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How Immigration Can Reverse America’s Aging Population Problem

Sep 23, 2020

Today’s guest post is written by Mauro F. Guillén, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the bestselling book, 2030: How Today’s Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything.

Some 12,000 Americans celebrate their 60th birthday each day. Conversely, only 10,000 or so babies are born in the country per day. In 2019, the total fertility rate in the United States hit a new low of 1.7 babies per woman, well below replacement level, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In fact, the United States has had a fertility rate below the customary replacement level of 2.1 births per woman since the early 1970s. By 2030, the population under 18 years of age will be smaller than those over 60 and above, according to the United States Census Bureau.

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America’s declining birth rate could have grave effects on the economy, but encouraging people to have more babies is difficult. Moreover, the effects of pro-fertility policies are typically felt decades into the future. The coronavirus pandemic will only accelerate this trend, given that people tend to postpone having babies when they lose their jobs or there is economic uncertainty.

But there is one proven, effective, and highly beneficial way of rebalancing a country’s population age distribution — immigration. Contrary to conventional wisdom, most immigrants are of working age. The average age of new immigrants in 2017 was 31, compared to nearly 38 for the overall U.S. population.

Moreover, the fertility effects of immigration are felt over several generations. Foreign-born women living in the United States have nearly 40% percent more babies than U.S.-born women. While the difference withers away with the second and third generation, the higher fertility among immigrants is responsible for the slight increase in the U.S. total fertility rate since 2000.

Experts point out that no society can address the challenges of population aging without a battery of measures. Given longer life expectancy, postponing the retirement age makes sense. The gig economy and remote work provides senior citizens with new sources of income — and with an antidote against loneliness and boredom.

But these developments may not be enough to provide the nation with a solid foundation for the future. That’s why an immigration policy geared towards a rejuvenation of the American population is the path forward. A smart immigration policy for the United States in the context of population aging would include the following elements:

  • A focus on attracting young immigrants. While the average age of immigrants has increased since 2000 due to the ageing of populations worldwide, there are proven ways to tilt the arrivals towards the younger age groups. One of them is to offer foreign students at U.S. universities a work visa upon graduation, a policy that Canada has adopted for several years now with astonishing results, and has now expanded to include students who attend classes remotely from their home countries.
  • An emphasis on securing immigrant healthcare workers to address the needs of our senior population. According to a 2016 study by George Mason University, immigrants represent about 13% of the total population of the United States, but they make up 28% of physicians and surgeons, 22%of nursing, psychiatric, and home health aides, and 15% of registered nurses. Another study revealed that in 2017, more than half of internal medicine residency positions for new doctors were filled by foreign-born graduates. In addition, immigrants represent more than half of medical scientists employed in the biotechnology sector. All in all, approximately 2.1 million immigrants worked in healthcare occupations in the United States as of 2017, or 17% of the total, according to the Migration Policy Institute, which also reports that one in four support nurses and home health aides are foreign born.
  • An overall policy framework that is flexible and allows for annual adjustments to visas, green cards, and naturalization flows depending on shifting needs, gaps, and economic conditions.

In order for the United States to ensure a robust workforce in the future, we may have to think outside of the box to craft an immigration policy that effectively boosts our dwindling population. Perhaps politicians should be taken out of the decision-making process, and instead immigration laws should be decided by a new independent entity similar in statute to the Federal Reserve, and subject to the usual oversight. Immigration policy needs to be framed as a national endeavor to the benefit of all Americans, young and old.

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