Västernorrland (2008: 21684 km2; 243373 inhabitants) is – like all of the northern counties of Sweden – sparsely populated with only 11 inhabitants per km2. Västernorrland County consists of seven municipalities with Härnösand as capital and Sundsvall as the largest city with around 95000 inhabitants in the end of 2008.
Due to an early and rapid industrialization starting in the second half of the 19th century, the image of Västernorrland is that of an industrial region dominated by large raw-material based export-oriented industries with a large share of men in the labour force. This implies that the county is of a dual character: Most of the people and activities are localised in the cities and municipalities along the Botnia coastline.
The large companies, which were founded during the industrialisation process have been merged and concentrated during the last decades, are still the backbone of the region’s economy. In the course of structural transformation labour demand decreased in the basic industries and during the last decades, reductions of employment are taking place in the large companies. At the same time the public sector has been restructuring and cutting back, primarily reducing the job opportunities for female labour.
Västernorrland reached a peak in population in the middle of 1950s, with a little more than 280000 inhabitants. Since then, the population has decreased by more than 10 percent. Particularly during the last 20 years, the decrease has been very rapid and placed Västernorrland as one of the most rapidly depopulating counties in Sweden.
At least the following four effects should be highlighted in discussing population development in Västernorrland:
- the huge out-migration of young people.
- the shortage of domestic in-migrants that is not enough to match the out-migration.
- the ageing of the population
- the skewed gender structure in the active population, e.g. the age group 20-40.
The county is not considered to be attractive for all young people, especially not for young women. One reason is that there is a shortage in supply of both education and employment opportunities even if the Mid University and the big regional hospital in Sundsvall have resulted in a more female-friendly labour market during the last decades. The structure of the labour market with a rather narrow branch mix is still a problem, which makes the region less attractive for both men and women seeking careers at the county’s labour market.
Despite the low figure of foreigners compared to the whole country, the immigration from abroad hampered the negative population development in Västernorrland somewhat. The refugee immigration has, however, reinforced the internal out-migration deficit to other parts of Sweden – primarily to the metropolitan areas – as the immigrants from abroad preferred to move to these kinds of regions after some time.
The problematic demographic structure with an ageing population and a deficit of young women has several consequences. Among other things the local governments, with the responsibility to provide basic personal services, approaches economic problems. Population decline also erodes the basis for commercial and public services, in particular in rural and sparsely populated areas and reinforce the dual character of the region. The above mentioned demographic problems that to a large degree emanate from a skewed age and gender structure are, thus, central ingredients in and aims for this study.