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.

Building Engagement And Evidence: The Next Chapter Of Our Population Story

This paper represents the beginning of a conversation. Scotland's demographic landscape is changing and the next chapter of our population story is waiting to be written. 

The four building blocks identified in the paper help to frame the challenge before us. Together, they provide a valuable contextual picture of significant challenges and opportunities alike that exist in our horizon. They show that from family friendly policymaking to championing health ageing, to migration, to addressing the spatial balance of people across our country - few aspects of Scotland's demographic challenge can be addressed by a quick fix. Instead, these building blocks reinforce the need for an integrated, horizon-scanning, and solutions-focused approach to demographic issues. 

In places, the paper reminds us of the wide portfolio of actions which are already being undertaken across the Scottish Government to ensure the sustainability of our population. In others, the paper throws into sharp focus the necessity for new, longer-term thinking also needed to address the changes ahead. 

But, as a first step, this paper does not hold all of the answers or solutions. Now that the first foundation has been set, our next steps in 2021 will focus on deepening the conversation about demographic change through a range of work. This includes greater engagement and public consultation on our vision, greater coalition-building with partners, strengthening our evidence base, devising measurement approaches, and developing long-term policy proposals that will allow us to meet our vision.

Future Engagement on our Vision:

We have set out an initial vision – but this is not a definitive one. Addressing population change will require an open conversation. Given that our demographic challenge is felt differently across Scotland, it is important that we engage with different voices in further developing our vision. We will therefore deliver a range of engagement sessions throughout 2021 and beyond. This engagement will include discussing whether the actions and areas we have highlighted are the ones that matter to our society, and discussing where more focus should be made. As we continue to shape our vision, we will engage partners from academic institutions, local government, health boards, the private sector, and the third sector. We will also consult on our vision with the public

Scotland is not the only country facing these demographic challenges with many countries experiencing similar rural depopulation, as well as the increase in older populations and declining birth rates. As a result, we also commit to developing an engagement programme with other countries to share our issues, gather best practice and consider collaborative ideas. This engagement will be with our Nordic partners – including through our Arctic policy framework – as well as others. We will consider how to bring this work together, with the potential of hosting an international event later in 2021.

Championing Demographic Change across Government 

As we move forward, we also commit to strengthening networks that will empower different levels of government to actively consider demographic change in decision-making.

At the national level, we will drive effective coalitions through Scottish Government's Ministerial Taskforce for Population and the Population Programme Board. These groups at the most senior levels of the Scottish Government provide the space for ministers and senior officials to embed our long-term demographic change across their existing policy portfolios (economic development, infrastructure and investment, public finance, health, environment, migration, and others). As the Programme builds, these groups are central mechanisms to champion cross-cutting and long-term thinking on demographic issues across the Scottish Government.

We will also engage with the UK Government, and look to influence whole-UK change or seek further devolved powers for Scotland. This paper sets out a clear set of asks of the UK Government. 

These asks of the UK Government are:

to make changes to employment law to pursue a gender-blind parental leave

to press for vital reforms to the UK immigration system, and in particular, call for a Scottish visa to meet Scotland's immigration needs

to ensure demography is at the forefront of UK-wide policy-making and push for change or further powers in specific reserved areas – such as supporting those who wish to remain in employment when older.

We will also engage with the spectrum of political parties across Scotland as we recognise the changes needed cannot just be fixed by this current government.

Likewise, the coalitions we build must not only be at the national government level. We will continue to build, in partnership with COSLA, strong relationships focused on demographic change issues at the local authority level in Scotland. We will continue to collaborate with the Local Government Population Working Group, along with local authority leaders. 

As well as strong senior networks, we will also commit to developing tools to empower government to consider the impacts of their policies within the bigger picture of demographic change. To begin, we will explore the creation of a Demographic Change Impact Assessment Tool. We envisage this tool to support policy makers and our partners to consider what impact their policies will have on our population. This will work in a similar function to the Fairer Scotland Duty and an Equality Impact Assessment.

Building an Evidence Base for Policy Intervention:

Future policy development will grow from our vision and the building blocks we have set out. But in order to do this, more work must be done to review existing literature, identify gaps, co-create proposals with analytical colleagues, and ensure that any strategic framework and policy proposals are robustly underpinned by evidence

To support decision-making, we commit to embedding a rigorous evidence base at the centre of our programme of work. This will involve identifying research questions and commissioning impactful analytical work – as required – across each of the building blocks of a family friendly nation, an ageing society, migration, and population balance. 

Our Population Analytical Working Group and our Expert Advisory Group on Migration and Population will help to shape this evidence base. The EAG has already published a number of valuable reports relating to migration. We will look to review the membership of the Group and consider how we can effectively explore the diverse range of demographic issues before us.

Measurement and Monitoring:

Among the 81 indicators of Scotland's National Performance Framework (NPF), we have established an progress indicator on depopulation – the indicator measures the number of council areas experiencing population decline since 2009.

However, a sole indicator in the NPF only tells a fraction of Scotland's population story. To capture the multi-dimensional nature of population change, we have produced an interactive Population Programme Dashboard which contains a variety of different indicators which report on Scotland's changing population structure. Indicators include measures on our population age structure, our active dependency ratio, life expectancy, and population change across council areas.

In the medium to long-term, building ways to measure progress and evaluate what has worked and what has not, will be extremely important. We commit to developing a measurement framework which will allow Scottish Government and our partners to monitor our progress in addressing our demographic challenges.


Language will have an important influence on how we frame and approach population change in Scotland. For example, describing areas as experiencing 'population decline' or 'depopulation' might carry negative connotations which may be better framed by framing them as 'repopulation areas.' Similarly, describing an area as 'remote' might imply that the centres of importance are the larger towns and cities which can feed a narrative of needing to leave rural and island communities in order to progress. Another example might be that while considering population ageing and working age population, it is important that our older generations or those who are not economically active are not seen as a 'burden.' We commit to an open discussion about the language and narratives that best frame population change issues to ensure that equality is weaved throughout.

Establishing a Demographic Commission

Together, these issues only scratch the surface of the complex combination of challenges and opportunities that we can address in the face of population ageing. We will look to establish an independent Demographic Commission to further open up these conversations with experts and partners. 

# Action Action for
29 We will deliver a range of engagement sessions throughout 2021 to hear the views from the public, academic institutions, the private sector, the third sector Scottish Government
30 We will engage with international countries to share learning and best practice on addressing demographic challenge, with an aim of hosting a demographic event later in 2021 Scottish Government
31 We will engage with the UK Government to ensure demography is at the forefront of UK-wide policy-making and push for change or further powers in specific reserved areas Scottish Government and UK Government
32 We will carry out further evidence and analysis on existing policies and literature to identify further areas of exploration Scottish Government
33 We will review the membership of the Expert Advisory Group on Migration and Population and commission a workplan for them for areas to focus on Scottish Government
34 We will develop a measurement framework to measure and monitor progress in addressing our demographic challenges Scottish Government
35 We will look to establish a Demographic Commission to carry out further analysis and open up conversations on future actions Scottish Government
36 We will consider how to drive change in Scotland and our partners, considering legal powers and other methods in ensuring this national challenge is addressed Scottish Government and partners


Email: population@gov.scot

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