Politics Aside, the Immigration Issue Is Bound to Get Stronger (#Lifein2035 Blog #2)

The Statue of Liberty in New York, New York. The most famous line of the poem at its base is “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

In this campaign season, no issue has been more controversial than immigration. But it’s not just in the United States. The fear of swarms of new immigrants pouring in was a major killer of the “Remain” campaign in Great Britain. But here is the secret that no one wants to talk about: immigrants are a necessity for aging societies, and all the major powers — the United States, Russia, China, and the Europe Union — will be aging rapidly by the 2020s. These societies cannot live without immigrants unless they want significantly slower economic growth in the future. Japan is the prime example of what happens to a society closed to immigration — little or no growth for a decade or more and very rapid aging.

Elderly women in the Miyagi prefecture of Japan. Source: Teosaurio/Flickr

Migration is nothing new. The first era of globalization, which occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, saw high rates of people both leaving (mostly from Europe) and returning to their home countries. Migration and mobility could be an important factor in ameliorating the gaps in workforce and skills caused by an aging population, although rising political and social opposition to immigration may act as an obstacle. Instead of aging, populations in most low-income countries are youthful. Migration presents these populations with increasing opportunities, so long as they can acquire the work skills and their mobility is not prevented by high immigration barriers. It’s important to note that, every year, hundreds of billions of dollars in remittances are sent back to poorer, developing countries — more than these countries get from development aid.

On the surface, circumstances would appear to be very favorable to movements of people in coming decades, both internationally and within countries. According to the UN, there were 232 million international migrants in 2013. Between 1990 and 2013, the number of such migrants rose by over seventy-seven million, or by 50 percent, with “much of that growth between 2000 and 2010” (See the UN’s 2013 International Migration Report). Yet, interestingly, the proportion of the world’s population who are international migrants has stayed around 3 percent since 1995.

Europe and Asia currently host nearly two-thirds of all immigrants. In 2013, there were 72 million immigrants in Europe and almost an equal number in Asia. North America hosted the third largest number (53 million) followed by Africa (19 million) and Latin America (9 million). The United States has by far the largest number of immigrants: 46 million reside in America, equal to nearly 20 percent of the world’s total. The Russian Federation hosts the second largest number — 11 million — followed by Germany (10 million), Saudi Arabia (9 million), and the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom (8 million each).

Source: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2013). Trends in International Migrant Stock: The 2013 Revision-Migrants by Age and Sex (United Nations database, POP/DB/MIG/Stock/Rev.2013/Age).

More recent trends indicate a shift away from Europe and North America, especially increasing South-South flows. In 2013, “Asia was the largest migration corridor in the world, with some 54 million international migrants” leaving one Asian country for another. In the 2020s, China, with its rapidly aging population, will have to decide whether to be a closed society like Japan or begin accepting immigrants to fill its growing skills gaps.

Despite what we are led to believe by the political discourse, the Latin America-US corridor — which had been the largest one between 1990 and 2000 — has been steadily declining. Although Mexico used to provide the largest number of migrants, the country’s birth rate has gone down while its middle class has increased. Many more are finding opportunities at home rather than being forced to emigrate. All but three of the largest migration corridors in the world has a destination in the South. Increasingly too, the majority of immigrants are moving within the region they are born in.

A world map showing countries by total fertility rate, the expected number of children born per woman in her child-bearing years. Source: 2015 The World FactBook (CIA)/Wikimedia

As country populations age, the number of people who will leave is likely to decline. Since the late nineteenth century, the majority of immigrants have been young adults. As the proportions of youth decline in aging countries, they are likely to have more job opportunities at home, lessening the incentive to leave. The big exception to this trend will be for students, the numbers of which are increasing at a very rapid rate. According to the OECD, the number of international students more than doubled between 2000 and 2011, with almost 4.5 million university-level students enrolled outside their country of origin. Asians — Chinese, Indian, and Korean — constitute a majority of all students going abroad to complete their educations. As with permanent migration, the destinations are beginning to change. Australia, New Zealand, Spain, the Russian Federation, and Korea are rising as destinations for international students, while the US and Germany are beginning to lose their share. The US, which still has by far the largest share of international students, slipped from 23 percent to 17 percent between 2000 and 2011. Increasingly, international students are also staying on, with 25 percent becoming permanent immigrants on average in OECD countries. For some receiving OECD countries — including Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, and France — the stay rate is more than 30 percent.

International students. Source: Vrenibean/Wikimedia

For all the increasing movement of young people, it’s not clear if it will make huge demographic differences in most of the countries they settle in. For example, net migration is projected to offset Europe’s population decline until 2020, when the surplus of deaths over births will be so great that even increasing migration is unlikely to reverse the consequences. The big exception is the United States, where migration has already greatly boosted population growth and will become increasingly important as US birth rates decline. In the United States, net migration will become more important than natural increase in the early 2030s. That is, of course, unless the movement to expel illegal migrants as well as stop large-scale immigration succeeds.

Would robots, artificial intelligence, and other labor saving technologies mean that aging societies won’t really need immigrants in the future? Certainly, ever more sophisticated robots can take up some of the slack, particularly in manual, low-skilled jobs. But many professions will still need highly-skilled humans. What’s more, new immigrants are typically highly motivated. Immigrants in the United States have accounted for a majority of the net increase in STEM fields since 1995. According to William R. Kerr at the Harvard Business School, immigration “provides the United States with a number of exceptional superstars for STEM work.”

Tesla specialist robots installing a laminated glass roof. Source: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr

What’s more — robots don’t pay social security taxes or Medicare. With aging, more and more government revenues and retiree savings will be going into paying for pensions and healthcare. A big worry is that, with a diminishing working age human population, those programs won’t be solvent. What would really help, then, are tax-paying robots — something that Silicon Valley has yet to invent.


The Atlantic Council Strategy Papers series is designed to enrich the public debate and build consensus on the great strategic challenges of our time, as well as to help shape strategic thinking in US and allied governments, the private and nonprofit sectors, and the global media. A non-partisan endeavor to influence policymakers, thought leaders, and the media at the highest levels to open new horizons in strategic thinking, the series has explored topics including grand strategy, sustainable energy security, failed states, economics, and space security. Regional strategies on Asia, Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Iran, and otherAtlantic Council Strategy Papers, will join the series in forthcoming publications. The forthcoming Atlantic Council Strategy Papers Box Set will provide strategic foresight, outline a new strategy for the United States, and suggest recommendations for more effective strategy implementation to ensure the US government is best prepared and equipped to help shape and respond to dynamic changes in today’s world.

Mathew J. Burrows is the director of the Strategy Foresight Initiative in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. Previously Dr. Burrows evaluated global trends as the principle drafter of the National Intelligence Council (NIC)’s publication, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, which received widespread recognition and praise in the international media and among academics and think tanks.
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