates based on the results of the census may introduce breaks in series for the size and structure of populations. The following countries could revise their population estimates once their census results have been finalised: Germany, Estonia, Greece, Spain, Italy, Hungary, Austria, Romania, the United Kingdom, Croatia and Turkey.

Eurostat provides information for a wide range of demographic data. Data on population includes breakdowns by several characteristics, such as age, sex, marital status and educational attainment. Eurostat produces population projections at a national level every three years. These projections are what-if scenarios that aim to provide information about the likely future size and age structure of the population based on assumptions of future trends in fertility, life expectancy and migration; the latest projection exercise was EUROPOP2010.


Eurostat’s population projections are used by the European Commission to analyse the likely impact of ageing populations on public spending. Increased social expenditure related to population ageing, in the form of pensions, healthcare and institutional or private (health)care, is likely to result in a higher burden for working age populations.

A number of important policies, notably in social and economic fields, use demographic data for planning actions, monitoring and evaluation programmes – for example, population ageing and its likely effects on the sustainability of public finances and welfare provisions, or the economic and social impact of demographic change.

See also

Further Eurostat information


Main tables

Demography (t_pop)
Population projections (proj)
Population projections (tps00002)
Projected old-age dependency ratio (tsdde511)


Demography (pop)
Demography - National data
Population (demo_pop)
Fertility (demo_fer)
Mortality (demo_mor)
Marriage and divorce (demo_nup)
Population projections (proj)
EUROPOP2010 - Convergence scenario, national level (proj_10c)

Dedicated section

Methodology / Metadata

Source data for tables and figures (MS Excel)

Other information