As Britain prepares to go to the polls for the EU referendum, immigration is a key issue. Those worried by the adverse economic effects of an ageing population sometimes claim that immigration can offset these effects by increasing the proportion of working-age people. It is a claim challenged by a new study of long-term trends by Michael Murphy published in the journal Population Studies.
Professor Murphy compares the history of Scotland’s population numbers with that of England and Wales over the last 150 years. In Scotland high levels of outward migration, the largest recorded net outflow among countries in Europe with comparable data over this extended period, resulted in a low rate of population growth and an ageing of the population. In contrast, the population of England & Wales grew considerably over this period, but it also aged and at a rate nearly identical to that of Scotland.
Professor Murphy, who is based at the London School of Economics and Political Science, discusses these findings in relation to the recent Scottish referendum debate. There had been considerable political and media support for population growth in Scotland, where it was seen as a solution to the economic challenges associated with population ageing. Many of those who argued for independence pointed to the opportunity Scotland would have to promote immigration once free from the rest of the UK, where concerns about the level of immigration have led the main political parties to advocate further restrictions.
Professor Murphy’s research shows that migration has a clear impact on population size but that a growing population can still be an ageing one. However, migration is likely to have little effect on long-term population structures.
Professor Michael Murphy comments, ‘This research does not mean that Europe can shed its responsibility to manage migration humanely. However, it does show that changing population age structure in the long term is more complicated than opening borders’.
Michael Murphy. (2016). “The effect of long-term migration dynamics on population structure in the England and Wales, and Scotland”. Population Studies.