With a population density of 76 per km², Croatia is one of the more sparsely populated European countries, along with Norway, Finland, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ireland and Bulgaria.
In the last 150 years, several factors have influenced population development, of which the most important are continual, sometimes intensive, emigration to European and more distant destinations, two world wars and the Homeland War.
Although the population of Croatia has doubled in the last 150 years, this is low in comparison to other countries (for example, the population of The Netherlands increased three and a half times in the same period). The population has on the whole increased, with a particularly high rate at the end of the 19th century, when it entered the first phase of demographic transition, marked by high rates of natural change. However, in the early 20th century emigration increased, and the rate of population growth fell, while the outbreak of the First World War and the Spanish Flu epidemic led to the first actual decrease in the population. After recovering slightly in the 1920s, war again followed, and there was a second fall in population levels. The rapid growth of the population from the 1960s to the 1980s was slowed by a decrease in natural change, directly linked to a decrease in the birth rate, accompanied by marked emigration for “temporary work” abroad. In these circumstances, the population of Croatia went through an accelerated demographic transition. By the end of the 1980s, a low rate of natural change was noted, which was not at all in line with the rate of economic development. With such a weakened population base (particularly reproductive), Croatia faced yet another war in the 1990s, followed by an insecure post-war period, the consequence of which was a third drop in population numbers in the 20th century.
A long period of depopulation has resulted in many negative consequences, such as the reduction of the core population producing new generations, the reduction of the active working population, and the increasing care needs of the older population; in other words, increased economic and social burdens placed on the State Budget in the areas of pension insurance, social and health care of the elderly, etc.
Apart from the decreasing population, the contemporary demographic picture of Croatia is much like those of the other members of the EU. It is characterised by three processes: ageing, natural depopulation, and spatial polarisation of the population.
Life expectancy has risen to 80 for women and 73 for men, leading to the more rapid ageing of the population. The average age, which was 30.7 sixty years ago, has risen to 41.7. Almost one quarter of the population of Croatia today is over 60 years old (24%), while fifty years ago, it was 12%. In addition, only 15% of the population today is of elementary school age, while in the early 1960s it was 27%. Natural depopulation is closely related to the process of population ageing, or rather the decrease in the population due to the death rate being higher than the birth rate, and the fall in the average number of children per woman of fertile age (1.5), which puts Croatia side by side with other European countries (with the exception of Iceland, where the rate is 2.15).
This natural change of –2%, like other demographic processes in Croatia, goes back several decades. The birth rate has been falling constantly since the 1950s, the death rate has been rising since the 1970s, while in the 1990s, when the death rate increased due to war losses, the figures for natural change were also negative.