Migration could prevent a looming population crisis. But there are catches : NPR

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Experts say that migration can make up for falling birth rates — if politics doesn’t get in the way.

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Experts say that migration can make up for falling birth rates — if politics doesn’t get in the way.

Didier Palages/AFP via Getty Images

For development economist Lant Pritchett, “depopulation” is a mild way to describe what could be a global demographic crisis.

“The reaction is often ‘ho-hum’ as the rates [of population decline] they are slow so the issue seems small and in the future,” he told NPR in an email.

But the problem is not small, he said, and the decline in birth rates can distort economies.

Last week, China reported a decline in population for the first time in more than 60 years, raising questions about its future economic growth. Other countries are headed for a similar fate.

Declining birth rates in the developed world are resulting in aging populations and smaller labor forces. But in parts of the develop worldwide, the youth population is still growing, and some countries are struggling to create enough jobs for an expanding working-age population.

For economists, migration is the obvious solution. But the political implications may be more difficult to overcome.

The problem has already started

According to the United Nations, two-thirds of all people live in countries where average birth rates are below the replacement rate — that is, the birth rate needed to maintain a stable population.

Consistently low birth rates in some regions have resulted in rapidly aging populations. And across the developed world, youth populations are beginning to shrink relative to older populations.

“The problem is not so much that the overall population shrinks,” Pritchett said. “It is that during the period after the birth rate decreases, it is something we call the inversion of the demographic pyramid.”

In countries like Japan and Italy, where birth rates have fallen from high to low rates, the effect is more pronounced.

“It goes from having a lot of people in the workforce to supporting the elderly [to] equality of people in the workforce and people in the senior population,” Pritchett said. “And that’s just never happened in the history of the world. And it is not clear that it is a sustainable way to support the social contract we have in which young people support the elderly.”

As populations age, labor for low-wage jobs in particular is in high demand, Pritchett said. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts most of the types of jobs that are growing fast do not require a college degree. The Bureau predicts that in the next ten years, there will be close to a million new jobs in home health and personal care alone.

“And yet during that same period, we will have three million fewer workers [aged] 20 to 40,” Pritchett said.

But while rich countries age, the developing world is getting younger. Fertility in Sub-Saharan Africa was well above the replacement rate in an average of 4.7 births per woman in 2020. The challenge in these countries is to create enough jobs to support a growing workforce.

For economists, the simplest way to solve both problems is through migration.

“A real bellwether for the future is South Korea,” said Michael Clemens, professor of economics at George Mason University.

At 0.79 births per woman, South Korea has the lowest birth rate in the world. To increase the number of young and energetic workers relative to the number of older people, the country depends on migrant workers to fill the shortage of workers, said Clemens.

It’s a win-win, according to Pritchett: Immigration solves the lack of workers in the developed world, and emigration solves the lack of jobs in the developing world.

Politics and fears of exploitation linger over the idea

As easy as the solution may be from an economic perspective, the politics of it all are much more complicated. In a future where most of the world’s working-age population will be from countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, anti-immigrant sentiment could be a sticking point, Clemens said.

“Opportunities for legal migration of Africans are extremely restricted [in the U.S.]. And the main route in the United States right now for Africans is the diversity visa,” Clemens said. “That visa is heavily oversubscribed for every visa that is granted… Again, politicians have proposed to eliminate it altogether.”

An increase in the amount of temporary labor migration addresses the economic problem while avoiding political sticking points, argued Pritchett, adding that his solution is to create an industry that “recruits, prepares, places, protects” migrant workers.

Almost a billion people would migrate permanently if they could, research shows.

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Almost a billion people would migrate permanently if they could, research shows.

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Tara Watson, an economist and the director of the Center for Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, argues that a solution like Pritchett’s creates challenges and does not necessarily solve the problem in the long term.

“It’s not easy to make temporary migration work in a way that’s not exploitative,” Watson said. Part of the problem, she said, is that most temporary work options are “tied to a specific employer, and that gives the employer a lot of discretion over your work environment and really it limits the worker’s ability to advocate for themselves.”

And for Watson, temporary job mobility is only a temporary solution.

“I’m a proponent of moving more toward a permanent visa space,” Watson said. According to Gallup, almost a billion people around the world would migrate permanently if they could. “It’s permanent immigrants that generate long-term population growth for us,” Watson said.

For Pritchett, the current migration landscape is comparable to the US prohibition of alcohol.

“We wanted to ban all alcoholic beverages and it was simply not enforceable. And so the path to more alcohol control was through less alcohol control, through the legalization of these flows. I feel that the a path to better migration is through more migration,” Pritchett said.

“Some part of this job mobility will be a path to citizenship. That’s terrible,” he said. “But some of this will have to be temporary. And the sooner we get our head around it, the sooner we’ll get out of ban mode.”

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