Poland’s population is changing just like that of many European societies, which are ageing rapidly. One in five residents of Poland has reached the age of 65, and the proportion will increase to one in four or even one in three in a dozen years. Migration is playing an increasingly important role

There are 1.6 million more seniors in Poland than children and young people. The gap will only continue to grow. Meanwhile, there will be more and more empty houses and flats in many regions of Poland.
Even now, the younger generations are less numerous because fewer children are being born. Poland had an average of three children per family 30 years ago whereas now there are mostly single children. Even if many women decided to have two or three children, this would not ensure generation replacement where younger generations are as numerous as older generations. Secondly, the average life expectancy is getting longer. It has gained seven years in three decades. There are now more people who are over 65 and those who are over 80. What does this mean for social life? People will live longer in increasingly smaller families. A third development of relevance to demographics is that migration, both outgoing and incoming, is playing an increasingly important role.
Still, Poland’s situation in Europe is unique. Because of the war in Ukraine, it is the country to receive the most war refugees. Some of them have stayed in Poland for a longer period of time due to geographic proximity. On the one hand, their decisions may slow down or divert certain demographic processes in Poland; on the other hand, this highlights problems with the quality and accessibility of public services (especially health care, care for young children, flexibility on the labour market, care for the elderly or sick).
Demographers like to say that demography drives our future but not our destiny. This suggests that it is good to understand demographic developments and their impact and consider actions that can influence demographic processes. Such actions should become part of public policy. In recent years, the Polish government has focused on measures to support the fertility rate, which is but a sliver of social policy. However, those measures have not proved very effective. Financial support schemes for families have raised their standard of living but they have not increased the birth rate. In 2021 the birth rate was 1.32, and it seems that last year marked the lowest birth rate in Poland since World War II.
Sociologists and demographers advocate that demographic processes should be integrated into all aspects of public policy, from health care and education through the labour market and housing rules to migration policy. The experts clarify (although this may sound like a truism) that demographic change affects all generations, from the youngest to the oldest, and therefore only a comprehensive, holistic approach can make an impact on demographics.

Changing Age Structure

The size of Poland’s population, how old people are, what they do and where they live: these parameters were measured by the census conducted in spring 2021. It showed that just over 37 million people live in Poland permanently or have lived here for at least one year. This number does not include migrants. The population is over one million smaller than a decade ago. Not only has the population size changed but so has the age structure: there are more older people and the youngest generations are becoming smaller. The average Pole is 42 years old, four years older than a decade ago.
There are more than 8.4 million women over 60 and men over 65. The age limit of 60 for women and 65 for men is relevant because it is the retirement age in Poland, and most people actually decide to retire at that age. The demographic old-age ratio, i.e. the size of the elderly population (60 or 65 and over), to the total population, has increased from 14 to 19 percent. A population that exceeds the threshold of 14 percent is considered old.
There are significantly fewer children and young people (6.7 million), 370,000 fewer than ten years ago. The gap suggests that as many children were “lost” in ten years as were born in five quarters.
A simple generation replacement would be possible if the birth rate were around 2.1; the actual rate was 1.3 in 2021. What is important for social life (especially in a conservative country like Poland) is that more and more children are born in informal unions. One in eight children was born in a non-marital union in 2000; in 2021, the proportion was one in three children in urban areas and one in five in rural areas (about 27 percent nation-wide).
Differences between the sizes of successive generations are important for the labour market and for regional development. In 2020, there were fewer than 30 people aged 65 and over for every 100 people aged 15‒64. In 2050, the ratio will be 52. In 2060, it will be 62 per 100. Elderly generations are growing while working age generations are shrinking.
The ageing of the population is accompanied by the depopulation of some parts of the regions, first and foremost the provinces: more and more people live in big cities and neighbouring municipalities, fewer and fewer in towns and villages situated far away from big cities. This is particularly important for the eastern regions bordering Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Russia. In these areas, ageing and depopulation are proceeding in parallel most rapidly.

How Can Things Go and What Can Be Done?

Demographic change can be a threat unless duly addressed. It can be influenced by appropriate changes in the economy and society.
Poland’s pro-family policy has, in recent years, focused on financial benefits designed to provide material support to families or encourage women to have children. The key measure under the scheme of child-rearing benefits “500 +” (allowance of PLN 500 per month for each child in the family) has raised the standard of living for many poor families, but it has not had a positive impact on the fertility rate.
Sociologists point out that women’s informed decisions to have a child are much more complicated than just pondering the question: “Will I get adequate financial support?” Just as financial security is important, so is housing security (the possibility for families to live independently), the choice of childcare (will the child be cared for by family members or are there nearby affordable care facilities for young children), and the security of professional development.
While the number of care facilities for the youngest children under three is slowly increasing, there is still no crèche or children’s club in more than half of Poland’s municipalities (even though seven years ago they were available in only one out of three municipalities). The larger the city, the more facilities there are. The smallest number of facilities (one municipality in five) is available in the eastern regions with the fastest depopulation and population ageing: Lubelskie and Podlaskie.
Big cities attract young people (especially those with high levels of human capital, i.e. with high qualifications), as well as investment. Regions with a population ageing faster than the country as a whole are becoming less attractive to investors, and it is increasingly difficult there to maintain public infrastructure (health care facilities, schools, crèches, public roads). Fewer and older people are paying less tax, which makes local governments poorer and the service infrastructure sparser, further encouraging young people to migrate to larger cities. This can to some extent be changed by regional policy. It should halt the process of growing regional disparities in socio-economic development.

Longer Professional Life

Some of the measures taken by the government and the behaviour of individuals seem far removed from demographic change. This is the case, for example, with deciding when to retire in individual terms and what age people are allowed to retire in social and political terms.
However, in order to halt the consequences of demographic change, it is necessary to make those groups who are least mobile on the labour market more active. In the case of Poland, these are people who have reached retirement age, women, and people with disabilities. After reaching retirement age, only one in 11 persons remains active on the labour market. The labour force participation rate is 65.7 percent for men, 50.6 percent for women and 20 percent for people with a recognised disability. Suitable jobs for people with disabilities are often not available.
Low labour market participation of women is linked to the lack of adequate institutional care for children and the elderly. Women around retirement age often take care of both grandchildren and ailing parents. The challenge for public policy is how to organise care in the family, small communities, and society as a whole. Care and work are interrelated: without solving the problems of the former, the latter cannot be addressed. Poland offers tax breaks for working pensioners. This is not enough to increase their labour force participation, the increase of which seems impossible without care institutions.
In order to prevent unfavourable changes in the labour market, it is not enough for central or local governments to act: the initiative should be taken by employers. They should be interested in leveraging the competences of the 60+ generation and in smart “age management” in companies and institutions. This means the flexible organisation of working time as well as adaptation of workplaces.
2022 was an unusual year for Poland due to the war in Ukraine. Formerly a country from which people mainly migrate (it is estimated that more than 2.1 million Poles are living abroad temporarily), Poland has become a destination country for migrants. The trend has been observed for several years, but the war amplified it. Migration has a positive impact on the labour market, but it highlights deficiencies in the quality of public services: access to health care, education, housing and institutional forms of care.
Poland has never before hosted such a large group of foreigners. The development of a migration policy will have to be linked to the resolution of many issues that are also relevant to demographics. ©℗
Demographers like to say that demography drives our future but not our destiny