Event Reports

Harnessing talent in Europe`s regions: Addressing population aging and decline

On the occasion of the European Day of Demography, 15th February 2023, the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung conducted an Expert Roundtable on the topic of “Demography: Addressing population aging and decline”. At the event, high-ranking experts from different disciplines such as science, politics and associations discussed the opportunities and challenges of demographic change for Germany and the EU.

Dr. Peter Fischer-Bollin, Head of the KAS Division Analysis and Consulting, welcomed the present and digitally connected participants. He referred to the challenges of a shrinking workforce and aging societies, which are widely present throughout the European Union. However, certain regions that are located remote from urban centres are particularly affected by an exodus of young, well-educated people and accompanying economic challenges. He emphasized that the following expert discussion would also deal with questions on the future of younger generations.

At the beginning of her remarks, Vice-President of the European Commission Dubravka Šuica outlined the role of demography as a new portfolio of the European Commission. Its communication on “Harnessing talent in Europe's regions” released in January 2023 examines how the prosperity of European regions can be upheld in times of demographic change and brain drain. While these megatrends affect all parts of Europe, a striking decline of working age population exacerbated by a lack of tertiary education was identified in 46 European regions (accounting for 16 percent of the EU´s population). Further 36 regions facing a departure of young people are at risk of falling into a so-called “talent development trap”. Moreover, the Vice-President presented the key element of the communication, the “Talent booster mechanism”, as the EU Commission’s response to these circumstances and explained its potential to support European regions.

Referring to the situation in Germany, Catherina Hinz, Director of Berlin-Institute for Population and Development, illustrated that due to past outmigration flows, demographic challenges continue to feature very prominently in the most eastern parts of Germany. “Many years of migration have not only thinned out the population, but also caused the remaining population to age considerably”, she emphasized. According to the Institute´s regional projections, about 60 percent of all German districts are projected to lose population by 2035. Eastern Germany will be particularly hard hit, with only eight major cities besides Berlin expected to grow, while all rural districts will face a decline. Many regions of Eastern Germany will miss up to one third of working age population until 2035, but also Northern Hesse, Southern Westphalia, parts of Rhineland-Palatinate and parts of Northern Bavaria will suffer from a dwindling population.

According to Dr. Harmut Berndt, Chairman of the Federal Working Group of LEADER Action Groups in Germany, rural areas and their respective challenges are very diverse not only throughout Europe, but also within Germany. Thus, it would be unlikely that there is one recipe to solve all the problems but different opportunities would need to be taken into account. “We have to create a social environment where new projects by the people are supported from the ground, where they find an environment, which helps them grow and make their region attractive”, the Chairman of LEADER in Germany argued. He emphasized that there are many hidden talents in need of support. Increasing the attractiveness of regions in a social manner by building healthy communities would thus be important.

Regarding the opportunities to maintain socially critical infrastructure against the backdrop of educated young people, Vice-President Šuica highlighted the importance to reverse ongoing trends of degrading infrastructure. In this context, she mentioned the necessity to promote digitalization, upskilling, reskilling and lifelong learning in the current European year of skills. According to Mr. Berndt, the provision of safe and area-wide digital infrastructure is to be seen as a task for the national and European level. Regarding the possibilities to mitigate the challenges of demographic change, Ms. Hinz illustrated the potential of reverse migration patterns and a new desire for the countryside, called “Landlust”, to mitigate the consequences of demographic change in small communities. The possibility to work remotely, openness for innovations and incoming people as well as best-practice exchange between the regions would be key to increase the attractiveness of regions.

Finally, the question was brought up by the audience how the goal of tackling brain drain could be reconciled with supporting third countries in times of an aging and shrinking populations in Europe. According to Vice-President Šuica making best use of funding and cohesion policy, of robotics and artificial intelligence but also managing legal migration with solidarity between the Member States are principal aspects to balance inequalities in this regard.

The closing remarks were given by the Member of the German Bundestag Dr. Ottilie Klein. “Much is achieved if we accept that demographic change is one of the huge challenges that we have to address politically on all levels”, Ms. Klein emphasized. She referred to the consequences of demographic change on the social security system and the growing shortage of skilled labour force in Germany. However, brain drain could not be solved by attracting workers from other European countries that face the same problems. Thus, solutions would need to be found on the European level and a wide ranging “creative toolbox” would be needed on both the local and national level.

About this series

The Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, its educational institutions, centres and foreign offices, offer several thousand events on various subjects each year. We provide up to date and exclusive reports on selected conferences, events and symposia at www.kas.de. In addition to a summary of the contents, you can also find additional material such as pictures, speeches, videos or audio clips.