Immigration will not solve the decline in population
Immigration and Population Decline
The Age of Mass Immigration
The movement of people over geographic distances is certainly nothing new. However, the pace, scale and form it has recently taken is groundbreaking, changing the economic, social and cultural realities of the world as we know it.
Several things have changed in the past couple of decades. First is the demographic imbalance that has emerged between the developed and the developing worlds. In the past half century, certain parts of the planet experience massive population growth that outstrips their possible economic growth. Thus there is a seemingly inexhaustible source of people without sufficient prospects in their home countries, which creates population pressure and incentivises mass emigration.
While in the past migrants usually moved over relatively short distances, the technological developments caused by industrialisation have made the world much smaller. Motor vehicles, air travel and motorboats allow people to cross distances that would earlier be uncrossable. The spread of the internet and smartphones made it even easier to navigate the world and share information.
The poor areas of the world can also see the riches of the wealthy countries on the internet, incentivising them to try and make the journey. People from continents away are now able to move over the globe in their pursuit of a better life. The migration from neighbouring lands has also accelerated.
A profound cultural revolution also took place within the Western world. The paradigm of the debate about the cultural impacts of immigration has slowly but completely changed. Immigration from basically anywhere became culturally normalised in countries that previously were colonial empires.
Mass Immigration in Post-WW2 Period
In the period after World War II, many Western European countries experienced labour shortages due to rebuilding efforts and wartime losses. The post-war baby boom replenished the populations which returned to natural growth. While in the post-war decades population problems were not a major factor, since the 1970s as fertility declined, immigration increasingly gained prominence.
Mass immigration into the developed world did not start as an attempt to replenish aging and declining populations, but now it is a prominent justification. Countries need to import people born elsewhere to support further economic growth or replace retirees.
Most developed Western countries now have between 15-30% foreign born populations. The economic rationale for immigration is increasing even as public opinion grows more anti-immigration and potential sources narrow.
The Unsustainability of Using Immigration to Address Low Fertility
Immigration is like a drug for the economy. A country reaches a level of wealth where native populations become unwilling to perform certain jobs, often ones that are critical for basic sectors like agriculture, construction, healthcare, warehouse work and manufacturing.
Countries that are dependent on foreign labour, like the oil monarchies of the Persian Gulf where foreigners make up 70% of the population, would likely collapse without immigrant workers.
In Western Europe, german-speaking countries have the worst demographics and highest immigrant populations. The anglophone settler countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada are also very high.
Immigrants tend to concentrate in the 20-55 age bracket, so they help address immediate labour shortages. However, immigration is not a real solution, only a temporary fix. It does not remove the underlying cause of sub-replacement fertility. The immigrants themselves will eventually retire and need to be supported. It is like a Ponzi scheme that can only keep moving with endless new people coming in.
There is a black hole at the center of the system. Unless fertility increases, the need for foreign labor will never cease.
The Developed World’s Demographic Transition
The developed world has experienced a demographic transition to low fertility over the past half century. Meanwhile, parts of the developing world are still undergoing this transition. This had led to a profound imbalance.
In the past, migrants moved shorter distances, often between neighbouring states. Now geographical mobility allows movement between continents. The world is much more interconnected.
Previously, Western countries represented the bulk of the developed world. For example, in 1950 almost 1/3 of the world’s population lived in Europe and North America. Today that share has declined significantly as other parts of the world have developed.
Mass immigration has changed the cultural, economic and social realities of receiving countries. The pace and scale is unprecedented. Although immigration has always happened throughout history, what we see today is fundamentally different.
Dealing with the Core Issue
Immigration provides a temporary patch, but does not address the core issue driving it – low fertility. As long as fertility remains below replacement level, the need for immigrant labor will persist or grow. The demand will increase over time rather than decrease.
Some see technology and automation as potential solutions. But historically, new technologies have not decreased labor demand, merely shifted the needed skills. Bringing in foreign labor will still be required.
To simply accept decline is also not desirable. The world of shrinking populations would not be a positive one. Capitalism in particular may struggle without the expectation of growth. Alternatives like feudalism are not appealing.
Governments seem resigned to low fertility and see it as unchangeable. But is that really true in the long run? The universality of low fertility points to systemic issues that could potentially be influenced over decades with massive effort.
We should not be so fatalistic. With climate change, Western civilization is willing to make major sacrifices to ensure sustainability. A similar long-term effort will be needed to reach sustainable fertility levels. But it is doable if we commit to it.
There are no easy answers. Hungary has implemented extensive pro-natal policies, with limited success so far. But it is foolish to expect instant results from policy changes. We need sustained, gradual efforts to shift social values and economic incentives around fertility.
Housing affordability, economic incentives for childbearing, pension system changes – many options should be tried, tweaked and expanded or discontinued based on results. Different countries may require tailored solutions.
It will not be simple and there may be economic pain in the transition. But indefinitely relying on immigration is unsustainable. We must begin the difficult work of addressing the underlying black hole of low fertility.