Observations of an ex pat: Migration time bomb

The world is sitting on a migration and demographic time bomb. A perfect storm of environmental, economic, and demographic factors are combing with increased international instability to drive millions of people from the developing to the developed world.

An internationally coordinated response is required to deal with the problem that will not go away. It will just become worse. Instead growing xenophobia is constructing physical and bureaucratic dams that must eventually burst.

Ironically, the two sides of the cultural and geographic fence have complementary problems. There is a shortage of workers in the xenophobic developed world and a surplus in the developing world. Birth rates in Europe, the US and Japan are either failing to replace those who die or—at best—leading to a no population growth scenario.

Low population is accompanied by an ageing citizenry. The median age in most of the world’s rich countries is between 40 and 50. This puts increased pressure on health and social care services, pensions and young workers who have to support their elders.

The developed world is also bordering on, or actually suffering, labour shortages. If their countries’ fail to grow by increased birth rates than they must recruit immigrants in order to maintain productivity levels that can support ageing populations.

In contrast, improved healthcare has dramatically cut the infant mortality rates in the developing world. This means that the median age in most of Latin America is 27. In Africa it is 18. In the case of Niger the median age is 14.8 years. The underdeveloped economies of these countries are incapable of supporting their rapidly growing populations. Their young people are heading north to survive.

To complicate matters further climate change and war is increasing the number of displaced persons in the world. In 2016 there were 10.6 million DPs. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees the figure grew to 84 million in 2021, and that was before the Afghan crisis added several million more to the depressing and worrying total.

The migration time bomb is not just a North-South problem. It is also a serious issue within the European Union. The Schengen Agreement which allows free travel within the EU has joined forces with a low birth rate to create a de-population crisis in Southern and Eastern Europe. The Bulgarian population, for instance, is projected to shrink by 22.5 percent by 2050. The same story is repeated throughout the region with projected population shrinkage ranging from 10 percent to 23 percent. Ironically, some of the most xenophobic countries, are expected to shrink the most. So far, the leaders of those countries have responded to the crisis by exhorting women to have more babies. It is not working.

One of the country’s most badly affected by the demographic/migration time bomb is Japan. They are doing something about it. Historically, the Japanese have been regarded as one of the world’s most xenophobic people who prided themselves on their superior culture and homogenous population. Economic realities have forced a change. With 28 percent of the population over 65, unemployment levels at a mere three percent and the Japanese economy stagnant for several years; the government has been forced to recruit foreign labour to boost productivity.

Nearly three million foreigners now live in Japan out of a population of 126 million. That is up from 1 million in 1990. Ten percent of Tokyo’s population is now foreign-born and the government plans to bring in 65,000 immigrants a year between now and 2025.

Surprisingly this programme has secured almost total support from the media and the wider population. This is probably because it has been sold as a policy of social and economic necessity by the Liberal Democratic Party—the long-ruling Japanese conservatives who would normally oppose immigration. The LDP has successfully argued that the immigration barriers were lowered not to change Japanese society, but to sustain it.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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  • Brad Barrows 15th Jan '22 - 9:01am

    Thought provoking article. Thanks.

  • A gently declining population should be welcomed in developed countries in particular on environmental and social grounds

    More resources should be put into care for the elderly; care workers being in greater demand will have wage increases. Increasing the overall size of the pyramid (and especially its base) is merely setting up a worse problem for decades down the line.

    Japan is a case in point. Honshu, the main island, has a mountainous central spine. The population of around 123 million is packed into over-dense conurbations along the coast. Much once beautiful countryside has been concreted over with absurd over-development.

    If the population gets down to 65-75m by 2150, this would be positive for recuperation of countryside and quality of life.

    It’s true that Japan for several centuries until the mid-19th was a very closed society with foreign trade and interaction limited for ideological xenophobic reasons.

    But having lived in Tokyo for four years as a child – and speaking Japanese – the characterisation of Japan as “xenophobic” is misleading. The Japanese are immensely welcoming at a personal level to foreigners, though there is sometimes lingering resentment against Americans for the two nuclear strikes.

  • The Japanese do not treat their local racial minorities that well, however.

  • @Chris Moore– Your argument does hold some water but I am afraid the bucket leaks. More money can only be put into social care if productivity and GDP increases. Increased productivity requires an increase in the size of the workforce. Mechanisation can go some way towards resolving the problem, but despite the efforts of sci-fi writers and factory managers, robots cannot completely replace humans; at least that has been experience to date as growth in British productivity has been largely minimal or flat over the years.

  • Chris Moore 15th Jan '22 - 1:42pm

    Hello, Tom, we can choose to spend a higher percentage of national income on care. This is what we should do.

    We can’t constantly increase the size of the workforce: this requires a constantly increasing population. We have to get off that treadmill.

    There are other ways of increasing productivity too!

    (As you’re probably aware, Japan is a pioneer in robotics, partially because of concerns over a declining population.)

  • Matt Wardman 15th Jan '22 - 1:52pm

    I’m not convinced that Tom has his ‘problem’ lines in quite the right places.

    We need to remember that increased life expectancy also raises median age.

    Also that in some places encouraging women to have more children does seem to be working eg in France fertility has not declined from 2000 to now. In other places, low fertility is part of the issue – esp. Asian Tiger economies.

    There was a good programme on this on the BBWS this week, included a comment that there are at least 3 ways to manage the issue:

    1 – Automation, example Japan.
    2 – Large enough families to maintain balance, example Israel.
    3 – Immigration / migration. Example: parts of Europe. Arguably USA.

    The Anglosphere countries (ie Five Eyes), and Scandinavia, all have median ages in the range 37 to 41. The sharp end of this issue is countries with significantly older populations ie Japan / Germany / Italy and similar, middle income countries with aging populations who struggle to afford answers, and those who’s youth has been sucked away (parts of E Europe).

    It is not always what it seems. It is interesting that the median age in China is the same as in the USA at 38.5 years, with 1/4 of the GDP per person.

    Useful data: https://www.worlddata.info/average-age.php

  • Paul Barker 15th Jan '22 - 2:19pm

    What we have here is two temporary problems, a temporary excess of young, educated people in Countries still going through their Industrial Revolution & a temporary shortage of same in “Mature” Economies. The obvious solution in the mid-term is Migration but there are obstacles in the form of Nationalism & Racism; its part of our Role as Liberals to reduce those obstacles. I am optimistic, it looks to me as though we have passed Peak Xenophobia/Populism.

  • Nonconformistradical 15th Jan '22 - 5:49pm

    @Tom Arms
    “More money can only be put into social care if productivity and GDP increases.”

    And perhaps also if tax avoidance (and evasion) is tackled?

  • Peter Hirst 18th Jan '22 - 5:24pm

    Personally I view a declining population as desirable as especially in the developed world it means less of the consumption that drives climate change. Elderly people are quite capable of working past 80 and many would welcome the opportunity. It is a cultural shift that is needed that values elderly people more and also welcomes immigrants to fill some otherwise unfillable gaps to the labour force.

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