Iran's ageing time bomb: Decades of denial and social unrest

Iran's ageing time bomb: Decades of denial and social unrest
5 min read
28 December, 2023

On May 20, 2023, Javan Daily, a conservative newspaper associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), published a striking headline on its front page, which read: "We are running out!"

The article reported on Iran's plummeting population growth rate and attributed it to the partial implementation of the youth population growth law, which had been passed just one year prior.

This is not an isolated incident. Over the past few years, senior Iranian authorities and state media have constantly sounded the alarm about the nation's demographic "tsunami," a phenomenon with far-reaching implications for the country's internal stability, regional influence, and economic future.

"Despite repeated efforts, Iran's population growth rate has dipped below 1% - currently at 0.77% - the lowest since 1956"

A significant decline

While ageing populations are a global trend, Iran's demographic shift is particularly stark. In just three decades, the country has transitioned from a predominantly young nation to one rapidly approaching "aged society" status.

According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), by 2050, over 30% of Iranians will be over the age of 60, making Iran home to the largest elderly population in the Middle East. Today, over 11.3% of Iran's 85 million population is already above 60.

This dramatic shift is the result of a roller coaster ride of population policies implemented over the past four decades. Following the 1979 revolution and the bloody war with Iraq (1980-1988), authorities encouraged rapid population growth to bolster national strength. Fertility rates skyrocketed, from 4.5 children per woman in 1979 to over 6.5 by the mid-1980s.

However, the post-war rebuilding efforts soon revealed the unsustainability of such rapid growth. In 1988, authorities enacted a dramatic shift, advocating for smaller families and promoting a two-child ideal. This policy, coupled with increasing female education levels and changing societal norms, proved remarkably successful. By 2010, the fertility rate had plummeted to below 2.5 children per woman.

Reversing course, stuck in reverse

This success, however, has come with a heavy price. By 2011, census results confirmed a dramatic reversal – population growth had halved to just 1.3%.

The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, publicly voiced his regret, attributing the decline to Western "infiltration" aimed at weakening Iran and the Islamic World. A year later, pro-natalist policies resurfaced, offering financial incentives for larger families, increasing maternity leave, and restricting access to abortions and vasectomies.

However, these efforts have largely fallen on deaf ears. A generation of youth, disenchanted by rampant corruption, economic hardship, and limited opportunities, are increasingly turning their backs on their homeland. Emigration rates have soared, with many young Iranians viewing a better future for family formation abroad.

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The consequences of this policy failure are stark. Despite repeated efforts, the population growth rate has dipped below 1% — currently at 0.77% — the lowest since 1956. Simultaneously, the dependency ratio, with its increasing elderly population, is casting a long shadow, expected to reach 30% or 40 million by 2050.

The demographic crisis is not merely a matter of numbers; it is a potent symbol of a crumbling social contract between the Iranian state and its younger generation. The economic malaise, rampant corruption, and shrinking opportunities have eroded trust and hope for the future, disincentivising young Iranians from building families and contributing to the nation's future.

This lack of faith manifests in social unrest, political apathy, and a growing sense of alienation. The state's attempts at appeasement through financial incentives and pro-natalist policies have largely fallen flat, highlighting the deeper societal disaffection that fuels the demographic decline.

Iran’s annual population growth rate from 1996 to 2021
Iran’s annual population growth rate from 1996 to 2021

What an ageing country looks like

The ramifications of Iran's demographic crisis extend far beyond the realm of social security and healthcare. Iran's regional ambitions, heavily reliant on its post-war population boom for military, economic, and political clout, face significant headwinds.

The tide is turning. Within two decades, the state could face a dramatic shift. The first generation born after the revolution will enter retirement, swelling the ranks of the elderly and placing immense pressure on already struggling social security systems and healthcare infrastructure.

Crumbling pension funds, burdened by an ever-growing population of senior citizens, could buckle under the strain, jeopardising the future of vital services for generations to come.

The ongoing exodus of skilled professionals through emigration casts a long shadow over Iran's future. Iran's scientific output, once a source of national pride, could plateau just as its regional rivals aggressively expand research hubs and higher education capacities.

This brain drain not only weakens Iran's scientific prowess but also hinders its ability to develop and implement cutting-edge technologies, vital for its future economic, political, and military ambitions.

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Furthermore, Iran's Sunni-majority border regions like Sistan and Baluchistan exhibit higher birth rates, potentially altering the country's internal ethnic and religious demographics. This raises concerns about regional imbalances within the Shia-led system.

Most acutely, military strategists recognise the direct link between population dynamism and national muscle. For an Iran that has long relied on its post-war population boom to flex its muscles regionally, the shrinking young cohort is seen as a direct threat to its national security and ambitions.

This outlook becomes even more intense when compared to the demographic trends in neighbouring rivals like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Turkey, whose younger populations and higher population growth rates could put them on track to surpass Iran in human resource potential, further diminishing Tehran’s regional clout in future.

The government's pronouncements – from financial incentives to stricter regulations – have yet to stem the tide of emigration and declining birth rates. Amidst regional rivals with burgeoning youth populations, Iran's path forward hinges on a complex interplay of economic revitalisation, social reforms, and a shift in societal priorities.

Only time will tell whether these factors converge to alter the demographic landscape, or whether the unresolved crisis will continue to cast a long shadow over the nation's future.

Maysam Bizaer is an analyst and commentator on Iran’s foreign policy, politics, and economy. He is a frequent contributor to international media and US-based think tanks covering the Middle East

Follow him on Twitter @m_bizar