CENIE · 01 August 2020

Depopulation and longevity: some ideas to solve two issues with a plan

I don't like to talk about empty Spain. I prefer to talk about the depopulated Spain, not even empty. "Empty', in my opinion, has subliminal connotations of intentionality: someone emptied it, with deliberation, premeditation, malice aforethought. I hear talk of demotany, demographic desert, silent ethnocide, demographic winter... there seems to be a competition of ideas to refer to the fact of the abandonment of the people. Southern Lapland, the Celtiberian Mountains... If the ideas competition were to move from the name of the phenomenon to the search for solutions, perhaps everything would go well.

The fact is that the European Commission defines depopulated territory as one with less than 12.5 inhabitants per square metre. Thus, in Spain and Portugal we have large areas of territory that meet these characteristics.

The reality is that the flight of the population to the most populated areas, which act as a magnet, is a global and specifically European phenomenon. Europe is ageing dramatically, life expectancy is increasing and there are very low birth rates.  Baltic and Nordic countries, countries of the former Soviet orbit and those of southern Europe (not only Spain), are affected by depopulation in large areas of their territory, with an increase in the concentration of the population in some urban areas and depopulation in rural areas. Industrial areas in decline and the transformation of agriculture have generated large areas in the process of demographic desertification.

We cannot resign ourselves to having population deserts in Spain or Portugal. It is necessary to tackle jointly and separately policies that face the problem with rigour, seriousness, high-mindedness, strategy and without demagogy.

To see the magnitude of the problem, it is necessary to analyze some data. The rural areas of Spain lose five inhabitants every hour and, according to the Economic and Social Council of Spain, of the 8,124 existing municipalities, 95% of the villages have less than 5,000 inhabitants and 60% are at risk of extinction because they have a population of less than 1,000 inhabitants and occupy 40% of the territory, with only 3.11% of the country's population.

The consequences of all the above are clear:

  • Diseconomies of scale are generated, increases in the cost of production or provision of public and/or private services, by all accounts, especially in Burgos, Soria, Segovia, La Rioja, Guadalajara, Cuenca, Teruel, and Zaragoza, which are the most depopulated provinces in Spain.

  • There are environmental consequences: greater likelihood of fires, abandonment of the landscape, reduction of the economic value, therefore, of the land and impact on the ecology. Vicious circles that make it unattractive to undertake in degraded environments, not even the already old resource of rural tourism.

  • There is a vicious circle: as there are fewer job opportunities, people leave, the incentive to generate projects is lost, ergo there are fewer opportunities, in an endless loop. Or with an unwanted end: the void. People migrate to find job opportunities, public services and private services (which disappear if there is no critical mass, quite simply).

Elderly and depopulated areas

Interestingly, when we analyze the problem of the elderly in depopulated areas, it is surprising and certainly "usable in terms of the solution", to see that the provisions for care and attention to the elderly, come out well:

  • Many older provinces tend to have more residential places equipped per 100 inhabitants aged 65 and over.

  • Aged and depopulated Spain has better facilities for the care of the elderly, to the point that some people speak of a "welfare bubble".

  • There would be greater political sensitivity towards the silver economy related to the older age of its voters.

In this context, I will try to weave together some ideas that could be useful for tackling, jointly, the problem of demotany and the challenges of longevity, with some examples.

  1. Immigration may be the basis on which local strategies to combat depopulation are articulated, but it will not constitute the definitive solution to a structural problem, generating the risk in addition to building non-inclusive ghettos.

  2. We must take advantage of the acceleration of distance work to make today's quasi-deserted areas attractive. This requires public and private investment in something essential: quality Internet connection. 

The settlement of teleworking, the growth of ecommerce (which allows warehouses and logistics distribution in various locations), would make it profitable to have facilities outside the big city.

  1. If we favour economic initiatives, a virtuous circle of attraction of infrastructures and services will be generated. Where wealth is concentrated, people will be concentrated again, which will generate wealth, which will generate people.

  2. We must favour, through marketing actions, the rediscovery of that abandoned Spain to which many have returned as soon as they have been able to be attracted by its security and tranquillity.

  3. If we centralize everything in the city, we encourage the abandonment of small towns. We must strengthen administrative decentralisation, moving public administrative headquarters to depopulated areas and stimulating, through taxation and other resources, the location of company headquarters and private facilities in places at risk of demographic desertification. For example, Castilla y León has already made some "impulses" to decentralize services, stimulating depopulated areas (the Advisory Council was taken to Zamora, the Accounts Council to Palencia, or the High Court of Justice to Burgos...).

  4. Investment in real estate must be stimulated, in endowments and in landscape improvement with various incentives. We must make life attractive, first, for investment, also, to the people: to give prestige to rural life, and begin to put the epicenter of the benefits of a more authentic, more peaceful and balanced life, softening the precariousness with decisive policies and public investments, first, that make the private sector want to invest and generate wealth, then.

  5. We must stimulate in education the knowledge of the youngest of the wonders of the countryside, teaching them to value the intangibles of nature, but also food, animals, forests...

  6. Responsible agriculture and livestock farming must be promoted, boosting entrepreneurship and the modernisation of existing businesses through public and private initiatives.

  7. We must promote entrepreneurship, and in this sense:

  • To promote services to the elderly in order to create employment in rural areas. Several issues are resolved at the same time:

    • It improves the life of the elderly, in quiet environments.

    • Economic activity is stimulated to provide services to these elderly, their families and carers.

    • I am not talking about creating ghettos, I think it is about creating intergenerational environments where the activity in the silver economy will attract services of all kinds, not only for the elderly, but for those who provide services to the elderly. A very interesting example is Pescueza, in Cáceres. It has the antidote to depopulation: turning the town into a giant old people's home. This has generated employment and attracted many young people, showing that if you do things for the elderly, you generate intergenerational employment. The birth rate is rising! Perhaps because births are rewarded with a cheque for 1000 euros per child to help with their upbringing. There are already similar initiatives in Cuenca and other areas.

In my opinion, we must take advantage of the fact that the residential sector is rethinking its reason for being and the essence of its services to focus on housing solutions around:

  • Cohousing.
  • Cohousing.
  • Supervised homes and similar with elderly people, in these environments, as I say, generating employment around infrastructures and services for people who take care of the elderly.

Putting into the digital transformation cocktail, the challenge of longevity and the services that are required, in safe and quiet environments, the need to spend less on housing (in an economy that is contracting), and now that it is possible to telework and that there are logistics networks that reach (with excellent road infrastructures, in general) everywhere and distribute products... should give rise to the cocktail of the double solution to depopulation and the challenge of the ageing population in Spain and Portugal, among other countries of old and ageing Europe.


Under the framework of: Programa Operativo Cooperación Transfronteriza España-Portugal
Sponsors: Fundación General de la Universidad de Salamanca Fundación del Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas Direção Geral da Saúde - Portugal Universidad del Algarve - Portugal