The idea that immigration is the solution to the aging of American society has become an article of faith among those arguing for ever-higher levels of new arrivals. They assert that, in societies such as the United States, where fertility rates are low relative to historic patterns, the native population will not supply enough workers to maintain a robust economy and pay for government services, particularly retirement programs. If native-born Americans aren’t going to have enough children to balance the longer-lived elderly population, the argument goes, then our only option is to increase immigration levels.
It’s not a crazy argument; it just happens to be incorrect. In reality, a significant body of research shows that the impact of immigration on population aging is small. While immigration can certainly make our population larger, it does not make us dramatically younger.
And yet, commentators have been making such arguments for years. The late Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer asserted in 1998 that America has been “saved by immigrants” from the kind of aging taking place in other first-world countries. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush famously said that America needed higher levels of immigration to “rebuild the demographic pyramid.” At the data-journalism site FiveThirtyEight, Ben Casselman has argued that immigration is the “only thing” preventing the country from facing a “demographic cliff.”