During the 20th and early 21st century, Bulgaria’s population exploded rapidly, only to quickly decline at an equally rapid pace. The best illustration of this phenomenon is the fact that the country’s peak of growth happened in the times of the Peoples’ Republic, when the Bulgarian population more than doubled in the census period between the 1900 and 1985 (a growth from 3.75 to 8.95 million people). However, it was soon followed by a rapid decline after the fall of the Iron curtain, when the population dropped to 6.52 million according to the last count, conducted at the end of 2021.
If the last two decades can be any indication, the rate of the decline is accelerating – the loss of population was 564,000 people between 2002 and 2011, and 845,000 between 2012 and 2021. While it is at best unwise to assume that projections inevitably become reality, the Eurostat projects that Bulgaria’s population will drop further to 5.6 million people in 2050 and 4.7 in 2100, essentially returning to the numbers form the interwar period of the 20th century.
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This trend might not be worrying in itself, but it is accompanied by changes in age structure, towards a rapid increase in the number of old-age pensioners compared to the working-age population and children. In the past ten years, the decline in the working-age population (aged 15-64) has been even greater than the overall decline, by an almost 950,000 people. The Bulgarian population pyramid has essentially flipped since the beginning of the transition in the 1990s – back then the share of children (aged 15 and below) was 21% and the share of pensioners (65 and up) was 14%. Recently, in 2021, the children formed 14% of the population, whereas pensioners – a staggering 24%.
These developments inevitably lead to economic consequences. A lower number of workers mandates increases in labor productivity and high capital investments serve both as an effective brake on the development of certain labor-intensive sectors and a strong disincentive to investment in the most rapidly depopulating regions. The higher number of retirees puts further strain on an already exhausted pensions system, which systematically struggles to maintain a basic standard of living for its recipients and imposes increases in social security payments just to maintain the status quo. At the same time, the declining number of children may only exacerbate these issues in the future.
It is all-too easy to look for a single driving force behind the declining and aging population, and the ad nauseam repeated formula has been the emigration of many of the young and capable in (at least) two waves – the first, after the fall of the Iron curtain and the removal of the most brutal restraints to free movement, and, the second, after Bulgaria’s accession to the European Union (EU), when the lucrative labor markets of Western Europe became easily accessible. While this migration has certainly played a significant role in this process (which shall be examined in a greater detail later), the usual univariate analysis provides nothing but a flawed and incomplete explanation.
 One might argue that after the larger-than-expected decline between the last two censuses will push those projections even further down.
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