German Chancellor Angela Merkel continues to receive both praise and criticism for her decision last year to open Germany’s doors to hundreds of thousands of the migrants arriving on Europe’s shores. ‘It goes without saying that we help and accommodate people who seek safe haven with us,’ she declared.
However, while recent immigration has added enough people to offset any natural population shrinkage as a result of increasing death rates compared to birth rates, the next few decades are still likely to see the country’s increasingly elderly population go into a steady decline. Destatis, Germany’s national statistics office, estimates that the number of Germans between the ages of 20 and 66 is expected to shrink by a quarter – around 13 million people – between 2013 and 2040, while the number of people over 67 is expected to rise from 15.1 million to 21.5 million over the same time.
‘The shrinking of the population has consequences,’ explains Stephan Sievert, researcher at the Berlin Institute for Population and Development. ‘It has repercussions on the economy, on social security, and on infrastructure. A more gradual, incremental shrinking would be preferable to a rapid decline. The more time you have to adjust to the new situation, the more time you have to adapt the functioning of your society.’
Destatis confirms that immigration cannot be expected to make up this shortfall. It concludes that the country would require an estimated 470,000 immigrants ready to join the workforce every year between now and 2040 to prevent a significant demographic shift, a rate which the current unprecedented period of high immigration cannot be expected to sustain.
‘It’s not necessarily about the number of people, it’s about what they bring to the table,’ continues Sievert. ‘What kind of qualifications do they have? Can they find employment? Can they relieve some of the burden on the social security systems that increasingly more people are getting money out of than people are paying in to?’ He also raises the issue of where immigrants might settle spatially; whether they could help revive rural parts of the country where populations are dwindling.
‘It’s a different question to whether or not this would be desirable,’ he adds. ‘To have immigration on the scale that could make up for these losses, we’d be talking about more than half a million every year, and that doesn’t make the task of integration any easier.’
This was published in the March 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.