Eventually, Congress will get around to “Immigration Reform.” The process will be all too predictable. There will be a lot of huffing and puffing from angry old white men trying to conflate the issue with “National Security” and using “invasion” imagery and thinly veiled racism. There will be lots of posturing about “getting control of our borders.” Anyone who puts forward reasonable ideas will be subject to attack from the Right and Left. What will probably be missing from the discussion will be the perspective that in the not too distant future, we will need to be actively competing for immigrants. We will need to shift from talking about how to limit immigration to how finding ways to encourage it.
The Good and Bad Features of Falling Fertility Rates
As I have written earlier, the “good news” is that human population growth is slowing. It takes a fertility rate of 2.1 or (2.2 for a developing country) to be at “replacement rate” for a given society. Fertility rates in many countries are already well below that number and the rates are falling elsewhere. The “bad news” is that there is a long transition period where the average age of the population increases, and this is going to create some major social and economic challenges. One of the best ways to protect a society during that period is through immigration.
Why We Are Going to Need More Immigrants
There is a statistic called the “Dependency Ratio” which is the sum of the people below age twenty and above age 60 divided by the number of people in the 20-60 year-old range. The idea is that the 20-60 year-olds represent the prime work force and tax base and the young and old are dependent on that group for the role they play in the society. If you look at the chart above you will see that over the next decade or two many regions, including ours, cross the line where there are more young and old “dependents” than 20-60 year-olds. The only reason that our line is not projected to keep rising like those for Japan and Russia is that the modelers have assumed substantial immigration for us and continued low immigration for them. Western Europe is in between. China simply faces this challenge later.
How Immigrants Can Help An Aging Society
When a society faces a relative shortage of young people, that leads to the following problems which can be minimized through immigration:
- A shortage of people to do physically demanding work (construction, farm labor…)
- A shrinking tax-base to cover the medical costs and Social Security needs of the older people
- A shortage of women of child-bearing age to begin to stabilize the future age distribution
- A shortage of young people to train in new technology areas
As these problems become more pronounced in the future, it is likely that nations will begin to compete for young immigrants. The US has always enjoyed a strong reputation as a desirable destination, and we have been able to attract immigrants in spite of our highly frustrating bureaucracy. That advantage could definitely diminish. The days will end when people from Mexico and Central America are willing to take the risk of undocumented status to come do jobs that we definitely need. Our ability to attract the most talented and well-educated people from other nations could definitely be challenged by other motivated countries.
We cannot just assume that we will do even as well as shown in the graph above unless we fundamentally re-think our attitudes towards immigration and family size. Once this recession is past we should start a serious dialog about our future and who is going to be in it.
Statue of Liberty Image from David Paul Ohmer’s Photostream
Graphs by Steve Savage based on data from the IIASA website
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