Immigrants are no fix for an ageing society

The increasingly popular idea that encouraging immigration can counter the problems associated with an ageing population is profoundly…

The increasingly popular idea that encouraging immigration can counter the problems associated with an ageing population is profoundly wrong, writes Áine Ní Chonaill.

One of the great myths regarding immigration is that the ageing profile of Europe will require large-scale immigration if the dependency ratio is not to become a big problem.

An excellent book, Do We Need Mass Immigration?, by Anthony Browne (published by Civitas, £6.00), deals, one by one, with the arguments of the mass immigrationists and what he has to say on this point is of particular interest.

This idea is known as "replacement migration" and it is more and more put forward as an unquestionable scientific law by pundits and by media.


Browne said this is "one of the most widespread and comforting self-delusions since humanity believed the sun went round the earth". It is, he said, refuted by elementary demographics: immigrants are no fix for an ageing society because they age too.

The idea has been discredited by every authority that has looked at it - from the UN, to the Council of Europe, the European Commission, the UK Government Immigration Advisory Service, the Home Office, and the OECD.

Browne quotes from a Home Office report of 2001. "The impact of immigration in mitigating population ageing is widely acknowledged to be small because immigrants also age. For a substantial effect, net inflows of migrants would not only need to occur on an annual basis, but would have to rise continuously. Despite these and other findings, debate about the link between changing demography and a migration 'fix' refuses to go away."

The Council of Europe in a 2000 report argued: "Migration flows cannot in future be used to reverse trends in population ageing and decline in most Council of Europe countries. The flows required would be too large and it would be impossible to integrate them into the economy and society."

Even the UN report, Replacement Migration: Is It A Solution to Declining and Ageing Population?, often cited as proving the case for replacement migration, actually came to the completely opposite conclusion. The authors concluded that the scale of migration needed to change the demographic profile of a whole country is so large as to be "out of reach".

For example, to combat the effect of ageing in south Korea (a very rapidly ageing society) almost the entire population of the earth would have to move there by 2050.

Key is the "dependency ratio", which the UN defines as the ratio between the number of people of working age compared to the number of pensioners. Currently this is 4.09:1 in the UK and in the absence of immigration, changes in fertility and retirement age, is forecast to decline to 2.5:1 by 2050. So "bring in young people", say the pundits.

But, the UK government actuary in a report (2001) said: "The single reason why even large constant net migration flows would not prevent support ratios from falling in the long term is that migrants grow old as well! Although a steady large inflow of young migrants would continue to boost the working-age population, before long it would also start adding to the retirement-age population, and a four-to-one (say) potential support ratio could not be maintained."

The UN calculates that to keep the UK ratio at 4.09:1 Britain would need nearly 60 million immigrants by 2050, bringing the population to 136 million. To continue the strategy another 130 million immigrants would be needed by 2100, doubling the population to about a quarter of a billion.

The scale of immigration needed to avoid adapting to an ageing society is extraordinary, as the table shows; what it doesn't show is that it is exponential and never reaches a plateau, it just keeps on growing. The US and Japan would need half a billion immigrants each, but even then they would face the same problem.

The UK government actuary reached the same conclusion (2001). "Immigration policies should be governed by political and humanitarian objectives, and not by demographic considerations," he argued.

Browne also said that the dependency ratio as defined by the UN is too narrow. The ratio, taking more factors into account, gives, said the UK actuary, a more benign picture.

It is a mistake, said Browne, to think in terms of "solving" an ageing society. An ageing society is the logically inevitable consequence of increasing life expectancies and stabilising populations. "An ageing society is not something we can escape, but it is something we can adjust to," he said.

Finally, Browne said there is no need to fear that an ageing society will mean unbearable healthcare costs. In fact, studies on the subject show that the impact of an ageing society on health spending will be relatively small. This is because the effect of increasing life expectancy is not so much to increase healthcare costs as to postpone them.

The Wanless Report for the British Treasury said: "Demographic changes have had less of an impact on health spending than many people tend to think. There is a widening body of evidence which shows that proximity to death has a larger impact on healthcare costs than age." It is therefore possible that the effect of an ageing population will be to postpone rather than to increase health service costs.

Áine Ní Chonaill is PRO of the Immigration Control Platform