What would Vienna look like without migrants, and what kind of socioeconomic implications would such a situation have? IIASA researchers Anne Goujon and Thomas Schinko delved into these questions in response to a recent public debate on the topic.

The response of Gottfried Waldhäusl, FPÖ Landesrat in Lower Austria in January 2023 to a 16-year-old student who was arguing live on Austrian TV that if strict border closures would have been implemented in the past, her whole school class would not be sitting here today, triggered a wave of indignation sweeping through Austria. His undisguised response: “Ja wenn das schon lange geschehen wäre, dann wäre Wien noch Wien” [Yes, if that had happened a long time ago, Vienna would still be Vienna], triggered further debate and controversy around this topic.

Setting aside the moral dimension of this incident, we have been asking ourselves as demographers, social scientists, and economists what Vienna would indeed look like without migrants, and what the socioeconomic implications of this would be.

International migration to Vienna since the 19th century

There are several ways to look at the relevance of international migration for Vienna. One way is to explore what the population of the capital city would be in the absence of international migrants. As was often mentioned in the justified reactions following the statement by Mr. Waldhäusl, Vienna has been a melting pot for a long time, attracting migrants from everywhere. For example, between 1840 and 1916, the population quadrupled – from 470 thousand to 2.2 million – mostly as a result of the flows of people from other parts of the empire such as Bohemia and Moravia to the capital city, which explains the city’s current ethnic mix, clearly visible when looking at the names of people registered in the phone book.

With the dramatic consequences of two world wars, and the dissolution of the Habsburg empire, the capital city lost its attractiveness between 1920 and 1990. As a result, in 1971 Vienna had a population of 1.6 million. Because of the war casualties and the specific labor demand for servants, the sex ratio was skewed towards women who represented 56% of the population and the population was rather old with a mean age around 42 years (compared to 36 years for the population of Austria). The share of older persons above the age of 65 years was 20% (compared to 15% for the whole of Austria). This is very visible from the age pyramid shown below.

Age pyramid of the population of Vienna © IIASA

A counter fact: Halting international migration in the 1970s

If we decide to use this as a point of departure, we set out for a rough estimate of what the population of Vienna would be today if, between 1971 and 2021, no international migrants would have set foot in the country and only internal mobility from and to Vienna within Austria was allowed. This can be calculated using counterfactual population projections starting from the population living in Vienna at the time of the 1971 census.

Age pyramid of the population of Vienna © IIASA

The calculations are rough because they do not remove migrants from the fertility and mortality assumptions, and we lack information about the internal mobility before 2002. Our findings are therefore based on a guestimate, assuming an increase in internal mobility to Vienna from the 1970s to the early 2000s. The second age pyramid shows what the population of Vienna would be without international migrants, and the third depicts the actual Viennese population today (in 2022). The difference in absolute numbers would be 883,000 (1.05 million in Vienna without migration vs. 1.93 million with migration). The population would be on average older by five years (46 vs. 41 years), with a much higher dependency ratio: 70 persons aged 0-19 and 65+ for every 100 people of working age (20-64) in Vienna without migration, compared to 56 in real Vienna.

The implications of a Vienna without migrants

Age pyramid of the population of Vienna © IIASA

There would be multiple consequences of such a demographic setting. At the economic level, Vienna would have experienced a major lack of a highly educated workforce which would have catapulted Austria back in terms of economic development and international technological leadership. Also, at the social and cultural level, the dynamism of the city that we know today would certainly not be the same. Hence, Vienna would be characterized by a non-negligible higher old-age dependency ratio with implications for the Austrian social security system and a substantially less vibrant social and cultural diversity.

It is important to remember that overall, migrants play a vital role in addressing labor market needs, driving economic growth, promoting cultural diversity, and supporting social development in both their host and home countries.


* Authors’ calculations based on data from Statistics Austria and Landesstatistik Wien (MA23).

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the IIASA blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.