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Europe and Japan have to
re-think immigration



Jonathan Power

February 25, 2004

LUND, SWEDEN - Immigration, we are belatedly beginning to realize, has enabled western industrial societies to put on hold problems it should have been forced to confront earlier. In particular it has postponed the re-organization of economic life in the most humdrum parts of the economy, putting off the day when menial jobs would have to be reshaped to attract unemployed locals. It has also delayed the day when a lot of businesses should have packed up thirty years ago and relocated in lower cost, emigrant-producing countries. And it has postponed a re-think of our antiquated attitudes to older workers.

Even in America, which for now accepts, if not always as uniformly as it once used to, that it will continue to be a country whose vitality partly comes from immigration and where the process of social adopting and adapting is more smooth than in Europe and Japan, economists find it hard to prove that latter day immigration has been a significant economic plus. One could say the present consensus among many American economists is that immigration is good for certain industries, a useful anti-inflation tool in the short run, usually good for the majority of first generation immigrants themselves, but not for low paid natives. (In California American-born workers have left the state as fast as immigrants have moved in, so extreme has been the impact of immigrants in keeping wages down.)

It actually doesn't matter if the U.S. population is growing faster and is younger. The critical issue for Europe and Japan is how they use their work force- can they use their older people effectively and productively? Can they avoid throwing people on the scrap heap in their 50s, as is common in such jobs as banking and train driving, in marked contrast to say judges who often go on until they are 75 which, unless you believe the law is an easy profession, goes to show how much it is all simply a question of attitude?

Konrad Schuller, writing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine, has made the point that an older population is wiser and less violent.  Older people score highest in solving society's problems, whether it be related to jobs, marriage or teenage growing pains. In Holland recruiting the older workers into new jobs has become a growth industry. In Rotterdam "55+", an employment agency, has seen demand soar for health-care workers, teachers and librarians. And who these days at 70 or even 75 cannot drive a bus or sell tickets in a railroad station?

Old categories no longer hold good when longevity is expanding by 1% annually, not by 0.75% as forecast only two years ago (this is from a recent report by the UK's government's actuary) and a French child born today has a 50% chance of reaching 100, and in far, far, better health than the centenarians of today.  Governments need to give society some fiscal shock treatment, like sharply cutting taxes for the working elderly or doubling the normal state pension if one waits to retire until the age of 70 or 75.

Sweden- the country with highest longevity in the European Union- has been the first to reform its state pension system to reflect these trends. Now employees have a right to remain in work until 67, two years longer than before and it has become almost impossible with a state pension to support oneself if one retires at 61. Still, a government investigator shocked many when he said that due to demographic changes it is probable that before long Swedish employees will have to work until they are 79.

This is to exaggerate. Whilst it is true that birth rates have fallen all over Europe and Japan, there is evidence accumulating that this is bottoming out. In Sweden, the mother of not only the sexual revolution but of the working mother and the government-funded crèche, there are signs already of a reverse (and in Denmark and Finland too). In Britain and France the decline in population is happening more slowly. Moreover, there is evidence that as the divorce rate continues to climb, still fertile women who take another partner sometimes start a second family. Again, reducing the tax burden on young couples who have bigger families, making up the lost revenue with the tax from people who remain in the work force for much longer, could give the birthrate a useful boost.

On present trends, unless nothing is done a country like Germany would need to take in 3.4 million immigrants annually for the next 50 years. The sooner governments wake up to the impossibility of this, given the understandable reticence of their peoples not to loose their cultural identity and their clear inability to deal positively with the alienation of many second generation immigrants, the more likely that reforms can take hold. The great immigration debate has to become the great re-structuring debate.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the

40th Anniversary of Amnesty International

"Like Water on Stone - The Story of Amnesty International"





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