October 9, 2005

The growing problem of shrinking population

Compensating for a very low fertility rate requires extremely high levels of immigration, far higher than Canada's or Germany's, and not just in a short burst to replace a lost work force -- it has to be permanent. Boosting immigration carries its own issues: European societies are already bristling over cultural tensions, and social inequalities, caused by existing immigration.

"You can do like some countries and use skilled immigrants to replace the work force. But this is not a way out of the population crisis," says Mats Johansson, a demographer with the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.

"The kind of educated immigrants you need do not have high fertility rates, even if they are from countries that do have high fertility rates."

To understand the scope of the problem, consider Germany, which currently takes in about 200,000 immigrants per year, about the same number as Canada. This is becoming politically challenging since the country is experiencing an economic crisis, with five million unemployed.

"But if we don't want to suffer from depopulation, we need a lot more immigration than that," Mr. Klingholz said. "To keep our current population stable until the year 2050, we'd need to be taking in 750,000 immigrants per year starting now. Even if we only maintained 200,000 immigrants per year, we will have lost eight million people by then -- a tenth of our population."

So what is so bad about losing a tenth of your population? After all, scholars have spent the past two generations fretting about the dangerous effects of population growth (which is still a dire problem in many countries, especially in Africa).

In fact, as Europe and Japan are learning, a shrinking population can be devastating, undermining economic growth, increasing poverty rates and boosting government debt. That leaves governments with little choice but to cut spending as the tax-paying population disappears and state expenses rise sharply.


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