Who are we? The changing Scottish population

Reading Time: 7 minutes

As part of the programme to mark 20 years since the creation of the Scottish Parliament, SPICe will publish twenty “20 year” blog posts on SPICe Spotlight over the course of 2019.  Our earlier post sets out more information on the programme and the series of blogs. Previous blogs in the 20 year anniversary series have highlighted changes in many areas of Scottish life since the creation of the Scottish Parliament.  But how has the population itself changed?  This blog explores some of the main changes over the last 20 years, drawing on data from the National Records of Scotland.

Population growth hasn’t been evenly spread across the country

Over the period 1998 to 2018, the Scottish population grew by 7%.  This confounded expectations of a decline in the population. Back in 2001, the National Records of Scotland archives show that a 3% reduction in the Scottish population was expected over the next two decades and the Scottish population was expected to fall below 5 million.  In fact, the Scottish population has grown consistently in every year of this century and was estimated to stand at 5.4 million in 2018.  Further growth is expected over the next twenty years, with the Scottish population expected to hit 5.7 million by 2041 based on latest forecasts.

The overall growth of 7% between 1998 and 2018 masks considerable differences across the country.  In areas such as Aberdeenshire, Edinburgh, East Lothian and West Lothian, the population has grown more than twice as fast as the Scottish average.  Meanwhile, in Argyll and Bute, Inverclyde and West Dunbartonshire, the population has declined by more than 5% over the same period.

Animation - Change in population by LA 99 to 18

The nation is getting older

A message that has come through loud and clear over the last 20 years is that the Scottish population – in common with the populations of other developed nations – is ageing.  Advances in health care and better nutrition have paid off and, over the last twenty years, life expectancy in Scotland has risen from 72.8 to 78.1 for men and from 78.4 to 81.8 for women.  Further increases in life expectancy are forecast for the next twenty years, albeit at a slower rate than in previous decades.

With increasing life expectancy, the number of people aged 75+ in Scotland has increased by almost a third over the last 20 years.  Meanwhile, the number aged 0-15 has fallen by 8%.  The consequence of these changes is a shift in the age profile of the Scottish population.

These trends are expected to continue.  By 2041, projections suggest that there will be almost 100,000 people in Scotland aged 90+, compared to around 42,000 at present.  At the other end of the scale, the population aged 0-15 is expected to continue to decline, reflecting a stable or falling number of births over the period of the projections.

Animation - Scottish population by sex and age

A nation of dependants?

The dependency ratio compares the number of people of non-working age to the number of people of working age.  This gives a useful indication of the number of people who are most likely to be paying taxes to cover the costs of public services compared to the number more likely to be ‘dependent’ on public services paid for by those taxes.  It is not a perfect measure as some people over pension age will still be contributing through taxes, or not depending on public services, while some of working age will be studying or out of work and so not paying taxes and potentially dependent on student support or benefits.  Nonetheless, it provides a useful summary of the relative age structure of the population.

Various definitions exist, but a common one is the number of people aged 0-15 plus the number of people aged 65+ divided by the number of people aged 16-64.  In Scotland, the dependency ratio has edged up a little from 55% to 56% over the last twenty years.  That is, for every young or older person, there are roughly two of working age.

However, on current projections, more significant changes to the dependency ratio are expected over the next twenty years.  On the above definitions, the dependency ratio is forecast to rise to 70% over the next twenty years.  That means that for each person of non-working age, there will be fewer people of working age (roughly 1.5 compared to 2 at present).  This represents a significant shift in the balance between those potentially making an active contribution to the economy and those who are more likely to be ‘dependent’.

That said, progress in health care and changes to pension age are also likely to lead to a wider age range being considered as ‘working age’.   If the planned changes to the state pension age are taken into account in the working age definition, these changes act to offset some of the projected increase in the dependency ratio.   According to the NRS, when planned changes to the state pension age are factored in, the dependency ratio is expected to increase to 64% by 2041, rather than the 70% predicted if the working age definition remains at 16-64.  Nonetheless, this represents a significant increase from its current level and has implications for pensions policy, and the costs of supporting the young and old through current taxation contributions.

SPICe_2019_20yrs_Population_Dependency ratio

There’s a more international mix of people

There have also been some significant changes in the number of non-UK nationals living in Scotland.  In 2004 (the first year for which consistent data are available), there were 126,000 non-UK nationals in Scotland, representing only 2% of the population.  By 2018, the number had almost trebled to 352,000 and non-UK nationals now represent 6% of the Scottish population.  The fastest growth has been in EU nationals.  In 2004, there were only 52,000 EU nationals in Scotland; this has more than quadrupled to 221,000 in 2018.  Meanwhile, the number of non-EU nationals has also increased, but at a much slower rate (up 77% between 2004 and 2018).

SPICe_2019_20yrs_Population_Nationality - timeseries

Poland alone accounts for almost a quarter of the non-UK nationals in Scotland, with 87,000 Polish nationals living in Scotland in 2018.  This is well ahead of the next highest nationality resident in Scotland – those from the Republic of Ireland, with 20,000 Irish nationals living in Scotland in 2018.

SPICe_2019_20yrs_Population_Nationality - 2018

In 2018, the number of EU nationals living in Scotland fell by 6% – the first fall since 2004.  Although the outcome of the EU Referendum in 2016 is likely to have been a factor behind the decline in EU nationals in 2018, it is worth noting that the number of non-EU nationals in Scotland also fell in 2018 (by 8%).

Inward migration – both from the rest of the UK as well as international migration has played an important role in Scottish population growth in recent decades.  The extent to which this continues to be the case will be shaped by future immigration policy, which is currently determined by the UK Government.

We’re more likely to live alone

In 2001, a third of all households were single person households.  But while the total number of households rose by 12% over the period to 2017, the number of single person households increased by 23%.  By contrast, the number of households with three or more people has fallen by 3% over the same period.

There has been much faster growth in the number of men living alone.  Between 2001 and 2017, the number of single male households grew by 18%, while the number of single female households grew by 7%.  However, for the moment, there are still more single female households than single male households.

Current projections suggest that these trends will continue.  The latest forecasts suggest that, by 2021 some 42% of all households will be single person households.  Again, more of the projected growth is expected to come from more men living alone.  By 2041, the majority of single person households are expected to be men living alone.


These trends have important implications for the type of houses that are being built – especially if the people that are living alone are older people who may have specific requirements or need adaptations to their homes to enable them to continue to live at home.

On the other hand, some things haven’t changed much at all

Alongside all this change, a more constant factor in Scottish life has been our choice of boys’ names.  In 16 of the last 20 years, Jack has been the most popular boy’s name, only occasionally being knocked off the top spot by Lewis.

SPICe_2019_20yrs_Population_Baby names

What does it all mean for policy?

These population changes have important implications for policy choices, by both the Scottish and UK Governments.  Over the past 20 years, we have already seen Scottish Government policies evolving to reflect these changes – for example in relation to health and social care and housing (see other 20 year SPICe blogs on these subjects).  There are also areas where the Scottish Government currently has less control over policy decisions – for example, in respect of pensions and immigration policy. With projections suggesting that many of these trends will continue into the next two decades, policy decisions will continue to need to reflect a changing population.

Nicola Hudson, Senior Analyst and Andrew Aiton, Data Visualisation Manager

Featured image: “Princes’ Street By Night” by the justified sinner is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0