The Real Immigration Crisis

The Problem Is Not Too Many, but Too Few

Abandoned row houses in Baltimore, May 2019 Stephanie Keith / Reuters

Opponents of immigration are ascendant. From Poland to the United States, politicians are shutting borders and turning away refugees. “Our Country is FULL!” U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted in April. But misplaced fears over security, slow assimilation, and stolen jobs have distracted from the real demographic crisis looming over Europe and North America: not one of too many immigrants but one of too few.

The next several decades will see populations in Europe and North America age and shrink as people have fewer and fewer children. That trend will hurt economic growth and dynamism and leave too few workers for every retiree. Robots and artificial intelligence will not save rich countries from the economic consequences of a shrinking population. Nor, without a dramatic reversal of current policies toward immigrants, will a flow of workers from elsewhere. To avoid sclerosis and decline, the rich world will have to compete to attract immigrants, not turn them away.


The average woman in Europe today has 1.6 children, and the average woman in North America has fewer than 1.9—well below the number needed to keep populations stable. Ten European countries, along with Japan, are forecast to see their populations fall by 15 percent or more by 2050. Over the next 65 years, the working-age population of the European Union as a whole is expected to fall by 44.5 million people. And as populations shrink, they will also age. In Europe, a quarter of the population is already over 60; by 2050, that proportion will reach more than one-third. In 2080, the EU will have 53.3 million more retirees than it does today. The situation in the United States is little better. Some 80 percent of U.S. counties saw their working-age populations fall between 2007 and 2017.

Aging populations will strain welfare systems to the breaking point. Spain, for example, will have to raise spending on health care, elder care, and pensions by ten percent of GDP between 2004 and 2050. Aging populations hurt economic dynamism, too. Since 1960, in G-7 countries where retirees made up less than ten

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