Skilled immigration as a response to ageing
I have just started a Marie Curie Fellowship at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, where I will be working with Andrew Williams on the ethical status of policy-responses to the increasing “dependency ratio” in developed democracies (the ratio of “dependents”, i.e. people who don’t work, to those who do). As the dependency ratio increases, the collective challenge we face in providing adequate support for dependents intensifies. This raises questions, for example, about the kind of support dependents have a right to, and the ways in which the working population must share the burden of providing it.
My aim over the next two years is to explore the ethics of three kinds of policy responses to the increasing dependency ratio: increasing skilled immigration, increasing fertility, and increasing labour participation. All three responses aim to reduce the dependency ratio by “boosting the denominator”, i.e. increasing the number of working people relative to dependents. But each policy-response does this in a different way and each encounters its own distinctive problems.
I will be posting regular reflections on each of these policy-responses. In this post, I want to make a general observation about one of the ethical challenges raised by encouraging skilled skills immigration.
Before I do so, however, it's worth pointing out that a consensus exists amongst demographers that a policy of encouraging skilled immigration can’t solve the problems of population ageing on its own. The amount of immigration needed to reduce the dependency ratio in the United Kingdom, for example, far exceeds the amount that the British electorate is likely to tolerate. As one study reports:
“in order to keep constant its old-age dependency ratio until 2050 the UK would need to receive on average more than one million ‘net migrants’ per year (UN 2000: 72), i.e. nearly six times more than the current levels. In terms of population size, the outcome of this exercise would imply a total UK population of 136 million in 2050 – undoubtedly a problematic scenario for a country that is already widely regarded as ‘overcrowded’.”
(Alessio Cangiano, “Policy Primer: Demographic Objectives in Migration Policy-Making,” Migration Observatory, University of Oxford (2011). The UN report is, “Replacement Migration: Is it a Solution to Declining and Ageing Populations?” UN Population Division, New York, 2000.)
Still, encouraging skilled immigration can, at least, contribute to reversing the dependency ratio. So it is worth examining whether, and if so, how developed democracies should adopt this kind of response to populating ageing.
Now, as many have pointed out, the main ethical challenge encouraging skilled immigration gives rise to is the fact that it can give rise to negative effects in the skilled immigrants’ home states. This is particularly troubling when their home states are developing states. We should not, however, confine our attention to the possibility that encouraging skilled immigration might have negative effects on developing states. Indeed, skilled immigration may have positive effects on many developing states. The results of research by Frédéric Docquier and Hillel Rapoport, “indicate that most developing countries experience a net gain from skilled emigration. Adverse overall impacts are found to be limited to a subset of countries exhibiting very high skilled emigration rates.” (Tito Boeri, Herbert Brücker, Frédéric Docquier, and Hillel Rapoport, Brain Drain and Brain Gain: The Global Competition to Attract High-Skilled Migrants (OUP, 2012), p 11). The question we need to ask, therefore, is whether ethical problems might remain with encouraging skilled immigration even when it has positive effects on sending states?
The answer, I think, is “yes”. There are many examples of deeply troubling behaviour that has positive effects on others. Think of cases in which some people exploit others. In hiring people to work in his sweatshop for extremely low wages, for example, an employer may behave in a way that has a positive effect on his workers. After all, extremely low wages may be an all things considered improvement on no wages. Nevertheless, the employer’s behaviour is ethically unacceptable because he exploits his workers; he takes advantage of their deep poverty in order to acquire cheap labour from them. The fact that admitting skilled immigrants may have positive effects on developing states, does not, then, automatically imply that developed democracies are in the clear, ethically speaking.
What we need to figure out is whether encouraging skilled immigration could constitute a form of exploitation. That’s a difficult question that I’ll be exploring in the next few weeks.