A Scotland for the future: opportunities and challenges of Scotland's changing population

Scotland’s first national population strategy, framing the diverse and cross-cutting demographic challenges that Scotland faces at national and local level, and setting out a programme of work to address these challenges and harness new opportunities.

Ministerial Foreword

Fiona Hyslop
Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture.

Scotland's people are our most valuable resource. People grow our economy, provide our public services, they teach our next generation, build our communities, and make Scotland the place it is. A most basic measure of Scotland is of our population. 

Our population has been shaped by our history. For many years Scotland was a nation of out-migration and people left Scotland to build a future elsewhere in the UK or further afield. Between 1825 and 1938 over 2.3 million people left Scotland to move overseas. That outflow of people continued through the 20th century and the pattern of migration only started to shift at the start of this century. 

Today, across our cities, towns, villages, countryside and island areas, our population now stands at a record high of 5.46 million people. This record high is the result of a period of steady population growth from the beginning of the 21st century. 

Yet, populations are not fixed things. They ebb, flow and ultimately they change over time, presenting each generation with new opportunities and challenges. While the population of Scotland as a whole has grown and is projected to grow into the 2020s and 2030s, this masks a set of real and very significant demographic challenges that face 'a Scotland for the future.' 

Like many advanced economies around the world, Scotland's population is ageing. We are living longer and that is to be celebrated. Yet, at the same time, we are having fewer babies. This means that by 2050 the numbers of older people are expected to have risen dramatically as a proportion of our population. To add to this, Scotland's relationship with migration, as a key driver of labour market stability, is anticipated to change as a result of Brexit. Together, these three demographic processes - mortality, fertility and migration - add up to fundamental challenges facing key aspects of our society over the next 10, 20, 50 years and beyond - including our economy, our public services and our environment. 

But Scotland's population change is, crucially, not a monolith. From Edinburgh to the Orkney Islands, from the Borders to Argyll and Bute, each and every local authority feels our demographic challenge differently. At a local level, the balance of people living in our cities, towns, villages and island areas continues to change. Some local populations are experiencing rapid population growth, causing increased pressure on services; local populations in other areas, especially, but not only, in rural areas are experiencing population decline. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges on a scale that our public services, economy and population have not seen in our lifetime. It is difficult to assess the impact of the pandemic on our demography although it is clear that COVID-19 has exacerbated existing inequalities within our country and our economic growth. 

This paper frames Scotland's demographic challenge around four key building blocks:
1) a family friendly nation,
2) a healthy living society,
3) an attractive and welcoming country, and
4) a more balanced population. 

It frames the complex and cross-cutting issue of population change, connecting existing actions around economic and infrastructure development, local investment and planning, migration, housing, education, population health and social care and public finance. 

Using these building blocks, it also begins to open up opportunities for innovation, adaptation and greater strategic focus which will enable Scotland to harness demographic opportunities and meet the needs of our people as its population changes over time.

This is a national challenge and requires a national response across Scottish Government, local government and partners to ensure a thriving and sustainable country for generations to come. We must recognise though that Scotland can only do so much with the powers it has. Within this document, we set out the actions we propose to take at a local and national level. We also recognise that the UK Government either needs to make changes or to give further powers to the Scottish Government and partners to deliver the changes that Scotland needs. This paper sets out therefore a series of asks of the UK Government.

The challenges that we face have developed over decades. While this paper sets out some actions we can take now which will start to have an impact this is a long-term challenge. That is why I do not see this paper as the end, but rather the beginning. 


Email: population@gov.scot

Back to top