Immigration Is the Only Reason the U.S. Doesn't Have an Aging Crisis

The U.S. is getting older, but not as quickly as parts of Europe and Asia. The influx of immigrants and their high fertility rates are the main reasons why.
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Reuters

“Old Europe” was how Donald Rumsfeld referred to countries like France and Germany in the lead-up to the Iraq War. You know: Traditional, castle-studded, Medieval-Times-inspiring. Aged. “Vintage,” if we’re being nice.

But actually, Europe is literally getting old.

Pew

A new Pew report out today finds that in several European countries, along with Japan, South Korea, and China, the senior-citizen population is growing rapidly, driving concerns about healthcare spending and social support for the elderly.

In 35 years, for example, roughly one-third of Germans and Italians will be over the age of 65. So will more than 36 percent of Japanese and about 35 percent of Spaniards and South Koreans.

This means that by 2050, the median age of Germans will be 51. In South Korea and Japan, meanwhile, it will be 53. At 41, the median American age will seem downright childlike—though not as spritely as the young Nigerians, where it will be 21.

As far as people-power, the U.S. is not in terrible shape. America’s population growth, at 28 percent, will outpace that of many of our economic rivals, including Brazil’s (18 percent) and China, Japan, and Germany (all declining).

The countries that are getting grayer are likely to have trouble with their dependency ratios—the number of young people working to fund social security for their senior populations. A whopping 87 percent of Japanese say aging is a “major problem” there, compared with just 26 percent of Americans. “Public pension expenditures are expected to consume about 15 percent of GDP by 2050 in several European countries. Pension expenditures in the U.S. are projected to increase by less, from 6.8 percent of GDP in 2010 to 8.5 percent in 2050,” the Pew authors write.

Pew

But Americans aren’t the ones who are responsible for our comparatively strong demographic situation. For that, we can thank immigrants.

Immigrants not only help inflate our overall population, but they also tend to have more children than Americans do. Mexican-American women, for example, have 2.5 children on average, and white American women have 1.8. And it's immigrants who will contribute the most to U.S. population growth in coming decades.

“The Pew Research Center estimates that, from 1960 to 2005, immigrants and their descendants accounted for 51 percent of the increase in the U.S. population. Looking ahead, from 2005 to 2050, immigrants and their descendants are projected to contribute 82 percent of the total increase in the U.S. population,” Pew writes.

Without immigration, they note, the U.S. would face the same kind of aging problems that Europe does.

The U.S. probably won’t have pension issues that are as severe as those in Europe or Asia—partly because those countries have more generous senior-citizen benefits. But American healthcare costs will still continue to rise, just like in the countries that are getting much older. The Pew authors predict U.S. healthcare expenditures will double by 2050, from 6.7 percent of GDP to 14.9 percent in 2050. But that has more to do with the ever-inflating cost of our medical care, as well as the burden of obesity-related disease. Americans may not be getting (much) older, but we’re definitely getting fatter.

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Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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