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We must deliver more opportunities for young people in Wales

3 min read

The population of Wales is becoming significantly older as birth rates decline, young people move away to pursue education and career opportunities elsewhere, and older people from other parts of the United Kingdom see Wales as an attractive and affordable place to live in retirement.

These trends are most visible in rural and peripheral parts of Wales, particularly the north, the west and coastal areas. According to census data, seven of the 22 local authority areas in Wales saw population decline between 2011-21. 

Worryingly for those concerned about the survival of Welsh culture and language, the largest falls in population were in those rural areas considered to be the heartland of the Welsh language. As emphasised in the Welsh Affairs Committee’s 2022 report on family farms, the average age of Welsh farmers is over 60 with just three per cent of farmers under the age of 35.

Recent ONS projections indicate that the population of Wales overall is likely to grow over the next 10 years, but this increase will be driven overwhelmingly by the over 65s. The ONS data point to a 24 per cent increase in over 75’s while the working age population is projected to increase by 5.6 per cent.

There are exceptions to this picture, most noticeably in South East Wales where many of the towns and cities within the Cardiff City Region area are seeing strong growth. Cardiff and Newport also have the highest percentage of people aged between 15 and 64 in Wales.

Should these trends concern policymakers? What does Wales’s declining numbers of young people and increase in its older population mean for the economic prosperity of the nation, and crucially, for levelling up to make sure opportunities are there for all?  These are some of the questions the Welsh Affairs Committee is grappling with during our current inquiry into population change in Wales.

The theme of Wales having an "older and sicker" population is one that is raised frequently by the first minister and other members of Welsh government in their arguments with the UK Treasury over funding for Wales. 

Many of the pressures on public services across Wales appear similar, whether the local population is increasing or not, such as soaring social care costs and the shortage of affordable housing.

But there are specific impacts in areas which are seeing the biggest changes in local demographics. The challenge of falling school rolls leading to difficult decisions to close village schools is one example. The increase of second homes and holiday lets in coastal areas has pushed house prices up way out of reach of local people. 

We must make sure people are not pushed out of their local areas and making sure that there are ample economic opportunities is absolutely critical.

This extends to our key university towns. It is concerning that many of these areas struggle to hold on to young people following their graduation when they should really be anchors of the economy.

Our committee has recently conducted a survey of young people who choose to leave Wales to go to university. A third of respondents said they would not return to Wales after their studies largely due to there being fewer opportunities to pursue their preferred careers. This view appears consistent with those in work: the committee has heard that 28 per cent of young people in employment in rural Wales felt they might have to leave Wales to further their careers.  

Population trends of Wales are of great concern, and the opportunities currently presented to our young people seem to be lacking. Our Committee hopes to uncover some possible solutions: stay tuned as we continue scrutinising this important issue for the future of Wales.

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