Although alpine meadows in full bloom and cute little villages are always good for vacation photos, Switzerland is a highly urbanized country. At the end of 2015, it had an estimated 8,327,000 inhabitants; 85% live in towns or cities, particularly the five major urban areas surrounding Zurich, Geneva, Basel, Berne, and Lausanne.
But a high degree of urbanization isn’t the only thing that Switzerland has in common with many other European countries: it also grapples with the demographic challenges posed by an aging population. In 2014, only one in five residents was below the age of 20, and nearly as many people living in Switzerland (17.8%) were older than 64. This trend is mostly due to a rising life expectancy and a falling birth rate: nowadays, the average woman in Switzerland has 1.54 kids and is over 30 years old when her first baby is born.
Since 1998, most of Switzerland’s population growth has been due to immigration and naturalization. While in 1985, 15% of all residents were foreign-born, this percentage has increased to one in four inhabitants in 2015. A further 10% of the Swiss population consists of naturalized citizens who have obtained Swiss nationality.
Among those foreign nationals who haven’t applied for Swiss citizenship, about one in five is a second-generation or third-generation immigrant, and more than half have been living in Switzerland for over ten years. With Switzerland becoming an EFTA founding member in 1960 and entering into bilateral agreements with the EU in 1999, it’s hardly a surprise that about two-thirds of all foreign nationals are from EU or EFTA member states. Nearly one-fifth (19%) comes from other European countries, especially from Southeastern Europe, and the rest of the world accounts for the remaining 15%.
In addition to Switzerland’s four official languages — French, German, Italian, Romansh — the most widespread foreign languages spoken in Switzerland are English and Portuguese.
As Switzerland’s traditional multilingualism suggests, the country considers itself to be a so-called "voluntary nation": unlike many other European countries, its past nation-building process wasn’t focused on a shared language, culture, or religion, but on the goal of political cooperation between its various parts.
Historically speaking, Switzerland has always been characterized by strong federalist tendencies. Its national founding myth goes back to 1291: the three Waldstätten (settlements in the woods) Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden decided to form a coalition with the aim of upholding the peace and establishing a common rule of law. The respective document became known as the Bundesbrief (Federal Charter) commemorating the Ewiger Bund der drei Waldstätten (Eternal Alliance of the Three Forest Cantons).
With more and more cantons joining the alliance, it gradually rose to become an important regional power. Though it was weakened by the religious strife of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, it was still strong enough to become independent from the Holy Roman Empire — de facto in 1499 and de jure in 1648, after the Thirty Years’ War. The traumatic impact of the latter conflict on vast parts of Europe may also be one reason for Switzerland’s commitment to the principle of armed neutrality.
The Old Swiss Confederacy lasted as a loose coalition of various mini-states with different rights and privileges until the late 18th century when it was invaded by its more powerful neighbor, France. However, French attempts to introduce a centralized state — the Helvetian Republic — failed, and Switzerland returned to its federalist roots.
The birth of modern Switzerland happened about 50 years later. Internal conflicts between the liberal, urban, and Protestant parts and the conservative, rural, and Catholic interests eventually caused a short-lived civil war — the Sonderbundskrieg of 1847. Today’s modern constitution is still based on the original constitution of 1848, which unified Switzerland as a federal state while guaranteeing a considerable degree of sovereignty to the individual cantons.
Switzerland now has 26 cantons, from Aargau to Zurich. The smallest cantonal territory is Basel-Stadt with just 37 km², and Appenzell-Innerroden is the canton with the fewest inhabitants — about 16,000 residents.
Regardless of size, all cantons have a lot of influence on political and administrative issues. For example, the federal government is responsible for matters like the armed forces, national infrastructure, and Swiss foreign policy etc., but the cantons are in charge of the police, taxation, welfare, education, and many other things.
There is also a great deal of pride in the particular history and traditions of the respective canton: each one even has its own coat of arms. The Swiss-German word Kantönligeist is sometimes used to refer to this spirit of local patriotism.
In practice, this means that expats will spend a lot of time dealing with the cantonal authorities for all kinds of practical issues. You will have to apply to the cantonal immigration office to renew your Swiss residence permit, for example, and if you decide against sending your kids to an international school, the local education system will be run by the canton as well. These are just two examples of the many ways in which the cantons can influence everyday life in Switzerland.
Here’s a list of the official websites for all Swiss cantons:
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