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Commentary: Falling fertility rates will turn the immigration debate upside down

As the world’s population ages and fertility rates decline, governments will fight to let migrants in, not keep them out, says Tyler Cowen for Bloomberg Opinion.

Commentary: Falling fertility rates will turn the immigration debate upside down
Migrants wait along a US border wall on Aug 23, 2022, after crossing from Mexico near Yuma, Arizona. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

FAIRFAX COUNTY, Virginia: The continued decline of global fertility rates, especially in wealthier countries, requires a re-evaluation of global immigration policy. As the funding of public pensions becomes a more pressing issue, might governments work harder to bring migrants in, rather than keeping them out?

Some countries can be expected to keep their relatively restrictionist immigration policies. But in these countries, the population will become smaller and smaller while taxes on the young will get higher and higher, in part to pay for the retirements and health care of the elderly. The high taxes will in turn lower living standards, and that may depress fertility further yet.

A less obvious problem is that once nations enter the lower-population-higher-tax cycle, it may be very difficult for them to attract new migrants. If you were thinking of leaving your country, would you rather go to a wealthy country with higher tax rates, or one with lower tax rates? 

Especially if the country with higher taxes has a long tradition of not welcoming migrants, and you would be less likely to find any expatriates there? Furthermore, due to their ageing population, those countries may simply be boring, at least for young people.

The danger is that countries with more restrictionist immigration policies will get locked into low-migration outcomes for the foreseeable future, whether they like it or not.


It’s hard to say when this point of no return might be reached - but it is another argument for taking in more migrants today. Accepting more migrants today is an investment as compared to accepting more a generation from now, which is when countries will really need them.

04:32 Min

Australia will boost its yearly permanent migration intake by 35,000 people to plug a labour shortage brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, during which many temporary visa holders left. Roger Maynard reports.

Take the example of Canada or Australia, two countries that have had relatively open immigration policies. Twenty years from now, when wealthy countries may be competing more for new migrants, Canada and Australia will be in an especially strong position to attract the most productive foreigners.

The risk of being locked out of competition for migrants may be even greater for smaller countries such as Denmark or New Zealand. The US, with its high wages and huge internal market, will always be an attractive destination for migrants, even if its immigration process does not always treat people very well. But Portugal, which already is depopulating, cannot count on those same advantages.


Overall, there should be relative advantages for countries with widely spoken languages, former colonies (and thus some enduring ties), large and open internal markets, and some traditions of successful migrant integration.

All this provides ample reason to be optimistic about the future of the UK, which in spite of its current economic and productivity problems, seems relatively well-situated to attract future migrants. As native populations dwindle through low fertility rates, that advantage will become progressively more important. 

In contrast, there is good reason to be relatively pessimistic about such European nations as Slovenia, Croatia and Greece - and even more pessimistic about closed and oppressive societies such as Iran.

Some of the biddings for migrants might involve social and economic changes. Some smaller nations might be motivated to make English an official second language, for example, or to encourage English-language workplaces.

Sweden is a country that has handled its migration policy poorly. For whatever reasons, Swedish migrants have assimilated less well and caused more problems than, say, immigrants to Switzerland, which also has a high proportion of non-native born population. 

That is unfortunate, but if Sweden can hold on tight and maintain a semblance of public order, recent Swedish migration policies might look better 20 years from now. A potential future migrant might prefer Sweden to the more restrictionist Denmark, as Sweden already will have experience handling high numbers of non-native-born residents.

In the longer run, there might be countervailing policies from poorer, highly populated regions. India already is converging on replacement fertility, and African birth rates are falling faster than expected. 

Within the century, perhaps, those regions will experience depopulation crises of their own. In response, some might levy de facto taxes and penalties on those who depart. Leaving Burkina Faso for Nigeria might be difficult, even if Nigeria is welcoming migrants with open arms.

This new world in which immigrants are courted will turn many of the standard intuitions about migration policy upside down.

Source: Bloomberg/fl


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