Spain Table of Contents

Size and Growth

In mid-1985, Spain's population reached 38.8 million, making it Western Europe's fifth most populous nation. The country's population grew very slowly throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth. In the 1860s, the population increased by only about one-third of one percent annually; by the first decades of the twentieth century, this rate of increase had grown to about 0.7 percent per year. Between the 1930s and the 1980s, population growth rates hovered between 0.8 and 1.2 percent annually. In the postwar years, Spain began to exhibit population growth patterns very similar to those of most other advanced industrial societies. Growth rates were projected to level off, or to decline slightly, through the remainder of the twentieth century; Spain was expected to reach a population of 40 million by 1990 and 42 million by the year 2000. Observers estimated that the country's population would stabilize in the year 2020 at about 46 million.

One significant factor in Spain's population growth has been a declining rate of births. Between 1965 and 1985, Spain experienced a dramatic reduction in its birth rate, from 21 to 13 per thousand, a drop of approximately 38 percent. In 1975, with an estimated base population of about 35.5 million, the country recorded about 675,000 live births; in 1985, with an estimated base population of more than 38 million, Spain had only about 475,000 live births. In other words, ten years after the death of Franco, despite an increase of nearly 3 million in the base population, the country registered more than one-third fewer births.

Part of this change can be attributed to the increase in the percentage of women using contraceptives. Whereas in the 1960s such data were not even reported, by 1984 the World Bank estimated that over half of Spanish women of childbearing age practiced birth control. Demographers have observed, however, that this increased use of contraceptive devices was only the surface reflection of other more significant changes in Spanish society during the period from 1960 to 1985. The economic causes included an economic slump, unemployment, insufficient housing, and the arrival of the consumer society. Also, changes in cultural patterns reflected women's increased access to employment, expanded women's rights, a decline in the number of marriages (between 1974 and 1984, the marriage rate dropped from 7.6 to 5.0 per 1,000), an improved image of couples without children, a decline in the belief that children were the center of the family, increased access to abortion and divorce, and in general a break in the linkage between woman and mother as social roles.

At the same time that the birth rate was dropping sharply, Spain's low death rate also declined slightly, from 8 to 7 per 1,000. By the mid-1980s, life expectancy at birth had reached seventy-seven years, a level equal to or better than that of every other country in Europe except France, and superior to the average of all the world's advanced industrial countries. Male life expectancy increased between 1965 and 1985 from sixty-eight to seventy-four years, while female life expectancy rose from seventy-three to eighty years.

By the early 1980s, Spain, like all advanced industrial countries, had begun to experience the aging of its population. In 1980 a reported 10.6 percent of its population was over 65 years of age, a figure that was only a bare point or two behind the percentages in the United States and the Netherlands. By 1986 the percentage over 65 had climbed to 12.2; officials estimated that by 2001, the percentage over sixty-five would exceed 15. In 1985 children under the age of 14 constituted 25 percent of the population; specialists anticipated that, by the year 2001, this proportion would decline to 18 percent.

Regional Disparities

Spain is more a subcontinent than a country, and its climate, geography, and history produced a state that was little more than a federation of regions until Philip V, a grandson of Louis XIV, brought the centralization of the Bourbon monarchy to the country in the eighteenth century. Modernday Spain contains a number of identifiable regions, each with its own set of cultural, economic, and political characteristics. In many instances, the loyalty of a population is still primarily to its town or region, and only secondarily to the abstract concept of "Spain." Administratively, Spain is organized into seventeen autonomous communities comprising fifty provinces. However, when an autonomous community is made up of only one province, provinccial institutions have been transferred to the autonomous community.

On the map, the Iberian Peninsula resembles a slightly distorted square with the top bent toward the east and spread wide where it joins the rest of Europe. In the center lies the densely populated Spanish capital, Madrid, surrounded by the harsh, sparsely populated Meseta Central. King Philip II made Madrid the capital of Castile (Spanish, Castilla) in the sixteenth century, partly because its remoteness made it an uncontroversial choice. The city, surrounded by a demographic desert, in the late 1980s was still regarded by many Spaniards as an "artificial" capital even though it had long been established as the political center of the country.

Around the periphery of the peninsula are the peoples that have competed with Castilians for centuries over control of Iberia: in the west, the Portuguese (the only group successful in establishing its own state in 1640); in the northwest, the Galicians; along the northern coast of the Bay of Biscay, the Asturians; and, as the coast nears France, the Basques; along the Pyrenees, the Navarrese and the Aragonese; in the northeast, the Catalans; in the east, the Valencians; and in the south, the Andalusians. Although most of these peoples would decline to identify themselves first, foremost, and solely as "Spanish," few of them would choose to secede from Spain. Even among Basques, whose separatist sentiment ran deepest in the late 1980s, those advocating total independence from Spain probably comprised only one-fifth of the ethnic Basque population. Whereas culture provided the centrifugal force, economic ties linked the regions together more closely than an outsider might conclude from their rhetoric.

Spain's seventeen regions, defined by the 1978 Constitution as autonomous communities, vary greatly in size and population, as well as in economic and political weight. For example, Andalusia (Spanish, Andalucia), nearly the size of Portugal, encompasses 17 percent of Spain's land area. The two regions carved out of sparsely populated Castile--Castilla-La Mancha (larger than Ireland) and Castilla y Leon (larger than Austria)--account for 15.6 and 18.7 percent, respectively, of Spain's total area. These three large regions combined account for about 52 percent of the country's total territory. No other autonomous region contains more than 10 percent of the total. The three richest, most densely populated and most heavily industrialized regions--Madrid, Catalonia (Spanish, Cataluna; Catalan, Catalunya), and the Basque Country (Spanish, Pais Vasco; Basque Euskadi)--together account for 9.3 percent of the total. The remaining 40 percent is made up of two medium-sized regions--Aragon (Spanish, Aragon) and Extremadura--each of which holds 8 to 9 percent, and seven much smaller regions that together account for about 20 percent of the national territory. Regional economic disparities between "Rich Spain" and "Poor Spain" were also highly significant, and they continued to shape the country's political debate despite a century of efforts to redistribute the wealth of the country. Imagine a line drawn from about the middle of the north coast, in Asturias, southeastward to Madrid, and then to Valencia. To the north and east of the line lived the people of Rich Spain, sometimes referred to as "Bourgeois Spain," an area already substantially modernized, industrialized, and urbanized, where the transition to an information and services economy was already well under way in the 1980s. To the south and west of the line lay Poor Spain, or "Traditional Spain," where agriculture continued to dominate and where semi-feudal social conditions could still be found. To aggravate this cleavage still further, Rich Spain, with the exception of Madrid, tended to be made up disproportionately of people who felt culturally different from the Castilians and not really "Spanish" at all.

Indicators of economic disparity are stark reminders that not all Spaniards shared in the country's economic miracle. The autonomous communities of Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Madrid accounted for half of Spain's gross national product (GNP) in the late 1980s. Income per capita was only 55 percent of the Catalan level in Extremadura, 64 percent in Andalusia, and 70 percent in Galicia. In Galicia, 46 percent of the population still worked on the land; in Extremadura and the two Castilian regions, 30 to 34 percent did so; but in Catalonia and the Basque Country, only 6 percent depended on the land for their livelihood. In Andalusia, unemployment exceeded 30 percent; in Aragon and in Navarre (Spanish, Navarra) it ran between 15 and 20 percent. A 1987 report by Spain's National Statistics Institute revealed that the country's richest autonomous community, Madrid, exceeded its poorest, Extremadura, by wide margins in every economic category. With the national average equal to zero, Madrid's standard of living measured 1.7 while Extremadura scored -2.0; in family income, the values were Madrid 1.0, Extremadura, -2.1; in economic development, Madrid, 1.7, Extremadura, -2.0; and in endowment in physical and human resources, Madrid, 1.4, Extremadura, -1.7.


The poverty of rural Spain led to a marked shift in population as hundreds of thousands of Spaniards moved out of the poor south and west in search of jobs and a better way of life. Between 1951 and 1981, more than 5 million Spaniards left Poor Spain, first for the prosperous economies of France and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), then for the expanding industrial regions of Spain itself. Nearly 40 percent, or 1.7 million, left Andalusia alone; another million left Castilla y Leon; and slightly fewer than 1 million left CastillaLa Mancha.

By 1970 migrants accounted for about 26 percent of the population in Madrid, 23 percent in Barcelona, and more than 30 percent in the booming Basque province of Alava. In the years after Franco's death, when the economies of some of the industrial areas, especially the Basque region, began to sour, some tens of thousands of these people returned to their provinces of origin. The majority of the migrants of the 1960s and the 1970s, however, were husbands and wives who had moved their families with the idea of staying for a long period, if not permanently. Thus, the great bulk of the migrants stayed on to shape the culture and the politics of their adopted regions. In the long run, this may turn out to be the most significant impact of the Spanish economic miracle on the country's intractable regional disparities.

During the last decade of the Franco era and the first decade of democracy, the population became steadily more urbanized, although Spain was already a fairly urban country even in the 1960s. Between 1965 and 1985, the population living in urban areas rose from 61 to 77 percent of the total, a level slightly higher than the average for the advanced industrial countries. Urbanization intensified during the 1960s and the 1970s, when cities grew at the rate of 2.4 percent annually, but the rate slowed to 1.6 percent during the first half of the 1980s. The mid-decennial census of April 1, 1986, showed that the Madrid area, accounting for 12.5 percent of the total population, continued to dominate the country. The six cities of over half a million--Barcelona, Madrid, Malaga, Seville, (Spanish, Sevilla), Valencia, Zaragoza--together accounted for approximately 19 percent.

A comparison of population densities among the provinces illustrates dramatically the drain of the rural population toward the major cities. In 1981 Spain's overall population density was 79 persons per square kilometer, about the same as that of Greece or Turkey and far below the average of such heavily urbanized countries as West Germany. Population densities ranged, however, from the practically deserted interior Castilian provinces, like Soria (9 per square kilometer) and Guadalajara (12), to some of the most densely populated territory in Europe, such as Madrid (607 per square kilometer), Barcelona (592 per square kilometer), and Vizcaya (527 per square kilometer). In terms of the autonomous community system, four regions--Madrid (4.9 million people), Catalonia (6.0 million), Valencia (3.8 million), and Andalusia (6.9 million)--held 50 percent of the country's population in 1986. None of the remaining 13 autonomous regions had more than 2.8 million people.

A comparison of regional population distribution changes from 1962 to 1982 shows clearly the effects of urbanization and the transformation of the work force. In this 20-year period, three regions increased their share of the country's population by three percentage points or more: Catalonia (from 13.1 to 16.6), Madrid (from 8.7 to 12.5), and Valencia (from 7.0 to 10.0). Several other regions, notably the Canary Islands and the Basque Country, registered moderate gains of about one percentage point. In contrast, the big losers (declines of three percentage points or more) were Andalusia (19.3 to 16.2) and Castilla y Leon (9.1 to 6.1). Other regions also losing their historical share of the country's population were Castilla-La Mancha, Galicia, and Extremadura. It is clear that during these two decades Spain's population balance shifted dramatically from the poor and rural provinces and regions to the much richer and more urbanized ones. Since the birth rates in the more modernized and more urbanized parts of the country tended to be even lower than the national average (the Spanish birth rate averaged between 14 and 15 per thousand in 1980-85, whereas the Basque Country rate averaged only 12), it is equally clear that this shift in the population balance was due principally to internal migration rather than to changes in birth rates.

Internal migration concentrated primarily on the huge cities of Madrid and Barcelona in the 1960s and the 1970s, but by the 1980s a significant change began to appear in the migration data. An examination of the data for 1983 and 1984--years in which, respectively, 363,000 and 387,000 persons changed residence in Spain--revealed several trends. First, the major losers of population were small towns (of fewer than 2,000 inhabitants each), which sustained a combined net loss of about 10,000 people each year, and large cities (of more than 500,000), which together had a net annual loss of more than 20,000. Second, the major net gains in population were made by cities of between 100,000 and 500,000, which had a net annual increase of more than 20,000. Third, all the other town or city size categories either had stable populations or experienced only small losses or gains. Thus, while provinces like Barcelona, dominated by a single huge city, actually lost population (more than 15,000 people in each of the years 1983 and 1984), provinces like Seville or Las Palmas, with large cities that had not yet reached the bursting point, experienced significant net in-migration. This reflected a more mature form of population relocation than the simple frantic movement from the farm to Madrid or Barcelona that had characterized the earlier decades of the Spanish economic boom.

Migration was significant not only between regions within the country but abroad as well. The movement of the Spanish population abroad resembled that of many Third World countries that sent large waves of migrants to Western Europe and to North America in the late 1960s and the early 1970s in search of better jobs and living standards and in response to labor shortages in the more advanced industrial countries. Between 1960 and 1985, nearly 1.3 million Spaniards emigrated to other West European countries. More than 500,000 went to Switzerland; more than 400,000, to West Germany; and about 277,000, to France. This flow of migrant workers reached its peak in the 1969 to 1973 period, when 512,000 Spanish citizens--some 40 percent of the entire 25-year total, an average of more than 102,000 each year-- migrated. Following the economic downturn in Europe in the mid-1970s, Spanish migration dwindled to between 10,000 and 20,000 each year, although there was a slight increase in the early 1980s in response to worsening economic conditions in Spain itself. In contrast, the late 1970s saw the return of many Spaniards from abroad, especially from Europe, as economic opportunities for Spaniards declined in Europe and as democracy returned to Spain. In the peak return year, 1975, some 110,000 Spaniards returned from Europe, and Spain's net emigration balance was minus 89,000.

In 1987, according to the government's Institute on Emigration, more than 1.7 million Spanish citizens resided outside the country. About 947,000 lived in the Western Hemisphere, principally in Argentina (374,000), Brazil (118,000), Venezuela (144,000), and the United States (74,000). More than 750,000 Spanish citizens lived in other West European countries, primarily France (321,000), West Germany (154,000), and Switzerland (108,000). Aside from these two heavy concentrations, the only other significant Spanish populations abroad were in Morocco (10,000) and in Australia (22,500).

Ethnicity and Language

For more recent population estimates, see Facts about Spain.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress