Fact: Migrants get older like everyone else

The belief that migration alone can fix the ageing European workforce is a myth
Number: 4
Year: 2023

While migration can relieve short-term labour market pressures and keep population from declining, it can never be a sustainable long-term approach to managing population ageing. It is true that migrants who move for work are typically young and economically active, so they are indeed able to fill labour market gaps. It is therefore tempting to think that migration can solve many challenges of tomorrow’s societies: that it will counter population ageing, reverse labour force decline, and make social security systems more resilient.

Two older people sitting by the seashore

However, policies based on this simple assumption would be short-sighted. Migrants who are young and able to work now will also age and might need support later in life. Demographic projections strongly suggest that this would generate an ever-increasing demand for more migration.

This fact was acknowledged as early as 2000 in a UN report [1]: Even high-scale migration events are not expected to alter these long-term trends [2].

So, what to do instead? Migration alone cannot change the nature of population dynamics. At least not without any changes to the current trends of falling birth rates. Yet designing effective policies to raise birth rates is notoriously difficult, and results have been shown to be limited [3].

It is instead vital to understand that the challenges of demographic ageing cannot be solved simply by looking at population processes. By coupling demographic projections with insights from other areas, research has already identified promising, more durable solutions: increasing labour force participation, raising productivity through automation, and adjusting retirement age to match gains in longevity, to name just a few [4].

In sum, resilient strategies to manage the effects of populations that are getting older need to include a whole range of social, environmental and economic tools - ideally based on a broad political consensus.

Jakub Bijak, Professor of Statistical Demography at the University of Southampton

 Further reading related to this Myth Bust

1The mentioned UN report from 2000 is archived here: https://tinyurl.com/replacement-migration 

2Try the QuantMig Project’s “Migration Scenarios Explorer”: https://bit.ly/quantmig-scenarios 

3See this extensive study of the impact of family policies on fertility in industrialised countries: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11113-007-9033-x 

4Read about simulated effects of labour market policies here: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11113-007-9065-2 

Photo: Katarzyna Grabowska/unsplash