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Demographic Challenges of the 21st Century

The changes in the make-up of our population, as a result of ageing and migration, are hot topics in the media and the world of politics. Rightly so, as there is hardly a policy area that is not being impacted by demographic change. But in terms of rising life expectancy, health, fertility and migration, how are we doing compared with Europe and the rest of the world? Which differences are seen to exist in this country, both at a regional level and between the various strata of the population? And how can this understanding be used to underpin a forward-looking and sustainable policy? The DEMO (Interface Demography) research group examines the demographic challenges of the 21st century.

The second half of the 20th century has been an exceptional period in the demographic history of humanity. The steady rise of life expectancy, which started in the 19th century in the industrial world, has gone on to soar after the Second World War on a global level. From 48 years of age in 1950, life expectancy rose to 68 years of age in 2010. In spite of persistent poverty and famine, the general trend has been marked by economic progress. This is reflected in mortality rates that are continuing to dwindle worldwide. Fertility rates have followed suit. Further to the unprecedented population growth of the 1960s by more than 2% and the doubling of the world's population over 40 years, the annual growth rate has fallen to 1%. Forecasts by the United Nations are predicting zero growth by 2050. In the wake of this major demographic transition, a second global phenomenon is unfolding: the population drift from the countryside to cities. Since 2010, the majority of the world's population lives in towns and cities.  

Demographic changes in our country should be offset against this background. Belgium ranks among the most urbanised areas in the world. High life expectancy and low birth rates have colluded to cause the population to age. By the same token, our country has recently been seeing a comparatively strong population growth driven by international migration. 

In the area of family formation, cohabitation has evolved from being a precursor to marriage to being a fully-fledged alternative. Marriage rates have diminished to such a point that for the first time in a very long time even the number of divorces is going down again. 

Processes are at work behind each of these well-known trends, as well as interactions with other demographic factors. It will come as no surprise that international migration has implications for the fertility rates. Yet what is less obvious is the fact that migrants, in spite of having a less than average good health, often have improved life expectancy regardless. 

Urbanisation, the ageing of the population and migration are the key research topics as part of this project. Our research also takes in households and new forms of relation-building and (co)habitation with topics such as family building, changes in gender equality, divorce and blended families. A great focus of attention is made to go out to inequality in health and mortality. The study of health differences in consideration of socio-economic status, migration background or gender are important in this respect, but also help to arrive at a better estimation of demographic changes. In addition, DEMO also conducts research into the specific topic of (physical and mental) health at work.

Obviously migration is also having a major impact on our population. The research group looks at the role played by migration in the demographic changes seen in Belgium and Europe, but also examines aspects such as health, family life, training and career within migrant groups. Looking at intra-European migration, the term 'mobility' is increasingly being used. This also shows the diversity of the non-native population. The research group maps out this diversity, and examines the ramifications of these different types of migration in detail.

The data to emerge from this body of research are put together so as to arrive at a wider picture of global and regional population dynamics. This enables scientists to take a panoramic-scale and long-term view of changes in population and put forward projections about possible future developments based on different hypotheses.

The DEMO research group sets out to find explanations for these population trends and not only endeavours to contribute to the scientific insights, it also boasts a proven track record in guiding and advising policy in matters of population. 

Contact Details: 
Prof. Parick Deboosere
Interface Demography
Patrick.Deboosere@vub.ac.be
+32 2 6148123

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