Migration, long a politically sensitive topic, will become an economic necessity over the next decade as countries struggle with the strains of an ageing population, the World Bank said on Tuesday.
The multilateral lender said the rising share of older people — especially in richer economies, where almost a fifth of people are now aged over the standard retirement age of 65 — would place increasing strain on global economic growth, public finances and social cohesion.
“Over the next decade, all countries, whatever their income level, will find migration increasingly necessary,” the bank said, adding that governments needed to do more to attract foreign workers. Current approaches created “large inefficiencies and missed opportunities” while leading to human suffering.
Poorer countries should make emigration part of their development strategy, by expanding training in skills that are in high demand and doing more to help workers send money home at low cost, said the World Bank. Meanwhile, host countries should partner with them to help finance training and cut recruitment costs, while also working to build a political consensus on the role of migration, and make the most of refugees’ talents.
Lower-skilled refugees needed more support to access jobs in host countries; legal routes for migration to reduce the incentives for trafficking and people smuggling; and more humane systems to manage returns and resettlement when this was necessary.
The World Bank’s warning comes hard on the heels of population projections from the UN that underline the extent to which leading economies may need to rethink their growth models as they age.
India is likely to have overtaken China as the world’s most populous country this month, and its population — which the UN estimates at 1.42bn — is seen as almost certain to continue growing. Yet even in India, the fertility rate has now fallen below the replacement rate, and the UN estimates the population could stabilise by the middle of the 2060s.
John Wilmoth, director of the population division at the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, said on Monday that this meant it was a “critical period” for India to maximise the “demographic dividend” while its workforce was still growing, while other countries whose populations were ageing rapidly would need to focus on policies to help parents juggle work with family duties, and enable older people to remain in employment.
Though the World Bank expects the problems with a lack of workers to be more acute in richer economies, fertility rates have also plunged in middle-income countries, such as China and India, raising the risk that “many . . . will grow old before they become rich”.
Changes in demographic trends are already fuelling competition to attract skilled workers. Australia and Canada are expanding opportunities for migration. Germany, which has previously been able to recruit inside the EU, is seeking new sources of labour from outside the bloc.
However, in many countries, public debate on migration policy remains focused on efforts to curb flows of unauthorised migrants and to share the costs of sheltering asylum seekers and refugees.
Meanwhile, the population of many low-income countries is set to grow rapidly even as climate change cuts economic opportunities and threatens to render entire regions uninhabitable. The World Bank judged, in a report on global migration patterns, that most movements because of climate change had so far been over relatively short distances, within the same country, but it warned this could soon change.