In Sweden, politicians and the media often claim that the country needs high rates of immigration to meet the needs of an aging population. This claim lacks support: rigorous demographic and economic analyses indicate that immigration instead entails an increased dependency burden and a poorer economy.
By Malte Andersson & Frank Götmark
In the spring budget for 2016, the Swedish Government wrote that “Immigration is a potential addition to the labor force, which in the long term can reduce the pressure on public finances by an aging population”. With similar justification, the Employment Service (Arbetsförmedlingen, AF) claims that Sweden needs high rates of immigration. AF’s report “Sweden’s Future Employment” (“Sveriges framtida sysselsättning”, March 2019) states an annual immigration rate of 60,000 is required to maintain the current dependency burden as life expectancy and the proportion of older people increase.
Influential media sources report similar claims. The program “Swedish news” in national television (SVT, “Svenska Nyheter”, February 15, 2019) used misleading statistics to make us believe that hundreds of thousands of immigrants are required when Sweden’s population ages. In the Culture section of a large morning newspaper, one reads that this [high rates of immigration] must be so, otherwise Sweden’s welfare society faces major economic problems. It’s not true. Some immigration is justified, but for humanitarian and other reasons unrelated to aging.
The report from the AF has received strong criticism, as it does not include costs for immigrants’ own pensions and care later in life. The reality that immigration does not solve the problems associated with an aging population was already concluded in a 2001 UN report. Along with longer life expectancy, greater rates of immigration and continued population growth mean that the number of elderly people will increase even more in the future. Using the media and politicians’ line of thought, more pensioners and persons in need of care will require further immigration, to continue in an endless cycle. The idea that longer lives requires an increase in national population size is misguided. Demographic research has repeatedly confirmed this conclusion, but often for deaf politicians’ ears. Instead, policies need to promote stabilizing and, in the long term, reducing countries’ population and environmental impact. It is particularly important in countries such as Sweden that have excessive per capita consumption and large ecological footprints. A study by Nordregio (2016) demonstrates the effect of keeping the so-called dependency ratio (ratio of non-working people to working people) constant through immigration. In Sweden, it would require a total of 38 million immigrants by 2080 (see Figure). If this were to occur, Sweden’s population would increase fivefold to 50 million, and consist mostly of late immigrants, their children and grandchildren.
Increased longevity is often associated with a decreasing population (Götmark et al. 2019 and Götmark 2019). Densely populated Japan has had the largest increase in the proportion of elderly people, with minimal immigration and a slightly declining population since 2009. Similar to Sweden, excessive immigration to Japan would be needed to keep the dependency ratio constant. Instead, a new report proposes longer working life, increased labor force participation for working-age people, and increased productivity (Parsons & Gilmour 2018).
Sweden’s high immigration rates, highest per capita in Europe, do not strengthen our economy. On the contrary, today’s immigration may lead to significant net costs long-term. According to the Swedish Pensions Agency (Pensionsmyndigheten 2016, PID14639), low living wage means that immigrants as a group do not cover expenses for health care and pensions. Immigration of labor from the Nordic countries and southern Europe in the middle of the 20th century favored the Swedish economy. The situation today is completely different. A high proportion of present-day immigrants are low-educated and remain dependent on subsidies for many years. The public sector’s average cost for today’s immigrants has been estimated at 74,000 SEK per year during the person’s lifetime in Sweden (Expert Group for Studies in Public Economics, 2018).
Society may need immigration of skilled labor. But today’s immigration does not solve the problems associated with an increasing proportion of older people, as many politicians, journalists and writers claim. Other measures are necessary, such as young people starting work earlier and older people working longer. More and more people are choosing to work even after formal retirement age. But the most important measure is to increase employment rates in groups where they are low. In March 2019, 390,000 people were unemployed in Sweden, many of them low-skilled immigrants. Getting the majority of people in this group working and able to contribute to Sweden’s living conditions is perhaps the most important task the government has in front of them. Are they capable of doing so, or will the number of unemployed grow as a product of the new decision that allows family members of refugees to immigrate to Sweden? (Decision taken by Parliament on June 18, based on proposal from the Social Democrat and Green Party coalition government).
Many rich countries in Europe, including parts of Sweden, are already densely populated, with a high consumption per person that needs to be reduced. Stable and, in the long run, decreasing population would increase our opportunities for self-sufficiency in food and other resources. Such a development of Sweden’s population can also contribute to less environmental problems, reduced housing shortage, lower total consumption and greater opportunities for a long-term sustainable society.
This Opinion article, translated from Swedish, was published 16 June in Göteborgs-Posten, Sweden’s second largest morning newspaper. The Swedish version can be found here.