Can immigrants save an aging Europe?

What happens to a society with a declining birth rate which refuses to open the door to outsiders?

Published July 3, 2008 7:07PM (EDT)

On Wednesday, a World Bank economist warned the nations of Eastern Europe that they would have to welcome more immigrants "to prevent their economies being hobbled by labor shortages caused by rapidly aging populations," reported the Associated Press.

"There's no question that immigration will be needed to fill labor shortages," Pradeep Mitra told reporters. "The trade off is: accept migration in a regulated way or don't be serious about converging with EU 15 living standards."

Mitra was referring to the 15 Western nations who made up the European Union before the entry of 12 other European nations since 2004.

Mitra's uncompromising stance will raise hackles on both the left and the right. Economist Dean Baker, for one, has long maintained that the labor shortages that will purportedly plague the aging, baby-bust societies of Europe can be easily solved by paying higher wages to currently unemployed and underemployed citizens. Meanwhile, cultural conservatives decry the desecration of treasured national identity that will inevitably befall a nation that lets in too many "others."

The AP story reminded me to go back and read "No Babies," the epic look at Europe's demographic woes by Russell Shorto in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine. There is much to mull over in Shorto's analysis -- especially his assertion that the countries experiencing the most precipitous birth rate drops are those that have modernized economically but do not provide strong social welfare support systems for working two-parent families. There's also an implicit answer to the Dean Baker thesis: the highest wages in the world won't do much for a society in which everyone is a resident in a nursing homes and in some European countries, the birth rates are dropping so fast that such a future is not unthinkable.

The possibility of expanded immigration as an answer to this dilemma gets short shrift from Shorto, even though it might seem to some the most obvious solution. Europe's demographic woes, when viewed from the perspective of the planet, just don't seem that critical when we're still on track to go from the current total of 6.7 billion to around 9 billion by 2050. Labor shortage? You gotta be kidding me.

But Shorto offers two quick dismissals. The first, he says, is that immigration might not actually fix the problem.

The actual numbers, according to several authorities, are discouraging over the long run. By one analysis of U.N. figures, Britain would need more than 60 million new immigrants by 2050 -- more than doubling the size of the country -- to keep its current ratio of workers to pensioners, and Germany would need a staggering 188 million immigrants in the same time period. One reason for such huge numbers is that while immigration helps fill cities and schools and factories in the short term, the dynamic adjusts over time. Immigrants who come from cultures where large families are standard quickly adapt to the customs of their new homes. And eventually immigrants age, too, so that the benefit that incoming workers give to the pension system today becomes a drag on the system in the future. A European Commission working document published in November 2007 concludes that "truly massive and increasing flows of young migrants would be required" to offset current demographic changes.

But that won't happen, because, well, "few Europeans want that. Immigration already touches all sorts of raw nerves, forcing debates about cultural identity, citizenship tests, national canons, terrorism and tolerance, religious versus secular values."

Undoubtedly so. However, in the long run, something's gotta give. Either you accept that you are going to wither away and die, secure in your cherished cultural identity, but not reproducing enough to survive, or you open up your arms and embrace the stranger, and forge some new, synthetic, syncretic identity that may not be the same as what came before, but is healthy enough to flourish.

Call it a variation of the theory of natural selection, as it applies to nation states. The xenophobes who don't subsidize day care and parental leave die off, while the truly multicultural social-welfare societies thrive.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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