Mennesker ved strand
Yadid Levy / Norden.org
Proud cities full of historic buildings and scintillating new architecture. Vast tracts of open countryside and scenery, awash with fresh air and much-needed tranquility. High birth rates, robust economies and good living conditions. The people of the Nordic Region have much to be thankful for, and there is no shortage of people would like to relocate here.

Their reflections glitter and sparkle in the gently undulating waters of the port. In many of the Nordic cities, big new buildings have sprung up along the old waterfronts. The modern architecture signals progress, economic development, creativity and innovation. These are keywords in the Nordic Region, where population growth in urban areas is on a scale not seen since industrialisation in the late 19th century.

At the same time, out in the countryside, abandoned houses and dilapidated hovels await demolition, local shops are closing, and schools are merging. Populations are declining drastically in the peripheral regions, where house prices have not soared the way they have in the big cities, and living standards are not quite as high. Official agencies and politicians are taking these economic and social challenges very seriously.

The population of the Nordic Region is forecast to grow by nearly three million in the next 40 years. Active regional policies are being implemented to make it attractive to live in the most sparsely populated parts of Norway, Iceland, Finland and Sweden. These rural districts have plenty of room and provide things the cities cannot, things that are increasingly valuable in a busy, densely populated world: tranquility, fresh air and nature. There is so much to see and do, and a wealth of fresh, raw ingredients like mushrooms and berries to enjoy.

More than 27 million people live in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Åland. And yet the region is sparsely populated, comprising huge expanses of unspoiled wilderness – mainly forests, meadows, mountains and water. The exception is Denmark, which has 130 inhabitants per km2, and is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe. Sweden, Norway and Finland have between 16 and 21.8 people per km2, Iceland 3.2, and Greenland only 0.14 in the ice-free parts of the country, mainly along the south-west coast.

The population of the region has risen by more than three million (13%) since 1990. Iceland leads the way with a growth rate of 28%, followed by Norway at 21% and Åland at 18%. This is the result of births outstripping deaths and the level of immigration exceeding that of emigration.

Attractive cities

Old industrial areas have been converted into attractive residential neighbourhoods. Drab waterfronts have been reborn with exciting high-rise buildings, and historic centres have been preserved and renovated. The Nordic cities are attractive hubs, with high levels of economic activity, energy and creativity.

Population growth in and around the capital cities is higher than elsewhere. Stockholm is the biggest of the Nordic cities, with a population of 2.2 million, followed by Copenhagen at 1.3 million, Oslo at 1.2 million, and Helsinki at 1.1 million.

Reykjavik with its population of 215,000 has enjoyed the most rapid growth – 30% since 1990. Tórshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands, is also growing rapidly and is now home to 20,000 people.

The most densely populated part of the Nordic Region is the Øresund Region, which brings together East Denmark, including the capital city Copenhagen, and the Swedish province of Skåne, including the major city of Malmö. The Øresund Link, which opened in 2000, has established strong bonds between Skåne and Zealand.

An ageing population

The ratio of old to young people in the Nordic Region is increasing. The latest forecasts suggest that the over-65s will make up 50% of the adult population of Finland and Åland by 2030. Although the concept of “the burden of the elderly” has gained ground, it must also be emphasised that many senior citizens in the Nordic Region live healthy and active lives and fend for themselves.

Current forecasts indicate that 8.6% of the total Nordic population in 2040 will be 80+. Average life expectancy is increasing in all of the countries, with women in Finland living longest – to an average of 84.

This higher proportion of old people is due to a combination of longer lives and lower birth rates, although the Nordic countries still have higher birth rates than almost every other country in Europe.

Immigration and emigration

Much of the region’s migration is between the Nordic countries. The free labour market, closely related languages and Nordic rules for studying elsewhere in the region make it easy to relocate.

The figures for immigration to the Nordic Region include citizens returning to their home country, as well as citizens of foreign countries who have been granted residence permits.

As at 1 January 2017, Åland and Norway had the largest percentages of citizens from other countries, both with 10.6% of the population – followed by Iceland at 8.9%, Sweden at 8.5%, and Denmark at 8.4%. At the other end of the scale are Finland at 4.4%, the Faroe Islands at 2.9%, and Greenland at 1.8%.

The number of non-Nordic citizens has increased throughout the region, partly as a result of refugees fleeing political upheaval and war throughout the Middle East and Asia, particularly in Syria.

In 2016, more than 18,500 Poles and almost 13,000 citizens of the Baltic countries migrated to the Nordic Region, the majority to Norway (based on 2016 figures).

The largest number of asylum seekers come to Sweden and Norway

The number of asylum seekers is one indication of the fact that people want to live in the Nordic Region.

Asylum seekers do not yet have residence permits, and so are not included in the general population statistics.

The number of people granted asylum varied between 13,000 and 36,000 per year in the period before the civil war in Syria. In 2015, 162,877 people applied for asylum in Sweden, of whom 67,258 were granted it in 2016. By comparison, the figure was only 24,498 in 2014.

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of asylum seekers per annum increased in all of the Nordic countries except Sweden, which had a major influx between 1990 and 1992. The number of asylum seekers in Denmark fell by 85% to 90% in the period from 2000 to 2006.

How many will live here in the future?

The region’s current population of 27.7 million in 2021 is expected to grow by 6.6% to approximately 29.5 million by 2040. This prognosis is based on a series of expectations about birth rates, death rates, emigration and immigration in the individual countries.

The most reliable of these expectations are those concerning ageing, as these figures are based on those already born.

The most recent predictions for population growth show the biggest rise by 2040 will be in Iceland, at 14.2%. At the other end of the scale is Greenland, where the population is expected to have fallen by 8.4% by 2040. Greenland is the only Nordic country where the population is expected to decline.

More mouths to feed

All over the world, politicians and researchers are concerned about the dependency burden. But what exactly does the concept cover?

In simple terms, a number of people work, pay tax and support a certain number of children, youngsters, the sick and old.

Any major imbalance between the two groups is cause for concern, and raises the question of whether it will be possible to maintain the welfare states in their current form.

The dependency burden – or elderly burden – is expected to increase in all of the Nordic countries, but to be less onerous than in almost all other European countries because of the relatively high birth rates.

According to the latest projections (2017), 27.3% of the population of Åland will be over 65 in 2040. In Finland, the figure will be 26.3%. The figures for the Faroe Islands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden will only be slightly lower, while Greenland’s dependency ratio in 2040 will be only 14.8% of the population. Including the number of children and young people (0 to 19), who will be supported by the working population aged 20 to 64, the number of citizens in need of support will reach around 50% of the population in 2040.