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chapter 1

Population change beyond the pandemic

AuthorS: Nora Sánchez Gassen and Mats Stjernberg
DATA AND MAPS: Anna Vasilevskaya, Karina Berbert and Nora Sánchez Gassen
The COVID-19 pandemic had a pronounced impact on demographic trends around the world, affecting morbidity, mortality, nuptiality, fertility and migration (Norlén et al. 2022). In comparison to other European nations, the Nordic Region demonstrated relative resilience during this period. Despite a significant number of infections and deaths, life expectancy did not decline in most Nordic countries
Sweden and Greenland are exceptions. Between 2019 and 2020, life expectancy in these two countries declined by 0.8 and 0.7 years, respectively.
in 2020, in contrast to other European countries (Heleniak 2022a). Furthermore, while many European countries experienced a decline in births in 2021, several Nordic countries saw an increase (Sánchez Gassen 2022). And while mobility restrictions substantially reduced international migration flows to and from the Nordic Region, internal migration within individual Nordic countries increased.  
Researchers have documented and analysed the direct and indirect impacts of the pandemic on demographic trends in almost real time but have also emphasised the need to analyse the longer-term consequences on population dynamics (Klancher Merchant 2021). This chapter contributes to this discussion by providing an overview of recent demographic trends in the Nordic countries. As will be seen, the Nordic Region has witnessed remarkable population dynamics since the end of the pandemic, including declines in life expectancy, natural population decline, and shifts in internal migration patterns. 

Population change in the Nordic Region: Key trends beyond the pandemic 

The population of the Nordic Region has grown steadily over the past few decades, increasing by almost 18% between 1990 and 2019 (Heleniak 2020). This growth resulted from a combination of natural population increase (more births than deaths) and positive net migration (more people moving to the Nordic Region than leaving). Of these two factors, migration was the more dominant, accounting for about two-thirds of the overall growth. 
During the pandemic, population growth continued, albeit at a slower rate than previously. This can be seen in Table 1.1, which compares population change during the pre-pandemic (2018 and 2019), pandemic (2020 and 2021) and post-pandemic years (2022). The second column shows that population growth was especially slow in 2020 due to an increased number of deaths and reduced international migration, with immigration declining more strongly than emigration. However, in contrast to many other European countries, the number of births increased in the Nordic Region during the second year of the pandemic (2021), which buffered population growth. Overall, the total population size in the Nordic Region continued to increase even during the pandemic.  
After the pandemic
The Nordic countries declared the end of the pandemic at slightly different times in 2022. Denmark was the first to lift COVID-19 restrictions on 1 February 2022. Norway and Iceland followed on 12 and 25 February, respectively. On the Faroe Islands, coronavirus regulations ended on 1 March 2022. In Sweden, COVID-19 was no longer classified as a danger on 1 April, while Greenland lifted all COVID-19 restrictions on 18 May, and Finland by the end of June.
population growth accelerated. This was entirely due to immigration to the Nordic Region. In 2022, international net migration reached around 212,400 people – almost three times as many as in 2020. Several factors contributed to this increase, including the lifting of international travel restrictions and the influx of refugees due to the Ukraine war (Berlina 2022).  
Interestingly, natural population change did not contribute to population growth in the Nordic Region in 2022. For the first time since at least 1975, it was negative (Nordic Statistics 2023).
The dataset from Nordic Statistics used here does not go back further than 1975.
In other words, the number of deaths outweighed the number of births, albeit by a small margin. This trend is remarkable since negative natural population change was not observed even during the pandemic years with their elevated mortality levels. The negative natural population change in 2022 can be attributed to a rapid decline in births after the end of the pandemic and an increase in the number of deaths, surpassing even the pandemic years.  
Finally, Table 1.1 also shows that while international migration slowed down during the pandemic, internal mobility within the Nordic countries – i.e. relocation from one municipality to another within each country or autonomous region – increased and was particularly high in 2021 (Heleniak 2022b). This trend reversed in 2022. In the following two sections, we discuss negative natural population change and internal migration dynamics in greater detail. Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 of this report discuss post-pandemic trends in fertility and increased population diversity. 
Population (1 January) 
Population change  
(in %) 
Natural population change 
International immigration 
International emigration 
International net migration 
Internal migration 
Table 1.1: Population change in the Nordic Region (2018–2023)
Source: Nordic Statistics

Negative natural population change 

Although natural population change in the Nordic Region, considered as a whole, was negative in 2022, the Nordic countries and autonomous regions showed distinct patterns (Figure 1.1). Natural population change was positive in the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, where births continued to surpass deaths in 2022.
Note that Sweden had negative population change between 1997 and 2001. 
In the other countries, however, natural population change was negative in the same year. In Finland, natural population change has been negative since in 2016. In Åland, natural population change has fluctuated, with some years seeing negative change and others seeing an increase, most recently in 2021. In Denmark, natural population change turned negative in 2022 for the first time during the period covered here.  
The different dynamics in natural population change across the Nordic countries can partly be attributed to differences in population age structures. For example, Greenland has had higher fertility rates and lower life expectancy than the other Nordic countries, and therefore its population is comparatively youthful, which currently contributes to a surplus of births over deaths. Finland, by contrast, has had the lowest fertility rate in the Nordic Region in recent years. In combination with advances in life expectancy, this has contributed to rapid population ageing and a surplus of deaths over births.  
While several Nordic countries and territories still registered a surplus of births over deaths in 2022, Figure 1.1 also shows that the gap between the two has been closing even in countries with traditionally high fertility, such as the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Iceland. In addition, several countries and regions saw a relatively sharp drop in natural population change following the end of the pandemic in 2022. As noted above, this decline was due to a drop in the number of births between 2021 and 2022 in all countries and territories and an increase in the number of deaths, which occurred everywhere except in Greenland.
Births, deaths and natural population change in the Nordic countries and autonomous regions (1990–2022/23) 
Figure 1.1: Births, deaths and natural population change in the Nordic countries and autonomous regions (1990–2022/23) 
Source: Nordic Statistics
Note: Natural population change is calculated as the difference between births and deaths. 


Often considered frontrunners in implementing family-friendly policies, the Nordic countries have traditionally had relatively high fertility levels compared to other European nations (Sobotka 2020). The factors that have contributed to the recent fertility declines in the Nordic countries are not yet fully understood, especially given the lack of substantial changes to family policies (Hellstrand et al. 2021).
Several potential explanations have been proposed, including the postponement of parenthood and rising childlessness (Rotkirch 2020, Jónsson 2023). These trends may be driven by a shift towards more individualistic, ‘child-free’ lifestyles, union instability, increasing demands placed on parents, and a growing sense of economic and social uncertainty.
Global concerns such as the climate crisis and new geopolitical tensions may also have contributed (Guetto, Bazzani and Vignoli 2022, Campisi et al. 2023). One study focusing on Sweden and Germany linked the decline in fertility in 2022 to the launch of vaccination campaigns and the reopening of societies after the pandemic (Bujard and Andersson 2023). Finally, it is also plausible that the post-pandemic decline was, to some extent, a consequence of the elevated fertility rates observed during 2021, as couples who contemplated having a(nother) child may have chosen to do so during the pandemic.


Many observers were also surprised by the increase in registered deaths across Europe and the US after the end of the pandemic (Rougerie 2022). According to monthly statistics from Eurostat (2024), all five Nordic countries had excess mortality in 2022 compared to the 2016–2019 baseline. This was particularly pronounced in Iceland and somewhat less so in Norway and Sweden, with the other Nordic countries falling in between.
The causes of these elevated mortality levels are not yet fully understood. In Sweden, excess mortality during winter 2022 has been associated with the circulation of respiratory infections, including influenza, COVID-19 and the respiratory syncytial virus (Folkhälso­myndigheten 2023). In Iceland, excess deaths during the first half of 2022 have been attributed to the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 (Tomás 2023). The long-term and indirect effects of the pandemic, such as reduced immunity, delayed or deferred disease detection and treatment, may also have contributed. For instance, excess mortality in Norway in 2022 was primarily driven by deaths related to cardiovascular conditions and, to a lesser extent, cancer (Raknes et al. 2024).
Excess mortality in 2022 is not only evident in the increased number of registered deaths, as shown in Table 1.1. Life expectancy also declined, as shown in Table 1.2 – the red cells denote years in which life expectancy declined compared to the previous year, while the green cells highlight an increase. In all Nordic countries and autonomous territories, life expectancy declined at some point during the pandemic (in either 2020 or 2021),
The only exception concerns life expectancy of men in Norway and the Faroe Islands, which continued to increase throughout the pandemic.
but these declines were relatively modest compared to other advanced economies (OECD 2022). Nonetheless, despite higher mortality rates during the pandemic, life expectancy also continued to increase in the Nordic countries – for example, in 2020 in Denmark, Norway and the Faroe Islands and in 2021 in Iceland and Sweden.
In 2022, however, life expectancy declined in almost all Nordic countries and autonomous territories.
Note that on the Faroe Islands and in Greenland, trends were somewhat uneven even prior to the pandemic, with life expectancy declining for both men and women in some years. Icelandic life expectancy data for 2022 were not yet available from the Human Mortality Database at the time of writing (Spring 2024). Data from Statistics Iceland, however, indicate that life expectancy at birth also declined for women in Iceland between 2021 and 2022, from 84.1 years to 83.8 years. For men, life expectancy stagnated during the same period at 80.9 years.
The only exception is Sweden, where the reduction was limited to women. In Norway, the drop in life expectancy has been described as the largest since World War II (Raknes et al. 2024). Similarly, in Finland, the decline has been described as ‘historic’ and the largest in over 50 years (Statistics Finland 2023).
Finland and Åland
Faroe Islands
Table 1.2: Life expectancy at birth in the Nordic countries (2018–2022)
Note: Cells in green indicate that life expectancy increased compared to the year before. Cells in red indicate that it declined compared to the previous year.
Source: Human Mortality Database. Data for the Faroe Islands and Greenland: NSIs.

Natural population change at local level

Levels of natural population change do not only vary across but also within the Nordic countries. A comparison of natural population change in 2022 across municipalities reveals pronounced rural-urban differences (Map 1.1). Urban areas such as Stockholm and Gothenburg in Sweden; Oslo and Bergen in Norway; Copenhagen and Aarhus in Denmark; as well as Helsinki and Turku in Finland all experienced positive natural population change. This can be attributed to the comparatively young population age structure of these urban centres. Young people of child-bearing age often cluster in cities for study and work, and many start families there. By contrast, rural and remote areas often have a higher proportion of older people and, as such, tend to register more deaths than births, resulting in negative natural population change. These patterns are particularly pronounced in Finland but also in the northern parts of Sweden and Norway.
Nonetheless, there are exceptions. In Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands, which had comparatively high levels of natural population growth at national level (Figure 1.1), a majority of municipalities, including many in rural areas, still registered more births than deaths in 2022 (77% of municipalities in Iceland, 60% in Greenland, 67% on the Faroe Islands). In the other Nordic countries, only a minority of municipalities, mostly in urban centres, recorded natural population increase in 2022 (30% in Norway and Sweden, 26% in Denmark, 12% in Finland).
Map 1.1: Natural population change at local level (2022)
Source: NSIs

Internal migration

During the pandemic years, international migration in the Nordic Region slowed down (see Table 1.1). By contrast, internal migration – here defined as migration between municipalities within each Nordic country and autonomous region – increased, especially in 2021. A counter-urbanisation trend has been described, with people moving away from larger cities to suburbs or smaller municipalities in search of affordable, larger homes and access to nature, which became more desirable during the pandemic-era restrictions (Vogiazides and Kawalerowicz 2022, Tønnessen 2021). This section looks at how internal migration patterns evolved even after the end of the pandemic during 2022.
The following analysis is based on a new Nordic urban-rural typology (see Box 1.1), in which the Nordic territories are classified into seven different categories at grid level (1 x 1 km): inner urban areas, outer urban areas, peri-urban areas, local centres in rural areas, rural areas close to urban areas, rural heartland areas, and sparsely populated rural areas. Map 1.2a provides an overview of territorial differences in the Nordic countries according to the typology. It can be scaled up to municipality level, such that municipalities are classified according to the category in which most people reside. Map 1.2b provides an overview of this classification of Nordic municipalities.
As Map 1.2b shows, many of the municipalities classified as inner urban, outer urban and peri-urban are clustered in the southern parts of Sweden, Norway and Finland (see Stjernberg et al. 2024). However, some northern municipalities also fall into these categories, such as Alta in Norway, Umeå and Piteå in Sweden, and Oulu in Finland. In Iceland, the only municipalities belonging to the urban categories are located around Reykjavik and Akureyri. In Denmark, inner urban, outer urban and peri-urban municipalities are especially concentrated around the capital in Zealand, as well as on the Eastern coasts of Jutland and Funen.

Box 1.1: A new Nordic grid-based urban-rural typology

The Nordic urban-rural territorial typology is a new system for classifying Nordic territories into seven distinct categories: inner urban areas, outer urban areas, peri-urban areas, local centres in rural areas, rural areas close to urban areas, rural heartland areas, and sparsely populated rural areas. These classes are based on different degrees of urbanity and rurality. The typology is based on a 1 x 1 km grid system that enables the classification of different types of areas at a detailed territorial level (see Map 1.2a).
Nordregio and Ubigu developed this typology as a new analytical framework that could combine different types of data and facilitate a more nuanced and fine-grained understanding of territorial differences across the Nordic countries. The typology includes Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Åland. Due to data limitations, it was not possible to include Greenland and the Faroe Islands.
A recent report by Stjernberg et al. (2024) presents the Nordic typology, along with analyses of territorial and settlement patterns, as well as demographic change dynamics across the urban-rural continuum. The typology has also been published online as an interactive digital web-mapping platform, which allows users to zoom in on different areas.
Map 1.2a: Population-based Nordic territorial typology – at grid level

Map 1.2b: Population-based Nordic territorial typology – at municipality level
Note: Nordic urban-rural typology scaled up to the municipality level. Classification of municipalities is based on the category in which most people reside.
Figure 1.2 is based on the new typology and shows internal net migration across different types of municipalities in the five Nordic countries.
Greenland and the Faroe Islands are not included in the new Nordregio typology and are therefore not part of Figure 3. The municipal reform in Norway in 2020 meant that the urban-rural typology could not be applied for 2018 and 2019.
For each country, we grouped the municipalities by category (e.g. all inner urban municipalities) and calculated the internal net migration flows between the seven different categories (e.g. internal net migration between inner urban municipalities and the other six categories). The panels in Figure 1.2 display internal net migration numbers for each of the seven categories in each Nordic coun­try. Positive internal net migration implies that more people move to the given municipality type than move away. Conversely, negative internal net migration implies that the number of people who move away surpasses the number of newcomers. Our analysis covers a five-year period, encompassing pre-pandemic (2018–2019), pandemic (2020–2021) and post-pandemic (2022) years.
Figure 1.2: Internal net migration by type of municipality (2018–2022)
Figure 1.2: Internal net migration by type of municipality (2018–2022)
Note: Internal net migration is calculated as the difference between the number of internal immigrants and internal emigrants. The municipal reform in Norway in 2020 meant that the urban-rural typology could not be applied for 2018 and 2019
Source: NSIs
Figure 1.2 reveals interesting differences and similarities across the Nordic countries. In Denmark, Finland and Sweden, the inner urban areas experienced strong population gains from internal migration during the pre-pandemic years. This pattern is most pronounced in Finland, where all other municipality categories – with the exception of peri-urban areas in 2019 – saw negative internal net migration. In Denmark, outer urban areas also registered positive internal net migration, while in Sweden, peri-urban areas benefitted in both years. In all three countries, the more rural municipality categories (including local centres in rural areas, rural areas close to urban centres, rural heartlands and sparsely populated areas) recorded negative internal net migration.
During the pandemic, this pattern changed, and internal net migration in inner urban areas turned negative. Sweden was the first to experience this shift in 2020, and Denmark, Finland and Norway followed in 2021. The decline was least pronounced in Finland. In all four countries, internal migrants began opting for suburbs, towns or rural areas close to cities.
This trend has also been observed in other countries, including Germany, the Netherlands and France (Vogiazides and Kawalerowicz 2022).
However, the exact migration patterns differ between the Nordic countries. In Denmark, outer urban areas and rural areas close to urban centres saw the largest population gains via internal migration in 2021. In Finland and Norway, outer and peri-urban areas registered positive internal net migration (in Norway, even rural areas close to urban centres), while in Sweden, peri-urban areas gained most. In all four countries, internal migrants avoided both the inner urban areas and the most remote and sparsely populated areas during 2021.  
After the pandemic, in 2022, these patterns changed again, with internal net migration to inner urban areas turning positive in Denmark, Finland and Sweden, but not in Norway. Nonetheless, with the exception of Finland, some patterns seen in 2021 continued. In Denmark, outer urban areas and rural areas close to urban centres still experienced positive net migration. In Sweden, internal net migration remained positive in outer urban areas, local centres in rural areas and peri-urban areas, with the latter registering the highest internal net migration numbers. In Norway, net migration to inner urban areas remained negative, as internal migrants favoured outer urban and peri-urban areas, as well as rural areas close to urban centres. It remains to be seen whether internal migration patterns will return to those of the pre-pandemic years or whether suburbs, towns and rural areas close to cities will remain attractive to internal migrants in the Nordic countries in the years to come.
Iceland has experienced different internal migration trends compared to the other Nordic countries. Throughout the five-year period shown in the figure, both inner urban areas and sparsely populated areas registered net internal migration losses. In outer urban areas and rural heartlands, net internal migration fluctuated around zero, while the remaining three municipality types experienced net internal migration gains.
The trends in Figure 1.2 are shown at an aggregate level, as they group municipalities by category. As such, the figure masks variations in migration patterns across individual municipalities. Map 1.3 allows for a more fine-grained analysis by presenting annual net migration as a percentage of the total population in each municipality in 2021 and 2022. A comparison of the two maps reinforces some of the insights provided by Figure 1.2.
In 2021, internal net migration was positive (indicated by shades of blue) or at least balanced (shown in yellow) in many of the municipalities in central and northern Sweden and in central and eastern Finland – areas that traditionally were more likely to lose population due to internal migration (Heleniak 2022b). Conversely, several municipalities in the capital regions – such as Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen – exhibited negative internal net migration. In 2022, some of these patterns reversed, but several municipalities across the Nordic Region, including in more remote and rural areas, continued to register positive internal net migration.
Map 1.3a: Internal net migration by municipality, in per cent of total population (2021)
Source: NSIs
Map 1.3b: Internal net migration by municipality, in per cent of total population (2022)
Source: NSIs

Box 1.2: Analysis of population changes within municipalities, based on the Nordic urban-rural typology

The Nordic urban-rural typology and population data at the 1 × 1 km grid level can also provide more detailed insights into pre- and post-pandemic population changes. Grid-level data from three reference years (2008, 2017, 2022) is available to illustrate changes at local level, which cannot be observed via more aggregated data at the municipality level. Here, we focus on the latter two years.
To illustrate the benefits of analysing population changes at grid level, we look at three different Nordic municipalities: Sandefjord in Norway, Sipoo in Finland, and Skurup in Sweden. All three have recorded population growth in recent years. Based on their characteristics, Sipoo is classified in the typology as a peri-urban area. It is part of the Helsinki metropolitan region, approximately 30–35 km from the capital. Skurup is a local centre in a rural area, located in Skåne County and part of the Greater Malmö region. Sandefjord is an example of an inner urban area located in southern Norway, approximately 120 km south of Oslo. As shown in Table 1.3, almost the entire population of Skurup is classified as living in a local centre in a rural area or rural area close to urban area. In Sipoo, most people live in peri-urban areas. Sandefjord has a somewhat different profile in that the largest share of the population lives in the inner and outer urban areas.

Inner urban area
Outer urban area
Peri-urban area
Local centre in rural area
Rural area close to urban
Rural heartland
Sparsely populated rural area
­Table 1.3: Population in Sipoo, Skurup and Sandefjord by type of area, as defined in the Nordic urban-rural typology (2017 and 2022)
Map 1.4a: Population change in Sipoo, 2017-2022 at grid level
Map 1.4b: Population change in Skurup, 2017-2022 at grid level
Map 1.4c: Population change in Sandefjord, 2017-2022 at grid level
Table 1.3 and Maps 1.4 show that all three municipalities saw substantial increases in population between 2017 and 2022. During this period, population growth was most evident in Sipoo (10.6%), followed by Skurup (6.6%) and Sandefjord (5.0%).
It is noteworthy that population increase in Sipoo mainly occurred in peri-urban areas, while in Skurup, increases of similar size occurred in the categories ‘local centre in rural area’ and ‘rural area close to urban’. In Sandefjord, population growth occurred in all types of areas, but the largest proportional increases were seen in the outer urban and peri-urban areas. The development seen in the three municipalities is in line with the findings of Stjernberg et al. (2024), showing that the mentioned categories in the Nordic typology were among those that saw a noticeable population increase at the Nordic level.

Concluding remarks

The COVID-19 pandemic had a complex and multifaceted impact on demographic developments in the Nordic Region. Nonetheless, as argued in this chapter, important and, to some extent, unexpected demographic trends also emerged after the Nordic governments lifted pandemic-related restrictions in 2022. Fertility rates dropped to low levels, while mortality levels remained high, leading to declines in life expectancy and natural population decline in the Nordic Region as a whole. Internal migration in the Nordic Region declined somewhat from the high levels of the pandemic years, but some of the trends witnessed during this period – such as increased popularity of suburbs and rural areas close to city centres – persisted.
These different demographic trends had varying effects on urban and rural areas in the Nordic Region. Urban areas continued to register natural population growth, thanks to the relatively high proportion of young people who live there. During the pandemic, urban areas lost population due to a net internal migration outflow, but this trend reversed in 2022 in Denmark, Finland and Sweden. Many suburbs, rural areas close to cities and smaller towns benefitted from internal migration during 2021 and 2022. By contrast, demographic trends appear to remain challenging in the most remote rural municipalities. The populations in these municipalities tend to be older, comparatively speaking, and many experienced natural population decline both during and after the pandemic. Rural heartlands and sparsely populated areas also continued to experience negative internal net migration during recent years, with more people moving to other parts of the country than moving in.
International migration – attracting immigrants from abroad to settle, including in more rural areas – is one potential solution to labour shortages in such areas. However, as discussed in Chapter 3, most migrants gravitate towards cities, which increases population diversity in urban areas. The diverging demographic trajectories of Nordic urban and remote rural areas have continued beyond the pandemic.


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