With fertility rates low and anti-foreigner sentiment high in Europe, a new U.N. study suggests that significant increases in migration might be needed to keep populations from decreasing.
More foreigners would also help Europe compete with the United States, whose baby boomer population is aging but is being supported by a constant flow of working-age laborers coming to America - 1.1 million every year from 1990-96, the report says.
The study, released Tuesday by the U.N. Population Division, also notes that Japan and South Korea face significant population declines over the next 50 years and that migration would offset the economic impact.
The report could have serious implications for governments grappling with the increasingly vocal immigration debate but also realizing they may not be able to support their surging number of retirees without an infusion of workers.
The report examines demographics in eight countries - France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Britain and the United States - and two regions: Europe and the European Union.
Among other scenarios, it looks at what level of migration would be required to maintain the ratio of the working-age population to the retired-age population. That statistic helps weigh how workers are able to care for retirees, who require more services, such as health care.
Because fertility rates in Japan, South Korea and Europe - which has some of the lowest birth rates in the world already - aren't expected to increase dramatically over the next few decades, the report suggests that migration may be the best and only realistic answer.
The report found that Japan would need 10 million immigrants every year for the next 50 years to maintain the current working-age to retirement-age ratio. Without migration, figures show it would be necessary to raise the retirement age to 77 to maintain the ratio.
Italy would also need to raise the working-age limit to 77 if it doesn't accept the 2.2 million migrants a year needed to maintain the ratio of four working people for every retiree, the report found.
Paul Demeny, a scholar at the New York-based Population Council think-tank and the editor of its quarterly, Population and Development Review, said the U.N. report was an "illustrative exercise" that should stimulate debate.
But Demeny questioned the report's presumption that a declining population was necessarily bad, noting that "Europe's best years - most creative and scientific" in the 18th century occurred when the population was considerably smaller than it is now.
"There is nothing sacrosanct in the present situation that would mandate that the present situation has to be frozen from here to eternity or from here to 2050," he said in an interview.
He also suggested that fertility rates could suddenly increase - as they did in the post-World War II baby boomer years in the United States - which would help correct the declining population.
"These affluent societies - Europe, Japan, North America - have plenty of economic potential to adjust to these relatively slow-moving changes without courting disaster," he said.
In South Korea, where 7 percent of the 47 million people are 65 or older, a health researcher also said that utilizing more women was one way of narrowing the expected workplace shortfall.
"We have so many highly educated women who become housewives instead of getting a job because of the gender discrimination. The government is working to create a more favorable working environment for women," said Kim Seung-kwon of the state-run Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.
Kim said the other option was importing workers from elsewhere in Asia - which South Korea was already doing. About 150,000 foreign workers are in South Korea, about half of them illegally.
An official at Japan's Health Ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the study assumed that only increased immigration could solve the problem of supporting the surging number of retirees, but did not consider other options such as using more women workers.
The latest U.N. study "is nothing but a barometer," the official said, which could be useful when considering whether to ease immigration regulations in Japan, which is more closed to foreign workers than other advanced countries.
The U.N. report makes no specific recommendations, but concludes that the demographic changes in store in the next 50 years will require a thorough reassessment of "many established economic, social and political policies and programs."Reuse content