Source: World Travel Guide.
In an article published by Amigoe di Curaçao on July 3, 1973, the director of the Netherlands Antilles Central Bureau for Statistics (CBS), J. Hans van Leusden sounded the alarm. According to his calculations, Curaçao’s population would balloon from 149,000 in 1973 to 267,000 in 2000. He predicted that if nothing were done, the island’s population would grow exponentially for 100 years before finally tapering off in 2073. According to van Leusden, interventions by the Planned Family Foundation of Curaçao represented the island’s only hope to ease population pressures.
Yet, according to the most recent statistics, the population of Curaçao as of January 1, 2023, stood at 148,925 people—almost exactly what the population was in 1973 when the CBS director offered his dire warning. While the population figures are similar, significant structural differences exist today compared to half a century ago, which undoubtedly have consequences for our society. Unfortunately, the media, decisionmakers, and politicians have not sufficiently examined the statistics nor determined what they mean.
Curaçao’s population has been on a downward trend for the last six years, decreasing by 7 percent, meaning there are approximately 11,087 fewer Curaçaoans than in 2017. The population pyramid of Curaçao is perhaps the most telling demographic statistic—shedding light on fertility, mortality, and distribution of various age groups for men and women. CBS does not produce all of these statistics, but fortunately, the U.S. Census Bureau does.
The population pyramid shows Curaçao’s low fertility, high life expectancies, and an increasingly aging and dwindling population—taken together, these figures tell a story. The total fertility rate has plummeted from 2.9 in 1973 to only 1.72 in 2022. In developed countries, for populations to remain constant, the total fertility rate must average 2.1, also referred to as the replacement fertility rate. A fertility rate below the replacement level of 2.1 is referred to as “sub-replacement fertility,” which means that with other conditions remaining the same, the population will shrink and age. That said, projections for population growth rely on fertility rates as well as mortality and migration rates.
Table 1: Curaçao’s Population Pyramid
The largest population in Curaçao is currently in the age bracket 50-65, while the young population, 0-14, is drastically decreasing. The base of Curaçao’s population pyramid is becoming smaller, which in turn, puts more pressure on those younger people to support social systems as their parent’s age. Life expectancy in Curaçao is on the rise for women and men—on average, newborns could expect today to reach age 79.41, whilst this was only 69.91 in 1973. Though Curaçaoans should celebrate these gains, in the longer term, the decline in fertility could lead to a decrease in major revenue streams, putting public services in a precarious spot.
Many of these population pressures circle back to migration, which in turn, circle back to the island’s economic situation. According to CBS, in 2022, about 20 percent more people have emigrated from Curaçao than in 2011. Immigration into the country during the same period has decreased by 30 percent, creating a net-negative flow of migrants. The closure of the island’s oil refinery in 2018 and the decline in tourism due to the pandemic all play a part in the struggling economic situation. Making matters worse, Curaçao is suffering from a significant brain drain, with many of the island’s most promising students electing to study in the Netherlands or United States.
What does all this mean? The above-mentioned demographic shifts will strain Curaçao’s public finances as age-related spending—such as healthcare and pensions—rises while the tax base shrinks. It also means less consumption of goods, closure of businesses, an increase of empty houses, schools, and buildings, decreased demand for credit, and raised risks for the financial health of commercial banks and the typical household. Labor productivity, competitiveness, and innovation, among others, will suffer. The repercussions will be wide-ranging. The island is currently standing on the verge of whether it can continue to function as a society.
Yet, these demographic shifts could also open doors to reform if and when the political decisionmakers demonstrate the requisite will. Curaçao should have a comprehensive demographic policy which, if memory serves me well, we have never had before. In 2007, I made the case for providing incentives to grow the population to 300,000. Still, the idea never took off because of our aversion to long-term planning and a predisposition to immediately bog down in details instead of first looking at the big picture.
Curaçao has to make it more attractive for people to have children by reducing the opportunity costs of getting married and raising kids. More flexibility is needed in the workforce, allowing couples to split the maternity and paternity leave between them and more employees to work flexibly, even at home. A balanced immigration policy to attract our diaspora back to the island and supplement their ranks with foreign migrant workers, according to local needs. Future immigration policy must be tightly coupled with infrastructure development, urban planning, proactive management of migrant integration, and social cohesion.
Economic growth is virtually impossible with a shrinking population. Yet, population policy is not just about economics—it also affects society and politics. What we put off today as “too distant in the future” will return to our doorsteps sooner than expected. It is time more people sound the alarm, but this time to encourage population growth.
Alex Rosaria is from Curaçao. He has a BBA in Accounting and an MBA in International Trade Relations from the Tippie College of Business of the University of Iowa. He was a Member of Parliament, Minister of Economic Affairs, State Secretary of Finance, and United Nations Development Programme Officer in Chad and Nicaragua. He is a freelancer in Asia and the Pacific, a member of the Global Americans Working Group on Climate Change in the Caribbean, and a fellow of the Caribbean Policy Consortium.