The preliminary results of the 2022 census showed that the population of Ireland’s 26 counties exceeded five million people for the first time since the pre-famine census of 1841.
Doing away with our tradition of emigration and welcoming new immigrants has accounted for much of our recent growth. Our population has flattened out at three million since independence until the early 1970s. It took three decades to add another million in 2004 and reach four million people. It has now taken us less than 20 years to add another million to reach our current high. However, we will never add another million.
The latest global population projections from the United Nations predict that only 800,000 people will be added over the next four decades.
Ireland’s population will peak at 5.8 million in 2060 and gradually decline thereafter, destined never to exceed its pre-famine figure.
Ireland is already past the peak child. The last year in which women of childbearing age each gave birth to more than 2.1 children (that’s the number needed to replace their parents and keep the population at a stable level) was 1990.
The number of Irish children is unlikely to ever surpass the 2019 peak of 1.2 million.
The natural increase in population that we are seeing is due to fewer deaths. Thanks to the wonders of modern science, increased government investment in healthcare, and improvements in personal health behavior, our life expectancies are longer than ever. In fact, we live 25 years longer than our ancestors did 100 years ago. Our average life expectancy of 82 years is only two years shorter than that of the world’s longest liver, the Japanese.
The number of immigrants has adjusted to this natural growth in recent years. After a huge surge during the Celtic Tiger, almost one in five Irish residents was now born elsewhere – one of the highest numbers in the EU and surpassing those in the UK and US. Population growth over the next 40 years will depend more on continued immigration than on the ability to extend our lifespans much further.
The prediction that Ireland’s population will continue to grow for so long makes us an outlier among developed nations. While the United Nations expects the world population to peak at 10.4 billion in 2086, largely due to strong growth in Africa, Europe’s population is currently peaking. Italy’s population, for example, has shrunk by 1.3 million since 2014. Further afield, China’s population is now peaking, while Japan has shrunk by half a million people a year since 2009.
The slowdown in population growth brings both opportunities and challenges.
Childcare and elementary school places will become easier and easier to find. Primary school enrollments are expected to fall by more than 20 percent over the next decade. The teacher-student ratio, which is already at an all-time low, will continue to improve without having to increase the number of teachers. The post-demographic decade will be played out through secondary education and thus through declining points for further education.
In the long term, this means that our housing shortage will take care of itself. With family sizes shrinking, some estimates show that we won’t need to build new three-, four-, or five-person single-family homes. Rather, we need many one- and two-bedroom apartments and smaller homes to accommodate our aging population and one-child families.
At 2.5 million, the number of people in work in Ireland has never been higher. Although we have added half a million new jobs in the last seven years alone, it seems unlikely that we will ever create another half million. Irrespective of this, our openness to further immigration will be essential, otherwise we will not be able to fill these positions with our shrinking number of young people.
Our population is inevitably aging. By 2028, there will be more people aged 65 and older than children under 15. Today there are 4.5 people of working age for every older person; this number will drop to 3.5 people of working age for every older person by 2030, and then to just over two by 2050. The challenge will be proportionately less tax revenue to pay for the extra pensions and healthcare that older people need.
The demands on our healthcare system will increase dramatically as the number of older adults increases and medical breakthroughs enable treatments for a wider range of diseases. However, a larger cohort of healthier older adults provides a new source of a skilled workforce and offers us all the prospect of living more fulfilling lives for longer. The retirement age will rise and later retirement is inevitable.
Ultimately, a declining population poses enormous challenges to the continued improvement of living standards. More brains on the planet has led to more innovation and to advances in science and medicine that have improved the quality of life for very many.
This development comes with environmental costs that we urgently need to address, but our species’ ability to find solutions to our problems will diminish as our population decreases. The further progress of mankind will increasingly depend on artificial intelligence.
Objectively speaking, Ireland had remarkable achievements in its first century as an independent nation. Those of us alive today are the healthiest, wealthiest, best educated and happiest people to have ever lived on this island. In order to successfully address the new challenges we face in the coming century, we must foster the factors that underpin that success.
We must remain an open nation to attract the immigrants we need to thrive. We need to invest more in higher education to maximize the development of our talents throughout our longer lives. We must cultivate the strong sense of community that has guided us in making our society fairer as we prosper. We must protect our robust democracy and reverse declining turnout by finding new ways to engage our citizens in tackling our future challenges. And we must make our contribution to overcoming the climate and biodiversity crisis for the benefit of all.
If we do that, we have every chance that the next generation will have the best possible life on planet earth.
Mark Henry is the author of In Fact: An Optimist’s Guide to Ireland at 100. markhenry.ie
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/its-a-numbers-game-why-immigration-is-essential-for-population-growth-over-the-next-40-years-41878126.html It’s a numbers game – why immigration is essential for population growth over the next 40 years