Media coverage of the 2016 Population and Migration Estimates, just issued by the Central Statistics Office, has focused on the return to net immigration. This, combined with the recent report that 2 million people are now at work in Ireland, has been used as evidence of an economic upturn in Ireland.

These headline figures mask an important change that has taken place in Ireland. That change is shown by the ‘dependency ratio’, which measures the relative size of younger and older populations (under 15 and over 64) compared to the working age population (between 15 and 64). This ratio is important, because working people provide funds for public services and benefits, such as full-time education, health care and pensions, that are used by the younger and older populations. The higher this figure, the more people have to be supported by each working person.

The total dependency ratio across the EU as a whole in 2015 was 52.6% (calculated by Eurostat). This includes the young dependency ratio (23.8%) and the old age dependency ratio (28.8%). In Ireland in 2016, the total dependency ratio in 2016 was 55.3%, made up of the young dependency ratio (34.5%) and the old age dependency ratio (20.8%). On one level, this shows that there are proportionately more younger people and fewer older people in Ireland than across the EU. It is possible to argue that Ireland’s high young dependency ratio is potentially positive, but this would only be the case if these young people remained in Ireland. Instead, the CSO figures show us that many young people have left, particularly those aged between the ages of 20 and 40.

In 2016, total dependency ratios varied across regions. The highest was the Border region (62.7%), while the lowest was Dublin (49.8%). There were also considerable variations in the young and old age dependency ratios. These are shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Dependency ratios by region in Ireland, 2016

Total dependency ratio Old-age dependency ratio Youth dependency ratio
STATE 55.3 20.8 34.5
Border 62.7 24.6 38.1
Dublin 49.8 18.4 31.3
Mid-East 56.0 17.2 38.8
Midland 56.8 19.8 37.0
Mid-West 58.0 23.1 34.9
South-East 56.8 22.3 34.4
South-West 55.3 21.8 33.5
West 59.2 23.9 35.3

Source: Calculated from CSO Population and Migration Estimates 2016

The geographical variation highlights one problem, since some areas (e.g. Border, West, and Mid-West) have proportionately fewer economically active people. A second problem is the dramatic change in total dependency ratio since 2009, when the average in Ireland was 47.3% (see Table 2). This means that there has been a significant increase in the proportion of younger and older people who are supported by working people.

Table 2: Total dependency ratio by region in Ireland, 2009 and 2016

2009 2016
STATE 47.3 55.3
Border 51.5 62.7
Dublin 42.5 49.8
Mid-East 47.0 56.0
Midland 51.5 56.8
Mid-West 48.6 58.0
South-East 50.6 56.8
South-West 47.8 55.3
West 49.2 59.2

Sources: Calculated from CSO Population and Migration Estimates, 2009 and 2016

Across the EU, changes in dependency ratios are attributed to declining fertility rates and ageing populations. This is not the case in Ireland, which consistently has one of the highest fertility rates in the EU. While the population of Ireland is ageing, the country has the lowest proportion of people aged over 64 in the EU. Instead, the key factor in Ireland’s changing dependency ratios is the decline in the proportion of the population aged between 15 and 65. This is a result of migration: in particular, the net emigration of almost 170,000 people aged from 15 to 44 in the years from 2009 to 2016. Net emigration is the main reason for the striking change in dependency ratios in Ireland.

Headline figures, such as a return to net immigration in 2016, mask the ongoing and persistent effects of austerity in Ireland. The increase in dependency ratios means that the working-age people who remain in Ireland have more people to support, particularly in rural areas. These geographical variations will intensify further in future years. There are long-term consequences from austerity, and the dependency ratios show this clearly, through the loss of a significant number of economically active people from the country. Headline figures must not distract us from this, more troubling, reality.

Mary Gilmartin