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Impact of immigration

Population size and structure

Most rich countries, particularly in Europe, are facing population decline. More immigration would help, but not much.

To maintain a stable population, a country needs an average fertility rate of around 2.1 children per woman. But in many countries the ratio is already far below this. For the EU as a whole the average is only 1.4. As well as eventually leading to population decline, this also produces a steadily older population, with serious implications for pensions.

Could immigration offer a solution? Certainly it can help sustain overall numbers. In many countries, immigration is already responsible for around half of population growth. And immigrants can help sustain communities that have been steadily losing people — as in the Midwest in the USA. Moreover, immigration can help rejuvenate the population. This is because immigrants themselves tend to be younger, and being poorer than average they are also likely to have larger families. There are also cultural factors, since immigrants often come from countries where it is customary to have many children. Nevertheless, the rejuvenation effect does not persist. Immigrants, when faced with the social and economic pressures of living in a richer country, soon pick up local habits and opt for smaller families.

The UN has estimated how many immigrants a number of countries would need over the next 50 years to maintain constant populations. For some countries the numbers are relatively small. But Japan, which is greying rapidly, would have to take in 715,000 people per year. Far more startling is the scale of immigration that would be required to maintain a constant 'support ratio' — a constant number of working people per pensioner. These are seriously large numbers.

So while immigration can help slow population decline and ageing, in most cases it will only be able to do this to a limited extent. Richer countries will have to adopt a mixture of policies — increasing fertility rates, raising the retirement age, increasing taxes, and admitting more immigrants.

Bernard Stalker

Rich country populations are steadily ageing