Immigration As a Remedy for Population Decline? An Overview of the European Countries

1. Introduction

The population of the European countries is rapidly ageing, and this process has many social and economic consequences, especially on the labour market of the nations concerned1. One of the ways which could be followed in order to address the consequences of the decline in numbers and the ageing of the population is to act directly on the undesired demographic conditions to try and modify them. There are many factors which could drive the attempt to reverse, or at least to restrain, this process, obviously to the extent that it is effectively possible. The demographic means to catch up with the goal of a younger age structure and a higher growth rate than zero are basically two2: to increase the fertility or to increase the net migration.
Some authors support the idea that only through an increase of the fertility (also obtained thanks to the institutional commitment of governments) it could be possible to reverse the existing trends, while some others state that immigration can also play a fundamental role in such a sense. Recently in the scientific and academic debate (but also among the politicians) the idea has emerged that migrations can act like a rebalance mechanism of the world-wide population, and that immigrants can validly replace the portions of population missing as a result of the demographic ageing process under way in all the industrialised countries. From an anthropological point of view, the rebalance function of the migrations appears completely natural: migration, in fact, is not a recent phenomenon, but it has constantly accompanied the evolution of the human populations (Chiarelli, 1992).
In the present essay I shall briefly examine the factors in favour and against the view that immigration can be a suitable remedy to the decline of the western populations. I shall start by presenting and analysing the UN Report of 2000 Replacement Migration: Is it A Solution to Declining and Ageing Populations?, in which some projections about the future consistency of immigration flows were presented. These inflows are needed by some countries in order to cope with some consequences of the demographic ageing process.
Moreover, jointly analysed data on the demographic ageing and the migratory flows in the European countries, will be provided in an attempt to understand which will be the effects of the increased foreign presence on structure of the receiving, ageing populations. Through a few figures and a short bibliographical review, it will be possible to conclude that immigration, though it could be useful — together with an increase of fertility — it is not sufficient in itself to avert population decline.

2. Demographic Trends in the European Union

With the purpose of understanding the specific situation of each country, it can be useful to take a look at data in table 1, which show some of the most important indicators about the total, natural, and migratory growth and some ageing indicators (composition of each population by age class, ageing index and total fertility rate). Since all data refer to the year 2005, we should have considered only the 25 countries which composed the European Union, while, at that time, leaving out the two new countries (Romania and Bulgaria). To provide a more complete picture I have also shown the values for the two new countries, so that their demographic situation can be compared with that of the other countries.

Table 1: Main demographic indicators of the European countries EU25, plus Romania and Bulgaria, 2005)

Source: Author’s calculations based on data from Eurostat, 2006.
Notes: (a) For Italy: Istat, 2006; (b) Estimated value; (c) Provisional value; (d) 2003 values; (e) 2002 values.

The process of population ageing is clear when taking into account the ageing index, measured as the share of population aged 65 and over as against that aged 0-14. Among the EU15, Italy shows the highest value (137.7%), followed by Germany (128.3%), Greece (122.8%) and Spain (115.9%). The average value of the EU15 is 108.7%, higher than the value of the EU25 (104.9%), as a consequence of the lower values of the ten countries, among which only four (Latvia, Slovenia, Estonia and Hungary) exhibit a value higher than 100%. As to the two new countries, while Bulgaria shows a deeper degree of ageing (its ageing index is 123.9%), Romania still has an ageing index lower than 100% (92.5%). Ageing from the bottom (as defined by demographers) is represented by the values of total fertility rates, under the replacement level of 2.1 children in all the countries, even if some of them improved in the last few years. The highest values are those of Ireland (1.99 children per woman in fertile age), France (1.9) and Finland (1.8), while the lowest are those of Slovenia (1.22) and Poland and Czech Republic (1.23 each). Ageing from the top can be shown by means of life expectancy at birth, which has an average value of 76.5 years for males and 82.3 for females for the EU15 and of 75.4 and 81.7 years respectively for the EU25.
It is interesting to observe (table 1) the growth rate of the different countries, trying to evaluate the contribution of the two components — natural and migratory. Among the UE15 countries, only Germany shows a negative growth rate, caused by the negative value of the natural growth rate, while there are five for the 10 new countries whose growth rate is negative, all of which also have a negative natural dynamic. The Czech Republic and Slovenia also have a natural rate lower than zero, compensated for3 by a positive migration growth rate, that brings these two new countries to have a positive total growth rate (even if lower than 1‰). The two newest countries, Bulgaria and Romania, show negative rates for each type of growth, except for the migration rate of Bulgaria which is equal to 0. So it appears that there are some European countries where a positive migration dynamics offsets a negative natural one.
This situation can be easily understood by taking a look at figure 1, which shows every European country, including Romania and Bulgaria (and average values of EU15 and EU25 as well) for both values. On the graph it is possible to identify four areas:
1. an area of demographic growth (both components), where in 2005 most of the European countries lie, even if in different positions;
2. an area of natural growth and negative migratory growth, where only the Netherlands can be found, which has a slightly high natural population growth rate (3.5‰), but a negative, though little, migration growth rate (-0.6‰);
3. an area of natural decline not compensated for by migration, where we find four countries, all belonging to the ten new ones (Latvia, Lituania, Estonia, Poland), and Romania;
4. an area of natural decline compensated by migration, where we only find Germany from the EU15 and three countries from the ten new ones (Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovenia).
Bulgaria lies exactly on the X axis, having a migration net rate equal to 0, but a negative natural growth rate (-5.2‰).
From the observations of the simple figure proposed, it is possible to highlight that for most of the European countries both the natural and the migration growth rate are positive, even if the first component is actually very slightly positive. The real problem, therefore, is not the simple arithmetical contribution that net migration can give to the whole growth of the population if the natural growth is negative, but how immigration can redress the balance among the different age-groups within the single populations. The population ageing process is caused, in fact, by two factors: the low birth rate and the increase in the life expectancy. By definition, a population begins to decline when its net reproduction rate starts to go below 1, which is the level at which every generation exactly replaces itself4. The main problems caused by this process are the missed replacement among the working classes and the progressive reduction of the share of the working subgroup among the entire population. For these reasons, many authors are trying to reflect on the role that immigration can have by strengthening the labour force and trying to compensate for the unbalance among the productive and non-productive groups.
The ongoing ageing process in the European countries will change the demographic shape of the Union, as can be seen in figure 2, which shows the age and sex distribution of the total EU25 population, comparing the profile of 2000 with that of 2050. The profile of the pyramid was reductive in 2000, which means that the youngest portions of population were less than the central ages, while it will tend to be stationary in 2050, which means that the population has the same amount of people in every class (even if it is possible to notice that, as an effect of the low birth rate, the base of the pyramids still remain smaller than the rest). Furthermore, it is possible to appreciate that the strongest reduction will concern the working population (aged 15-64), as shown by the pyramid in a darker colour, while there will be a parallel increase of the share of population aged 65 and over, especially females due to their higher life expectancy.

Figure 1: European countries per values of natural and migratory growth rates (2005)
Source: Author’s calculations based on data from Eurostat, 2006.

Figure 2: Population pyramids for the EU25. Values in thousands. Comparison between2000 and 2050
Source: Author’s calculations based on OECD, 2007.

Manuela Stranges: Ph. D. in Demography, Department of Economics and Statistics, University of Calabria,
1 For a brief discussion of the relationship between ageing and labour market, see Stranges 2007 where the focus was on Italy, but with some comparison with the other countries, especially with regard to the critical issues of the labour markets and the achievement of the European targets (Lisbon, Stockholm and Barcelon) by the various countries.
2 Population ageing is determined by the simultaneous action of two natural factors: low birth rates and longevity. Since to increase mortality at an older age is definitively out of the question, the only factor of the natural dynamic on which it is possible to act is fertility.
3 Compensation is here intended from a merely arithmetical point of view.
4 the net reproduction rate is the exact number of daughters for each mother at net of the probability of dying during the fertile interval (15-49 years).

Pages: 1 2 3 4

Tags: , , , ,