Swiss population increasingly diverse, mobile, census shows

The census shows a large increase in the number of people aged 60 and over

The pattern of immigration to Switzerland is changing, the latest federal census shows.

This content was published on January 23, 2002 minutes

Migrants from Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania now make up one-fourth of all foreigners living on Swiss soil.

The Swiss population continued to grow between 1990 and 2000, reaching 7.28 million people, or 5.9 per cent more than in the previous census, according to the first figures released by the federal statistics office on Tuesday. The growth rate is one of Europe's highest.

Only Luxembourg, Cyprus, Austria, Greece and Ireland had as much growth over the same period. Two factors seem to explain the expansion of Switzerland's population.

First, there were 200,000 more births than deaths during the last decade. And perhaps more importantly Switzerland is still a popular destination for migrants.

"Immigrants accounted for roughly half of the population increase," said Werner Haug, vice director of the federal statistics office. More than one in five people living in Switzerland is a foreigner.


Foreigners moving to Switzerland accounted for a three per cent rise in the overall population.

Only Germany, Austria and Greece took in more foreigners as part of their population. Immigrants now represent 20.5 per cent of the overall population, compared with just over 18 per cent ten years ago.

The homelands of the new arrivals have changed over the years. Four decades ago, 85 per cent of foreigners in Switzerland came from neighbouring countries, while today it is just over one in three.

Italians, Switzerland's biggest foreign community, find the country far less attractive than in the past. Today, they represent just 22 per cent of the foreign population, versus more than half in 1970, a decrease due to departures and naturalisations, according to the statistics office.

Migrants from the states that previously made up Yugoslavia also constitute almost a quarter of the foreign population.

The drop in the number of immigrants from European countries, which first showed up in the statistics between 1980 and 1990, has also continued. Non-Europeans now represent 13 per cent of the foreign population, versus ten per cent in 1990 and six in 1980.

This proportion of non-Europeans, however, remains low when compared with countries such as Germany (19 per cent) or France (54 per cent).

Muslim population doubles

One consequence of this diversification of Switzerland's foreign population is the increased presence of Islam. While Christians remain the country's largest religious community, the number of Muslims doubled over the past decade, going from 152,000 to 310,000, making them the second largest group.

According to the statistics office, this increase is due mainly to the arrival of migrants from Turkey, Kosovo, Macedonia and Bosnia.

Many more Swiss citizens also belong to the Islamic community, either because of births or naturalisations. Ten years ago, there were 7,700 Swiss Muslims; today there are 40,000.

The Old Catholic church no longer represents Switzerland's third-biggest Christian community, slipping behind the Orthodox community, which now counts 130,000 members.

Many languages

The changing face of Swiss population is also reflected by changes in the country's linguistic makeup. While German, French and Italian are still top of the heap, 10 per cent of the population uses another first language.

English, despite being touted as Switzerland's fifth national language, comes in only eighth behind Serbo-Croat, Albanian, Portuguese and Spanish, but still in front of Turkish and Kurdish.

Romansh, the country's fourth official language, hardly registers on the radar screen, with just 0.4 per cent of the population speaking it.

The strong presence of non-national languages is due mainly to ongoing immigration though, says the statistics office. Among second-generation immigrants, more than three out of five Croats and Portuguese, and nearly 80 per cent of the Spanish, say they use a national language rather than their mother tongue.

Aging population

The influx of immigrants has had another effect. The aging of Switzerland's population slowed during the last decade, with the number of elderly people remaining stable.

The increase was just one per cent between 1990 and 2000, with people over the age of 60 representing just over one-fifth of the population. Their share had grown by nearly three per cent during the Seventies and Eighties.

Immigration has helped Switzerland to stay younger, mainly because the arrival of families has increased the number of people under the age of 20. Foreigners also make up one quarter of the 20-39 age bracket.

Elderly foreigners, especially Italians and Spaniards, also tend to leave the country when they retire, which means they only represent one person out of twenty over 80.

This particular age group only increased slightly, due to the drop in births between 1915 and 1920 caused by the First World War and the influenza pandemic that followed shortly after.

The aging of the Swiss population was also slowed thanks to the country's baby boomers born in the Sixties. Most of them had children in the Eighties and the Nineties, contributing to a higher birth rate.

Statistical experts are not optimistic though. They expect the population to gain more than a few grey hairs as of 2005, and a strong drop of the working population between 2015 and 2035.

Switzerland's demographic geography also continued to change. Four out of five towns and villages reported an increase in their population, but it was the cantons in lower-lying areas that benefited most.

Economic strength

Zurich confirmed its role as the country's economic powerhouse, with the neighbouring areas of Zug, Schwyz, Thurgau and Aargau registering between eight and 17 per cent increases. Eastern Switzerland also benefited from its proximity to Zurich.

North-western Switzerland, particularly Basel-City which actually lost inhabitants, wasn't so fortunate. Canton Bern was also on the slow track.

In the French-speaking part of the country, canton Fribourg made the biggest gains, with its population increasing 12.7 per cent, making the most of its central position between Bern and Lausanne. The area stretching along Lake Geneva also made significant gains on the population front

Outlying areas in the Jura and isolated regions in the Alps failed on the other hand to make significant gains, due mainly to job losses according to the federal statistics office. Smaller urban centres in the Alpine valleys did however better.

Neuchâtel, the Jura, Uri and Appenzell Outer Rhodes were below the national average.

Surprisingly, growth was stronger in rural areas (9.5 per cent) than in the country's towns (5.3 per cent) although the vast majority of Swiss continue to live in urban zones.

This ongoing popularity of the countryside is based on two factors. One is a lack of building space in Switzerland's towns and the other is high rents in urban centres.

More and more people are choosing to live between 30 and 40 kilometres away from their workplace in an urban centre, where most economic activity is carried out. Commuting has therefore increased and for the first time in decades travel time to work has also risen.

by Scott Capper

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