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Europe is in the middle of a demographic transition with far-reaching consequences. People have fewer children and live longer and healthier lives. Many are on the move in search of better opportunities.

As a result, Europe’s population is ageing rapidly. Already today, one in four Europeans is 60 years or older. By 2050, more than a third of the continent’s population will be in that age group.

Some populations have started to shrink. This is happening mostly in Central and Eastern Europe, where fertility rates are particularly low, many people leave their countries to work elsewhere, and governments have been unable – or unwilling – to attract immigrants.

These demographic changes are often portrayed as a crisis. But the underlying factors driving these shifts are, in many ways, reasons to celebrate. Populations are ageing because people are healthier and live longer. Fertility rates are lower -- not only, but also -- because women have more say, more choices and more opportunities. And population numbers are going down in some places because people have more freedom to choose where they want to live and work.

Still, dealing with the effects of demographic change is not easy. Fewer and fewer working-age people need to provide for an ever-increasing number of older people. Social systems are coming under massive pressure. And it is costly to maintain infrastructure and services in ever-more sparsely populated rural regions.

These are not existential threats. They are challenges that need solutions. The good news is that there is a growing consensus on what works in addressing the effects of demographic change – and what doesn’t.

Much of the focus, especially in Eastern Europe, has been on raising fertility rates, and governments have tried to provide financial incentives to people to encourage them to have more children. The evidence we have suggests that this does not work very well: birth rates might go up temporarily but, generally speaking, the number of children women have during their lifetime barely changes. Even where fertility rates do go up, the changes are small, and no country in Europe, not even those investing the largest percentages of their GDP in family support, have come even close to a rate that would ensure populations to stabilize, let alone grow.

This is not to say that support for families is ill-advised. On the contrary, smart measures that make it easier for young people to start a family are essential for allowing people to have the number of children they want. This requires removing the many barriers people face when making decisions about children: economic uncertainties, high cost of housing, growing infertility, lack of affordable childcare, and the expectation for women to compromise on their careers and shoulder the burden of care alone.

What works, more broadly, in addressing demographic change is putting together a comprehensive package of policies that is people-centred and firmly grounded in evidence, and that addresses the many social, economic, political and cultural factors that influence people’s decisions and choices about their lives and futures.

And if this is done right, demographic change can open up opportunities for innovation that can catapult countries towards a more prosperous future. In Central and Eastern Europe, places like Cluj in Romania or Belgrade in Serbia have emerged as major hubs for the tech industry, attracting talent from within the country and from abroad.

Across Europe, migrants have returned home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing with them valuable skills, know-how and networks. Rural areas are seeing a revival as digital nomads go in search of greener, more stress-free, more family-friendly lives. Governments are experimenting with ways to harness the contributions older people make and to better integrate them into the economy and society. And to open up labour markets and public life more broadly—to women, minorities and other marginalized groups—tapping into hitherto under-utilized resources. All of this contributes to making countries better able to tackle demographic challenges.

Together with the Government of Bulgaria, UNFPA is bringing together governments and thought leaders from across Europe at a high-level conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, on 1-2 December 2021 to discuss innovative solutions and launch a Decade of Demographic Resilience.

We hope this conference will be a milestone in Europe’s efforts to shape its demographic future and find pathways for countries to thrive in a world of rapid demographic change.

It is time to leave behind the narrative of anxiety and doom that has dominated the discourse for so long, and look at demographic change as an opportunity to build more inclusive, more diverse and, ultimately, stronger and more prosperous societies.

Alanna Armitage is the Director of UNFPA’s Regional Office for Eastern Europe and Central Asia