Europe is getting old. The share of the population over 65 continues to rise, and was up to 19% in the EU last year. The median age is over 43, compared to about 38 in the United States and just 28 in India. That is already posing a number of policy challenges (pdf) in Europe, as the ratio of retirees to working-age people grows.
There is one group, however, that is keeping Europe young and vibrant: Muslims. A new report from the Pew Research Center outlines how Europe’s Muslim population will continue to grow—even with low amounts of migration—helping counteract the twin specters of aging and population decline that threaten the continent’s future.
The Pew report is primarily concerned with how the Muslim population in Europe will grow in the future. Their moderate estimate predicts that the ranks of European Muslims will more than double between now and 2050, assuming migration returns to the “normal” levels from before the refugee influx of recent years. The non-Muslim population, on the other hand, will decline by 7%, even accounting for the offset from non-Muslim immigrants. In that scenario, the overall European population will decline slightly, but Muslims would greatly help offset the downward trend.
There are two reasons why Muslims are in the unlikely position of saving Europe. The first is that they are young. The age differences between Europe’s Muslims and non-Muslims are striking:
The median age is 30.4 for Muslims in Europe, versus 43.8 for non-Muslims. That difference is even more pronounced in Europe’s largest and most influential countries—France, Germany, Italy, and the UK are all in the top five in terms of age discrepancy.
The other thing driving the Muslim population up is its greater interest in having babies. Fertility rates in Europe have long been in decline—a standard trend for developed countries—but the relatively young, relatively poor Muslims in Europe counter that as well. Among non-Muslims, the fertility rate is 1.6 children for the average woman, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. For Muslims, it is 2.6.
Aging populations are a problem facing a number of the world’s biggest economies. As the number of working-age people per retiree decreases, it becomes harder for a country to save money and support social services like health care. In Europe, Muslims are the strongest force counteracting that. And as the Pew report shows, the only way Europe’s population will grow is if migration to the continent remains very high.