Poland, Ukraine grapple with similar, but subtly different demographic troubles

Even with the huge influx of Ukrainians over the past year and a half Poland is well short of the number of working age migrants it needs. In Ukraine itself, a shrinking population could hamper its reconstruction and recovery.

Two new reports have highlighted some of the demographic issues facing the two largest countries in the emerging Europe region, Poland and Ukraine.

The first report, published this month by Poland’s social security agency, ZUS, reveals that despite attracting record numbers of immigrants over the past few years, the country would need to bring in nearly two million more workers over the next decade in order to maintain its current ratio of working-age population to retirees.

In 2022, ZUS, for the first time, registered more than one million migrants in its systems: almost 750,000 of whom were Ukrainians. However, “in order for the dependency ratio to remain at the current level, in the coming years the number of foreigners of working age would have to increase annually by 200,000-400,000,” reads the report.

“The number of foreigners in 2032 would have to amount to 2.8 million people, which would be 13 per cent of the working age population. In 2032, nearly every eighth working-age person would have to be a foreigner.”

Were it not for the influx of Ukrainians who have taken up residence in Poland since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of the country in February 2022, Poland would need even more foreign workers. This massive migration however is likely to have an even deeper impact on Ukraine itself.

Ukraine’s sustained population loss

The second of the reports, published by the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (wiiw), highlights how the war has radically exacerbated the demographic crisis Ukraine has faced since independence in 1991.

It says that Ukraine is likely to see a massive labour shortage after hostilities end, and that the country is unlikely to recover demographically from the consequences of the war.

Even in 2040 it will have only about 35 million inhabitants, around 20 per cent fewer than before the war. The decline in the working-age population is likely to be the most severe and far-reaching.

This could have a very problematic impact on reconstruction. There will simply be a lack of people to enable Ukraine to recover from the destruction and to get the economy going again. The problem will be particularly severe in the Eastern and Southeastern regions of the country most affected by the war.

Above all, a massive outflow of well-educated women of working and childbearing age, who make up about 70 per cent of the adult refugees, is likely to sustain the population loss for a long time. In addition, many children and young people have left the country, as they constitute about a third of refugees.

“Many of them will no longer be there when it comes to rebuilding the war-torn country. We assume that more than 20 per cent of the refugees will not return to Ukraine,” says Maryna Tverdostup, an economist at wiiw and author of the study.

Best and worst case scenarios

In the best-case scenario, the war ends this year and there is no further military escalation. Even in this case, the number of refugees who have fled Ukraine would be around 8.3 million by the end of 2023, according to the study.

In the best case, the country’s population is likely to increase again from 2024 and reach its post-war peak of 37.8 million in 2030. The working age population (18- to 60-year-olds) would decline to 19.9 million, down by 22.6 per cent from 2021. The birth rate would recover faster, fewer people would die and refugees would return earlier than in the other scenarios.

If the war ended this year, but with further military escalation, the population would fall to 34.2 million this year (a 21 per cent decline from 2021). Thus, in the event of intensified military action, Ukraine would lose another 1.7 million people even if the war ended this year.

The worst-case scenario, on the other hand, assumes an escalation of the war that lasts until 2025. In this scenario, Ukraine would lose around seven million people between 2022 and 2025, and even in the 2030s the population would not return to the level of 2022. In this scenario, fertility would remain lower, mortality higher, refugee outmigration high and the number of returnees limited.

The projected number of refugees would be particularly dramatic here: the total would rise to 14 million by the end of 2025 in the worst case scenario, with a large proportion of them assumed to return, which is why the total population loss between 2022 and 2025 would be seven million people. In 2035, a post-war peak population of only 35.2. million would be reached (19 per cent less than before the war), followed by a decline to 34.6 million in 2040 (21 per cent less than in 2021).

The resulting loss of the working-age population would be even more worrying, as it would shrink to 19.2 million by 2040, 25 per cent below the 2021 level.

“In any of the scenarios, Ukraine faces a dramatic demographic challenge, similar to Europe after World War II,” adds Tverdostup. “The bloodletting of the population due to the war will severely affect the country’s reconstruction and economic recovery for years to come.”

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