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The greying of this nation

SCOTLAND'S population has reached an all-time high.

Give or take a few thousand, 5,295,000 people have Scotland in their address, according to the preliminary findings of the 2011 Census. The figure exceeds even the 1970s when post-war babyboomers were having babies of their own.

The new figures represent an extraordinary turnaround. Between the 1981 and the 2001 Census, the population declined so rapidly that politicians and policy makers were calling for emergency measures to reverse the trend. In 2002 SNP MSP Alex Neil described the population crisis as the "number one priority for Scotland", calling for an action plan to reverse the brain drain of graduates, encourage ex-pats to return and provide tax breaks to incentivise couples to go forth and multiply. "Scotland is becoming emptier and greyer, exposing serious skill shortages and storing up problems for generations to come," lamented a leader in The Herald in 2003. It was feared that a declining population would lead to a lower tax take and problems funding public services. Some Cassandras even predicted a Scottish population of less than four million in future.

Fast forward a decade and yesterday's figures show nearly a quarter of a million extra Scots compared with 2001, with births and immigrants exceeding deaths and emigrants once more. We should celebrate, although a closer examination of the figures demonstrates the scale of the challenge facing this country.

For the first time, the number of Scottish residents aged 65 and over has exceeded those in the 15 and under bracket. As this country's age profile rises, there are major issues to confront for our policy makers. With older people outnumbering the young who, in time, will be required to pay the taxes and provide the services an ageing population requires, will we have the physical and financial resources to meet the challenge?

It is little wonder that politicians at local and national level, as well as charities, are demanding a cold, hard look at policies and priorities, the aim being to ensure that the potential burden can be managed by and for all.

But a rising population should be seen as a vote of confidence in a country and an economy capable of holding on to Scots' talent and drawing more from beyond our borders. Compare that with the 1960s when Scotland lost 40,000 young people a year.

The latest Annual Review of Demographic Trends revealed that around 10% of births last year were to parents who both come from outwith the UK, suggesting some of the new Scots are putting down roots. That is reflected in the 6% rise in the under-fives. As is all too evident, we need young people to become the workforce, taxpayers and carers of tomorrow.

Recent evidence suggests some EU immigrants are returning to countries such as Poland which have achieved better growth rates than the UK in recent years, another challenge we must face.

The moral is that there should be no let-up in efforts to attract quality migrants, especially graduates, and offer support to parents struggling to maintain a work-life balance. Scotland must continue to write "Welcome" on its mat, particularly given this country's changing demographic.

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