The Corner

Immigration

Immigration Cannot Solve the Challenges of an Aging Society

Naturalization ceremony in Washington, D.C., November 13, 2015. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

We hear all the time that America is growing old, and there won’t be enough workers to pay for Social Security or support the economy unless we bring in millions of foreign workers. Putting aside our current employment problems caused by overly generous unemployment benefits, what would continued or even increased immigration’s impact be over the longer term?

Writing in National Affairs, my colleague Steven Camarota draws on his own research as well prior analyses to show that immigration is no fix for an aging society.  He writes: 

“Demographers have known for a long time that, absent truly gargantuan and ever-increasing rates of immigration, it isn’t actually possible for immigrants to undo or dramatically slow the overall aging of society. . . . The reason behind this truth is simple: Immigrants are human beings, not just the idealized workers or child-bearers that some commentators imagine. As humans, they immigrate at all ages, grow old over time, and are choosing to have smaller families. As a result, they add to the population across the age distribution and do not fundamentally change the nation’s age structure. . . .”

In other words, immigrants are people, too.

Part of the reason immigration has such a small effect on the working-age share of the population is that while it certainly adds new workers, it also adds to the number of retirees over time, as well as to the number of children. To be sure, these children eventually grow up and become workers. But by the time this happens, many of their immigrant parents will have reached retirement age. These two developments tend to cancel each other out over time. As a result, immigration does not have much of an impact on the share of the population that is of working age in the long run. . . .

That means we need to look elsewhere to address the 21st-century challenges posed by our 1930s-vintage retirement system. Besides raising the retirement age, Camarota highlights the huge potential benefit of raising the share of working-age Americans who are actually in the workforce (either working or looking for work) by a few percentage points:

. . . Another effective option for addressing population aging is to increase the number of Americans in the labor force. By historical standards, the number and share of working-age people outside the labor force was quite high in 2020, even before the pandemic hit. . . . If we assume the working age remains at 16 to 64, but the share of those working were raised to 75% from the pre-pandemic level of 71%, it would increase the worker share of the population by as much as would adding 75 million people to the population through immigration over the next four decades.”

In debating how to address the challenges posed by an aging society — which every developed country, and even most developing countries, are facing — we should at least make sure we’re considering options that have some possibility of success. Mass immigration, whatever other justifications there may be for it, offers no such possibility.

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