“An Irreversible Demographic Shock”

Experts warn of a permanent massive population loss in Ukraine due to war fatalities and flight. In particular, the shortage of young and highly qualified people endangers reconstruction.

KIEV/BERLIN (Own report) – Experts predict an “ irreversible demographic shock” and massive problems in recruiting the necessary workforce for post-war reconstruction. The country’s population had already dropped 20 percent from 1990 to 2021, according to a current study by The Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (WIIW). War fatalities and refugees have further reduced the population. Because mainly younger and well-educated people have fled, and a significant portion of the Ukrainian refugees want to permanently remain within the EU, reconstruction will be impacted by the lack of particularly important segments of the population. According to WIIW, by 2040, the working-age population in Ukraine will shrink by 22.6 percent to 25 percent compared with pre-war levels in 2021 – with serious consequences for the entire country. The longer the war lasts, the more severe will be its impact. Kiev must urgently initiate repatriation programs for refugees. This will, however, encounter rivalry also with Germany, because German companies are looking for low-cost skilled labor from among the Ukrainian refugees.

Marked by Emigration

Ukraine’s demographic development had already been problematic, even before the war began, according to the study by the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (WIIW). In Eastern and Southeastern Europe, severe loss of population is a common phenomenon with mainly young inhabitants emigrating to more prosperous countries and regions in the western areas of the EU. This is often accompanied by declining birth rates. Between 1990 and 2021, Estonia’s population declined by 15.5 percent. Only between 2011 and 2021, Croatia’s population has dropped 10 percent to 3.8 million.[1] In Bulgaria, the population dropped from 8.5 million in 1992 to 6.5 million in 2022 a loss of nearly 24 percent. Ukraine recorded a decline of about 20 percent from 1990 to 2021. Poverty, low-income levels, social insecurity and an ineffective healthcare system were the main causes of emigration, WIIW explains. Particularly due to the emigration of working age people and the decline of the birth rate, the share of those aged under 14 dropped from 21 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2021. The share of those aged 65 and above increased from 12 percent to almost 18 percent over the same period.[2] The shrinking of the working-age population is impacting reconstruction.

War Fatalities, Refugees

The war has dramatically exacerbated an already desolate situation. As of July 17, 2023, exactly 9,286 civilian fatalities have been documented by the United Nations. Observers are certain that the actual number is much higher. In addition, there are countless fatalities in Ukraine’s armed forces. Estimates by US military chiefs suggest up to 100,000 killed and wounded soldiers, as of November 2022. “These numbers should be taken with extreme caution,” WIIW warns.[3] Since then, the number of soldiers killed – almost all working-age men, predominantly younger – has increased dramatically. There are 5.5 million internally displaced persons in Ukraine, according to the study. It is uncertain, whether they will return to their homes once the war is over, or if entire regions will remain deserted. In addition, more than eight million people have fled to the EU. One third of Ukraine’s refugees are under 18. Nearly 70 percent of the adult refugees are women, the majority of childbearing age. Forty-seven percent of Ukrainian refugees hold a university degree. Because not all refugees will return home, Ukraine’s reconstruction will be impacted due to the shortage of the young and well educated, WIIW notes.

A Generation Lost

The perspective can be seen in the example of Germany. There are currently 1.07 million Ukrainian refugees registered in Germany. A recent survey shows that, already at the beginning of the year, 29 percent of them wanted to remain in Germany, 15 percent, “at least for a few years” – both with an ascending tendency. The intention to remain usually increases with the length of stay.[4] An additional 23 percent responded that they were still unsure. Only 33 percent expressed a definite intention to return – in the vast majority of cases – only after the war is over. Two-thirds of the adult Ukrainian refugees in Germany are women. The average age – 40 years old – is significantly below that of the Ukrainian population (42.9). Seventy-two percent of adult Ukrainian refugees in Germany have a higher education, usually an academic diploma – a nearly fifty percent higher proportion than the Ukrainian average (50 percent). These statistics confirm that Ukraine will lose a large portion of the younger, particularly female and especially highly qualified citizens to Germany and other EU countries – in addition to the very high number of the young male generation, who account for the enormous amount of war fatalities.

Long-Term Population Decline

The WIIW provides a bleak forecast for Ukraine. According to the study, it is a fact that, due to the war, Ukraine will suffer “a long-term loss of population.” However, the extent of that loss will depend on the development of the war. The best-case scenario would be if the war ends this year. In that case, by 2040, the population would still be at around 36 million, about 17 percent below its pre-war level. The working-age population would have declined by 22.6 percent to 19.9 million.[5] The worst-case scenario assumes that the war lasts until 2025. Then by 2040, the population would have suffered a decline of as much as 21 percent to 34.6 million people compared to 2021. The working-age population would have shrunk to 19.2 million by 2040 – 25 percent below the 2021 level. It is particularly the working age segment of the population that is needed for reconstruction. The longer the war continues, the bleaker the prognosis for Ukraine’s reconstruction becomes. However, the WIIW is already predicting an “irreversible demographic shock” for each conceivable case.

“A Monoethnic Nation”

To avoid the absolute worst and to reduce the loss in population, WIIW proposes that the Ukrainian government actively promote the return of refugees. It additionally urges that the host countries, for their part, support Kiev’s repatriation of refugees, such as by funding relevant Ukrainian government programs. Since this will probably not suffice, Ukraine will have to recruit migrant workers. In the first post-war years that will hardly be possible, due to the horrendous war damage. In the longer term, Kiev has little hopes of recruiting migrant workers from more prosperous countries, but must turn rather to countries in the South Caucus, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. However, given the fact that Ukraine is “a mono-ethnic nation”, a polite paraphrase for Ukrainian nationalism, the promotion of worker migration could lead to substantial societal tensions.[6] Therefore the country will require “a massive mindset shift across all levels of society.”

Competition for Skilled Labor

However, one can expect special difficulties, when trying to repatriate refugees from the EU. Particularly in view of the educational level of the refugees, the German business community is hoping that they could be recruited as long-term low-cost skilled laborers. In March, it was reported that “business representatives have praised the large potential of skilled personnel.”[7] In April, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) gave a concrete example. According to this report, since Kiev will need to build rental apartments on a large scale after the war, they can already be trained in “energetic renovation and public welfare-oriented housing construction. That would provide them with the necessary skills to promote EU-standard housing construction in Ukraine. However, SWP points out that also “the German housing industry ... given the extensive energy-related building restoration ... is itself suffering a lack of skilled labor” – and has an interest in keeping these refugees in Germany. Therefore, tensions with the Kiev government are already pre-programed.[8]


[1] Croatias population has dropped 10 percent in a decade, reveals census. euronews.com 14.01.2022.

[2], [3] Maryna Tverdostup: The Demographic Challenges to Ukraine’s Economic Reconstruction. WIIW Policy Notes and Reports 71. Vienna, July 2023.

[4] Geflüchtete aus der Ukraine: Knapp die Hälfte beabsichtigt längerfristig in Deutschland zu bleiben. diw.de.

[5], [6] Maryna Tverdostup: The Demographic Challenges to Ukraine’s Economic Reconstruction. WIIW Policy Notes and Reports 71. Vienna, July 2023.

[7] Andreas Mihm: „Wir verlieren eine ganze Generation”. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 07.03.2023.

[8] Steffen Angenendt, André Härtel, Knut Höller, David Kipp: Für den Wiederaufbau von Wohnraum braucht die Ukraine Fachkräfte. swp-berlin.org 06.04.2023.