Coordinated by Roberta PACE, Alain PARANT


Demographic trends and challenges in the Mediterranean


Maria Carella

Università degli Studi di Bari “Aldo Moro”

Alain Parant

Institut National d’Études Démographiques (INED), Futuribles, Paris


Abstract: The article summarises the intensity and timing trends in human fertility, mortality and mobility since the 1950s in the various countries of the Mediterranean Basin and analyses their impact on age and gender structure. It concludes with the general trend to population aging and the societal challenges this involves.

Keywords: Mediterranean Basin, fertility, mortality, mobility, aging


1.          INTRODUCTION

The Mediterranean region is highly diverse geographically, climatically, historically, politically and socio-economically. As a result, its demographic patterns vary widely. One such pattern involves the countries of the northern littoral, in particular the European Union, which have completed their demographic transitions for some years now, and are now undergoing the “demographic post-modernism” phase[1], characterised by a sharp decline in fertility and a marked aging of their populations. The other main pattern concerns the countries of the southern and eastern littorals, which are still at an earlier stage in their demographic transition.

This article first presents the population growth differentials and outlines developments in the key demographic variables—fertility, mortality, migration—over the last 60 years. It then focuses on the observed transformation of these countries’ age structure as a result of these recent demographic developments. Since the obvious trend is a general aging of Mediterranean populations, the final part addresses two major questions: what challenges does this aging pose for the societies concerned? What adaptations or changes will it impose on them in the near or medium term?


The Mediterranean Basin, as we define it here[2], is a region that in 2010 had a total population of some 500 million. In terms of both levels of development and settlement patterns in the countries it includes, it is a highly diverse region. It includes in close proximity tiny, densely populated countries, such as Malta, Palestine and Lebanon, and huge, sparsely populated ones, such as Algeria and Libya; some sub-regions—the Asian and African littorals—where the population has exploded since 1950, and others—EU member-states and the Western Balkans—where the population has only slightly increased.

Overall, from 1950 to 2010, the population of the Mediterranean Basin has grown by more than 275 million, of which three-quarters along the eastern and southern littorals. With the exception of the EU countries, where population growth has fluctuated within a range of slightly positive figures with a noticeable pick-up since 2000, the Mediterranean Basin is currently a region where growth is occurring at a significantly lower rate than immediately after the Second World War. This is particularly true for the Western Balkans, where the crises of the 1990s abruptly halted growth that had been above 1% a year (Graph 1).

Within a region where the total population grew 2.2-fold from 1950 to 2010, there is a stark contrast between the northern littoral, where growth in those 60 years was only 50%, and the eastern and southern littorals, where growth was 7 or 8 times faster (Graph 2). And each of these major sub-regions contains its own sharp differences in growth rates. To the North, among EU member-states, the ratio is 2 to 1 between Spain (65%) and Italy (31%) but 9.5 to 1 between Cyprus (123%) and Croatia (13%); within the Western Balkans between Albania (159%) and Serbia (43%), the figure is 1.8 to 1. To the South, population growth was 1.8 times greater in Libya (443%) than in Tunisia (243%). To the East, Lebanon (225%) and Turkey (240%) grew 1.8-1.9 times less than Israel (490%) and Syria (531%), and the ratio peaked at nearly 6 with Jordan (1338%).

Graph 1. Mediterranean Basin, 1950-2010.

Population growth rate (%)

Source: World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision, 2013.


Graph 2. Mediterranean Basin, 1950-2010. Index of population growth (base 1950 = 100)


Source: World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision, 2013.

The wide variety in population growth in the Mediterranean is, however, not due solely to its long-term annual rates; it also depends on the nature of that growth, both endogenous and exogenous (Appendix 2).

For the 2005-2010 period, on the northern littoral, there is a sharp difference between EU member-states and the countries in the Western Balkans. The latter also recorded a migration deficit that either aggravated a natural deficit (Bosnia-Herzegovina), had a limited impact on overall growth (Montenegro, FYROM), or outweighed it to provide an aggregate negative (Albania, Serbia). Conversely, all the EU countries—except Croatia, a recent member (1 July 2013)—receive a net inflow of population which either compensated for their natural deficit (Italy, Portugal) or added to their surplus, as in Spain and France. Along the eastern and southern littorals of the Mediterranean, every country has a natural surplus and only their net migration figure separates them. Net emigration is systematic in the South, although it does not outweigh natural growth, whereas in the East it only concerns Palestine and Turkey, with a relatively limited effect on total growth.



3.1. Fertility

Over time, fertility has turned significantly downwards and, over the Mediterranean Basin as a whole and in each of its sub-regions, the range of fertility rates has narrowed (Graph 3). The downturn began later on the Asian and African littorals than in Europe, but has accelerated since the 1980s, and although in countries like Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Israel, the total fertility rate is still near or above 3 children per woman, in Lebanon, Tunisia and Turkey, for example, it is now not far from or identical to those in the EU and Western Balkans (Appendix 2).

Graph 3. Mediterranean Basin, 1950-2010.

Total fertility rate (average number of children per woman) Maximum and minimum by sub-region

Source: World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision, 2013.

In almost all countries, falling birth rates coincided with, or indeed were due to, greater spacing of births. Except in the Balkans, Turkey and Egypt, mean age at childbirth now overwhelmingly occurs between 29 and 31, whatever a country’s socio-economic development, culture, influence of custom or intensity of religious practice. Longer education, particularly for young women, persistent economic crisis, political disruption and open or latent conflict are the factors that cause many people to delay forming a couple, sometimes for years. Any plans they may have for a family may either be cancelled or deferred and revised downwards.

In the manner that lower fertility has occurred, it has seriously affected the potential generational renewal of childbearing women. If we define renewal as girls’ survival to mean childbearing age in a given period, then among the countries on the northern littoral of the Mediterranean in 2005-2010, only France managed to replace its population of women aged 15-49 at a net rate of one for one. On the Asian and African littorals, Lebanon fell short, and Turkey, Tunisia and Morocco only just managed it and were under threat of a further fall in fertility not compensated by a better survival rate for girls in their earliest years.

3.2. Mortality

Since the 1950s, the clear general trend in the Mediterranean Basin has been the extension of average lifespans and, as with fertility, a narrowing of the range between the extremes, including within the various sub-regions (Graph 4). The Western Balkans is the only sub-region where the advance towards longer lives was temporarily interrupted with a sharp dip in life expectancy at birth in the early 1990s, mainly in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania, and more for males than females.

In 2005-2010, the widest ranges in life expectancy at birth were to be found along the Asian littoral, with Israel standing out in the sub-region from Turkey (for men) and Palestine (for women). On the African littoral, where deaths generally occurred earlier, the range was close to 6 years. In terms of age at death, the European littoral split sharply into West and East. In the West, apart from Croatia, mean life span was much longer and the range between countries only 3 years. In the Western Balkans, including Croatia for this purpose, the range of life expectancies at birth was also close to 3 years, but the actual ages were much lower.

Generally speaking, there is a clear correlation between mean life span and infant mortality[3]: the lower the latter, the longer the former. However, with the rapid and widespread fall in the infant mortality rate since the 1950s, the figures all over the Mediterranean region are now relatively low, and in some cases, such as the EU, virtually irreducible. Clearly, little progress in survival may now be expected in the earliest years of life and the attempt to achieve it will be increasingly costly and difficult.


    Graph 4. Mediterranean Basin, 1950-2010.

     Male and female life expectancy at birth (years)

Maximum and minimum by sub-region

Source: World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision, 2013.

3.3. Migration

As a historical crossroads, the Mediterranean has always been, according to historians of the past and statisticians of the present, a region of fluctuating and high movements of population. The distribution of push and pull factors appears at present to be split, as we have said, between the countries of the African littoral and Western Balkans, net suppliers of migrants, and those of the European Union and the Asian littoral (except Palestine and Turkey), net recipients of migrants.

It is important to note that this picture is only valid for our study period. It is only since the early 1970s that Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece have seen net immigration; previously they had lost population and their migration deficits were often in actual numbers higher than their current surpluses, partly made up of returning emigrants. Since migration is highly sensitive to changes in the socio-economic environment and displays less inertia than fertility or mortality, its spatial distribution is subject to rapid, substantial shifts, even more noticeable in smaller areas.

Net figures also conceal considerably more complex phenomena[4], since all countries are both suppliers and recipients of migrants; and these migrants are also often only in transit at the time of a given census. Although Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, for example, have net negative migration rates, they are still host countries for many sub-Saharan African migrants. Turkey is in a similar position with respect to the migrants crossing its eastern borders. And, among countries with a net positive migration rate, France sees the loss of resident nationals for a variety of reasons and of foreign residents who are only passing through on their way to the United Kingdom or North America.

Net migration rates for the countries of the Mediterranean Basin are only rarely estimated to be above 10‰, which may seem relatively low. But the effects are more substantial. It has been shown, for example, that without the immigration of the 1960-1998 period, the population of France in 1999 would have been no higher than in 1975, in other words, 11% lower than the recorded figure, and the number of births in 1998 would have been 542,000 instead of 738,000, a deficit of 26.5%[5].



All the Mediterranean countries are seeing falling or stagnant fertility and rising life expectancy, and consequently an aging of their populations (smaller proportion of young people, higher proportion of old people) outweighed or accentuated at the margin by migration. The mechanism of aging in human societies, seen in terms of direct demographic factors—and not the economic and social factors that influence them—is perfectly well understood[6].

The inversion of age pyramids has been occurring in the westernmost countries of the European littoral for decades, is now spreading to the other littorals and seems set to continue, as seen in the most recent forecasts from the United Nations Population Division (Graph 5).

Although the proportion of under-15-year-olds may at best remain stable (high variant), that of over-65-year-olds is likely to increase sharply in all countries (Graph 6).


Graph 5. Mediterranean Basin, 1950-2010.

Age pyramids by sub-region, estimated and projected, high and low variants.

EU countries                                                                      Western Balkans

Asian littoral                                                      African littoral

Source: World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision, 2013.


Graph 6. Mediterranean Basin, 1950-2010.

Proportion of 0-14, 15-64 and ≥65 age groups, estimated and projected, high and low variants.

EU countries                                                     Western Balkan


Asian littoral                              African littoral

Source: World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision, 2013.




In the Mediterranean Basin as elsewhere in the world, population aging is obviously the result of two trends that are generally perceived as positive: increasing or complete control of fertility and lengthening life spans due to a lower probability of death at higher ages. But this unintended consequence presents a considerable challenge that societies in all countries—from least- to most-developed—will have to address in the near future, especially since they have until now consistently ignored or obscured it.

The elements of this challenge go well beyond the issues of retirement pensions and elderly dependence that are most often raised in countries possessing social welfare systems of varying efficiency, all now under threat from severe persistent economic crisis. Aging affects employment and its changing role, the size of the working population, its training, its own aging, and its management. Aging throws a light on the operating procedures of national economies and their relations with the rest of the world, at a time of increasing deregulation and the emergence of new centres. It raises the questions of what will be the future supply and demand for traditional goods and services (which a largely elderly population may require fewer or none of) and new ones (just as subject to the effects of age, cohort and period). It interacts with changes in the power structure (decline of intermediate agents, rise of radicalism) and the authority relations between successive cohorts (crowding out of young adults, women of childbearing age). Aging leads inevitably to more philosophical questions about the meaning of life and the right of every human being to dignity in their final years and death.

In the less developed countries, the challenge of aging involves these various aspects and other more difficult questions. These countries have entered the demographic transition more recently and more suddenly[7], and a new family pattern will be replacing the old one within barely a lifetime. The family in its broadest sense, comprising a wide range of people of all ages, will soon contract in size and age-range (as fewer children are born and siblings are closer in age) while generations space out (as the mean age at childbirth rises). In countries with no welfare systems to absorb crises, family structures and mutual aid will be radically altered by the massive migration of young people from country to town, towns that mainly offer them only unemployment, under-qualified and under-paid temporary jobs, and slum accommodation. Faced with the under-employment of larger cohorts of better-educated young people, yet unable to create sufficient wealth to meet their immediate needs, these countries may well slip into the aging process before they have been able to build up reserves; if that were to happen, it would mean extreme distress for the future elderly population.

6.         CONCLUSIONS 

As children become rarer and the “longevity revolution”, or rather “mortality revolution”, arrives, with the radical change of age structures that means, Mediterranean societies may well adopt policies or measures to adapt to these various processes in a limited way, since changing them is regarded as impossible or undesirable; this is the option one may call the “tyranny of process” or “going with the flow”. Alternatively, they may choose more proactive policies and measures, based on the conviction that demographic challenges are too fundamental and dangerous to be allowed to go their own way; this would be the option of “interventionist policies” or “putting the reality principle before the pleasure principle”.

In practice, Mediterranean societies first tried the gradual management of processes whose underlying factors they chose to overlook, despite the work of a few demographers who did their job as whistle-blowers. Since this minimal response had only temporary or limited effects, the urgent need now arises for more invasive policies. There are many areas to be addressed.

  • Family policy: limit, or even compensate, the fall in living standards that accompanies the birth of a child (whatever their birth rank, but especially for later children) and allocate time and space to young parents;
  • Initial and life-long education policy: maintain, if not accelerate, the renewal of skills and, directly or indirectly, influence the length of the working life cycle;
  • Employment policy: encourage the first hiring or rapid return to work of work seekers;
  • Old-age policy: influence the labour participation rate, via the retirement age and incentives for older workers to remain in or leave the workforce;
  • Migration policy: harmonise regulations and reduce their most negative impact on both migrants and non-migrants, communities in home and host regions, companies and governments;
  • Welfare policy: grant recipients minimum living benefits enabling them to maintain some social links, without hindering entry to the workforce;
  • Land use policy: prevent the gradual transformation of national or subnational territories into patchworks of full and empty areas, or areas increasingly segregated by age and economic activity;

·         Etc.

Plenty to do if the political will is there!


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Van de Kaa, Dirk J. “Europe’s Second Demographic Transition”, Population Bulletin, 42 (1), Washington, The Population Reference Bureau, 1987.


Appendix 1. Countries in the Mediterranean Basin. General characteristics.

Sources: World population Prospects: The 2012 Revision, 2013; World Population Data Sheet, Population Reference Bureau; Human Development Report, United Nations Development Program.

Appendix 2. Countries in the Mediterranean Basin. Demographic indicators, 2005-2010

Source: World population Prospects : The 2012 Revision, 2013.



[1] Dirk J. Van de Kaa, “Europe’s Second Demographic Transition”, Population Bulletin, 42 (1), Washington, The Population Reference Bureau, 1987.

2 This paper covers 25 countries, of which 21 border the Mediterranean and 4—Portugal, Serbia (plus Kosovo), Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and Jordan—are located nearby and are, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco.

[3] The infant mortality rate is the probability of a child born in a specified year dying before reaching the age of one.

[4] See in this issue, “Migrations of Mediterranean nationals within the Mediterranean region”.

[5] Michèle TRIBALAT, « Fécondité des immigrées et apport démographique de l’immigration étrangère », in BERGOUIGNAN Christophe, BLAYO Chantal, PARANT Alain, SARDON Jean-Paul, TRIBALAT Michèle, (eds), La population de la France. Évolutions démographiques depuis 1946, tome 2, CUDEP, 2005, pp.727-767.

[6] UNITED NATIONS, Le vieillissement des populations et ses conséquences économiques et sociales, Étude démographique n0 26, Département des affaires économiques et sociales, New York, 1956.

Alain Parant, « Les personnes âgées en 1975 et le vieillissement démographique en France (1931-1975), Population, 33 (2), pp. 381-411, INED, Paris, France, 1978.

[7] In the sense used by Adolphe Landry of the arrival of a demographic regime characterised by widespread use of birth control for the essential purpose not of maintaining but of raising the standard of living of both.