I am an immigrant and we are all to some extent migrants: Mobility and migration in the 21st century

It's been 18 months since I posted to my blog. A lot has happened. The New Year in 2019 feels like an approproate moment to start posting again. Here's a short comment on migration and mobility in contemplation of a recent research report in the IUSSP Newsletter today.


Reading this research report on 21st century mobility and migration patterns prompts me to ask myself whether what we are seeing in the 21st century is 'new', in the sense that human migration and mixing across the Earth's surface have been a 'thing' for more than 100,000 years* already and the reasons for people to move and mix (and move and mix again) have always been as various as the conditions under which people live, and are therefore hugely complex. Indeed, migration is an important part of what it means to be human; if anything, fixed settlement and even the concept of 'family' are probably the 'new' phenomena, given that agriculture is only 10,000 plus years old.

What is perhaps new - at least given our own rather limited time hoizons - is the preparedness and capability to move often, to third and fourth destinations, to view one's current location and life-purpose as a way-point rather than a destination, to move back and forth frequently, to move between multiple residences in different countries and continents, for families to establish more dispersed spatial relationships, and therefore for individual and familial mobility to involve a greater number of journeys and be more complex in their aggregate.

These patterns, I think, are what conservatives in receiving communities in developed countries around the world are finding it hard to acknowledge, understand and accept. This is perhaps because they tend to view (judge?) established settlement and continuous living as a close family unit within a single community as a normative 'good', and departure from those patterns as perhaps a 'bad'. Hence Theresa May's 'citizens of nowhere' speech to the Conservative Party’s annual conference in October 2016.

Over the longer term, the recent increase in the number of migrants is really roughly equivalent to the increase in world population overall, so the proportionate increase isn't large. However, what the authors might point out is that resident European populations have not increased much in recent decades, even declined in some countries. So the increase in migrant numbers, while roughly reflecting overall global population increases, ends up being a significant proportionate increase of incomers for European citizens and governance systems to absorb. Moreover, the authors do emphasise that displaced migrants as a proportion of migrants overall is rising. Tie these to an increasingly individualistic, even libertarian, European society and politics, and resentment or conflict are potential outcomes.

I am an immigrant

My own story is interesting in this respect, I think. I’m a British citizen living in Sheffield for around 20 years and I’m a father in full-time paid employment. On the surface at least, I conform to conservative norms about settlement, community, family and more. However, I’m not just descended from migrants from long ago - I am an immigrant. I was born in Kenya. And I’ve migrated since then; first to the UK, then to Spain, then Japan, then back to the UK. To who knows where next?

When my parents returned to the UK I didn’t. Not because I didn’t go with them, but because I hadn’t lived in the UK in the first place! Britain was a brand new country of residence for me. I didn’t ‘return’. And I didn’t volunteer it, since I was a young child wholly dependent on adults. It would be easy to gloss over the fact that I was at the time effectively a displaced migrant by arguing my parents were British ‘expats’, but I would argue that the difference between my case and those of Syrian or Nicaraguan children migrating to the UK or USA with their parents today is merely one of degree, not of fact.

It is often the case that expats and immigrants are considered different, one intending to return at a later date, the other intending to stay in their destination, raise a family and die. But the story of mobility and migration in the 21st century tells us that these two terms are simplifications, sometimes used careflessly or ignorantly for another set of darker values that are rooted in false notions of original community and blood; which can be understood as at least in part related to race.

For me, what this story - a story that we need reminding is as old as humanity itself - reveals is that we need to acknowledge ourselves as being first and foremost as a part of a single human species, connected with each other and with our ancestors, and living interdependent with other species on Earth together. Our future survival depends on it, and will probably be decided one way or another this century.

*The Out-of-Africa hypothesis puts the beginning of Homo Sapiens’s migration anything from 115,000 to 300,000 years ago. Though recent research shows that we are all, to some extent, descended from archaic humans (Neanderthals & Denisovians etc.) too, who were resident in Europe and Asia at least 500,000 years ago.

Should Britain Leave the EU to Reduce Immigration?

Some people say that Britain is full, that our infrastructure and services can't cope with the extra numbers, and that this rate of growth in the population is unprecedented. They even say that we need to leave the EU to reduce the number of people entering the UK. I have a keen research interest in demography. So, I looked at some data and did some simple calculations. Here's an alternative view.

Between 1831 and 1901 the British population grew at a rate of 1.2 per cent annually, mostly as a consequence of high fertility and the 'epidemiological dividend' where improved survival rates drove mortality lower.

Between 1960 and 2015 UK population growth never rose above 0.8 per cent per year (1962 and 2007-11), was under 0.5 per cent for most of the period, was very slightly negative in 1975-77 and 1982, and is currently (2014/15) at around 0.7 per cent. The inward migration component of Britain's current population growth is about 53 per cent, meaning that 47 per cent of UK population growth is due to natural increase. In 2015 55 per cent of the migration component was due to immigration by EU citizens. So, in 2015 29 per cent of Britain's population growth was due to immigration by EU citizens, and 71 per cent of population growth was due to other causes.

Even if one agrees that immigration needs to be reduced and it could or should be reduced by leaving the EU, the data shows that a decrease of, say, a quarter in EU migration (a BIG decrease) would achieve only a small decrease in overall growth rates of around 0.1 percentage points - meaning that the population would continue to grow at a roughly similar rate. And that is assuming, of course, that non-EU migration would not increase to fill the resulting gap in labour demand.

The Victorians coped well with a higher rate of population increase, investing in infrastructure that survives to this day. Of course there were Malthusians among them, but they were largely ignored. Quality of life improved markedly through this period, which in itself pushed population growth rates higher by reducing mortality. Indeed, many people who complain of present-day population growth look back admiringly, even longingly, at that period as one of the most prosperous, productive and successful in British history.

Why can't we cope with a slower rate of increase than Victorian Britain? Well, first of all, I disagree that we can't cope. However, that feeling of not coping that some people claim to be experiencing is probably due more to governments past and present not investing in the necessary housing and infrastructure, not training enough younger people to fill labour demand (particularly in public services), and instead giving our resources away to the already rich.

Leaving the EU is not the solution. Investment is the solution.

Could Japanese people have enough children to stabilise the country's population?

In an earlier post I discussed why international migration would not and could not stabilise Japan's population, at current rates of fertility. So, now let's look at the other side of the coin - fertility - and see if raising the birth rate could provide the solution that growth-oriented planners wish for.

Below is a 'back of the envelope' method for understanding why Japan can't stabilise its population by simply having more children. Data is taken from the Government of Japan's Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications Statistics Bureau website. These calculations are indicative only and do not use the methodologies that demographers use to calculate population change.

In 1970 the population of Japan was 104.7 million people. The number of 20 year olds was 2.19 million persons, of whom 1.1 million were female. In that year the Total Fertility Rate (TFR), meaning the average number of children born to each woman in her lifetime, was 2.13 children per woman - which is very slightly above the rate necessary for population reproduction. Here's a little calculation.

If each 20 year old woman alive in 1970 had given birth to 2.13 children in her lifetime, then this cohort would have produced 2.34 million children. Allowing for deaths, infertility, and some outward migration, this translates to a stable population, if it persisted. So far so good.

But it didn't persist. In 1974 Japan began experiencing below replacement fertility, which has continued uninterrupted to this day. This means that every year since 1974 the population has produced fewer children than itself - which translates, eventually, to a shrinking population once tempo effects unwind.

In 1990 the population of 20 year olds was 1.91 million, of whom 932,000 were female. Precisely 20 years after 1970, this shows that the real average fertility rate among those women aged 20 in 1970 was below the 1970 fertility rate. If we assume that every child born to this cohort of women survived and none left Japan before each reached the age of 20, then we can calculate that those women aged 20 in 1970 theoretically reproduced at a rate of 1.72 children per woman. The actual rate of reproduction among this cohort was therefore somewhere between the 1970 TFR of 2.13 and the theoretically lowest TFR of 1.72, allowing for deaths and out-migration. For the sake of argument let's take the mid point between the two of 1.93 children per woman - below replacement.

So, although the 1970 TFR indicated that Japan had a stable population, in actual fact the country had already entered a long period of shrinkage.

Now, if the 1990 cohort of 20 year old women had reproduced at the 1990 TFR they would have given birth to 1.4 million children. However, the population of 20 year olds in 2010 was 1.2 million, a shortfall of 200,000 on the theoretical figure; which means that the 1990 cohort of 20 year olds, like their sisters from 1970, reproduced at a lower rate than the 1990 TFR - at the very least 1.28 children per woman. Using the same methodology for the 1970 cohort, the real rate of reproduction for this cohort was probably 1.34, being the mid point between 1.28 and the headline rate of 1.39 for that year.

Taking the 1970 and 1990 cohort data together, and assuming that both cohorts were typical of long term reproduction trends, we arrive at an interesting conclusion. For at least 40 years Japanese women reproduced at lower rates than real time data was suggesting would happen.

Now, let's come forward to the present. In 2013 the number of 20 year olds in Japan was 1.22 million, of whom 595,000 were female, and the TFR was 1.43. This means that the 2013 cohort of 20 year olds, at 2013 rates of fertility would theoretically produce 851,000 children. However, Japan is experiencing a fertility bounce back; so this generation may produce more children than my calculation suggests. Lets say they produce 1 million children, which would require a TFR among 20 year olds in 2013 of 1.68 children per woman. That's possible, but it's still under half the number of children produced by 20 year olds in 1970, and represents a big rise in the fertility rate from 1.43. And it's still well below the population replacement rate of about 2.1.

So, to repeat another way, if 2013's cohort of women reproduce at a TFR of 1.68 then they would give birth to 1 million children, yet 1990's cohort of 20 year olds produced 1.2 million children at a TFR of 1.34. Here we have an apparent contradiction; a higher fertility rate in 2013 than 1990, yet fewer children being delivered. How can that be? Well, it's because long term low fertility has produced a much smaller cohort of mothers in 2013 than in 1990 so that, even with a higher rate of fertility in 2013, there would still be fewer children being born. And that is indeed what is happening.

So, let's summarise thus far. The number of 20 year old Japanese women in 1970 was 1.1 million and they gave birth to around 1.91 million children at a real rate of approximately 1.93 children each. In 1990 the number of 20 year old women was 932,000, about 170,000 fewer than in 1970, and they gave birth to around 1.2 million, at a real rate of around 1.34 children each. The 2013 cohort of women numbered 595,000 which is 54 per cent of the number of 20 year old women alive in 1970. The headline fertility rate in 1970 was 2.13 and in 2013 it was 1.43. 1.1 million times 2.13 equals 2.34 million. 595,000 times 1.43 equals 851,000. The difference between the theoretical number of births for these cohorts is a shortfall in 2013 of 1.49 million children. The real shortfall is likely to be smaller; perhaps 1.1 million. Nevertheless, this is still a huge number, and represents a drop in the aggregated number of children being born to each cohort of between 40 and 50 per cent since 1970.

OK so far? Now let's try a little numbers game. Let's hypothesize that the 2013 cohort of 20 year olds reproduces at the 1970 TFR. They would then produce 1.28 million children, about 700,000 fewer births than the 1970 age 20 cohort. If in 2013 Japan would have the same number of theoretical births as in 1970, when Japan was more or less reproducing itself, then the TFR would need to be 3.93 children per 20 year old in 2013. The same calculation for 1990 would require a TFR of 2.99.

Even this would not keep Japan at a stable population, because the 1970 total population was 104 million, not the 127 million of today. To reproduce at a rate that keeps the current population stable, 2013's 20 year olds would have to reproduce at a rate higher than 4.0 children per woman; starting tomorrow! Any delay and the fertility rate necessary to keep the population stable would have to rise still further.

The last time that Japan had a TFR of 2.99/3.93 was in 1950/55, and the last time the TFR was higher than 4.0 was during the postwar baby boom prior to 1950; an exceptional time in Japanese history, bearing in mind the huge loss of life during World War Two. Personally, I don't see any chance of Japan being able to raise fertility to levels anywhere near population stabilisation levels.

If international migration cannot help Japan stabilise its population, and neither can an increase in fertility, then what is the prognosis for the future? My answer is simple.

Japan had better get used to having a shrinking population. It's happening right now, it's been going on since 2008, it's accelerating, and it's not going to end soon.


International Migration: Some Lessons from New Zealand

I'm spending a fortnight in New Zealand at the invitation of Professor Natalie Jackson and the National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis (NIDEA) at the University of Waikato. It's been fascinating to learn about the country's demography and it's future challenges, and there are some interesting contrasts and comparisons to be made with Japan and Europe. When looking at all three, what strikes me is the degree of fit between what we think we know about a country and its people, and the underlying story that is there to be uncovered and told.

University of Waikato, New Zealand.

University of Waikato, New Zealand.

I have always thought of New Zealand as a young country, built on immigration and agriculture, and set to expand its society and economy on the basis of this foundation long into the future. Historically it is young, when we compare the history of human settlement there with Europe and Asia. Young New Zealanders are also frequent visitors to Japan and the UK on working holiday visas enjoying their year or two of OE (Overseas Experience). So the impression I had was one of a youthful country full of vitality.

By the same token, media images of Tokyo as a neon-lit crowded, noisy and bustling metropolis give the impression that Japan too is full of youthful vigour. Though I like to think that Europeans are aware that Japan is rapidly ageing and, even, that it has begun to shrink. But do Europeans know that New Zealand is also experiencing some of these phenomena - that it too is an ageing society with depopulating and declining regions?

Globally there are currently 1.6 million people being born every week, and the latest projections for world population growth indicate that there may be around 10-11 billion people alive on Earth by 2100 - the global population is currently about 7.3 billion (Hansford, 2015: 30; Worldometers, 2015). As of today, 15 January 2015, in New Zealand there are 4,559,303 people, with one person being born every 8 minutes and 34 seconds, and one person dying every 18 minutes and 16 seconds. New Zealand is growing also due to international migration, with a net gain of one new resident every 8 minutes and 21 seconds (SNZ, 2015a). Just to remind ourselves, Japan is shrinking due both to an excess of deaths over births, but also because it is currently a net exporter of people to the rest of the world, though its population is huge by comparison, at more than 127.3 million in 2013 (Statistics Bureau, 2015). Indeed, measured by population size Japan remains the 10th largest country in the world.

But New Zealand's overall growth belies some underlying demographic and economic developments which potentially indicate a more complicated future. Auckland is growing rapidly, at around 1.5 per cent per year and is expected to expand from its currently estimated 1.5 million people to nearly 2 million by 2031. This would mean an increase of about 25 per cent over the next 16 years, with Auckland comprising about two fifths of the country's population by then (SNZ, 2015b). Anecdotally, people that I have met while here wonder about the capacity of the city's infrastructure to accommodate this increase - particularly when there are other regions of the country, such as districts of Waikato, which are already experiencing ageing and anticipating the end of population growth (Cameron, Jackson and Cochrane, 2014).

My intuitive understanding is that the projections for New Zealand may be over-estimating the migration effect on population change into the future. New Zealand has traditionally received its largest share of migrants from Europe (UK and Ireland) and more recently from Northeast Asia (China), with smaller numbers from Pacific countries, South Africa and India, with around 50 per cent beginning their new lives in Auckland (Department of Labour, 2009).

In future it is possible that there will be fewer migrants, as Europe and Asia themselves age and begin to depopulate, and as levels of socio-economic development improve in Asia. The former will provide New Zealand with competition for migrants with high levels of human capital, and the latter will encourage many to forego migration and to remain in their country of origin as opportunities expand. In addition, just as large numbers of people in the early decades of migration into New Zealand settled as pastoralists and farmers in sparsely populated regions, so in future migrants may prefer to work in technical and professional occupations in the already crowded urban centres, potentially prompting a reaction against migration among urban and politically engaged residents. Consequently, there are lessons in this for New Zealand, Japan and Europe.

A black swan and chick on the shore of Lake Taupo, New Zealand.

A black swan and chick on the shore of Lake Taupo, New Zealand.

New Zealand has long been a desirable destination for migrants, and justifiably so. With a clean and attractive natural environment, low population density, a highly developed knowledge economy, friendly people and a pleasant climate, it has many attributes. But, as the rest of the developed world also ages and shrinks, will migrants continue to come to New Zealand if immigration policies change and economic opportunities expand elsewhere? If the majority of migrants continue to settle in Auckland and the country's other major cities, what prospects await those more rural and peripheral regions which are currently experiencing low fertility and ageing and which will not expect to be replenished with international migrants in significant numbers?

Just as the 20th century was different from the 19th, so the 21st century may differ substantially from what preceded. In terms of population change, I have a hunch that past patterns of international migration may not be a very accurate good guide to the future. So, what might New Zealand, Japan and Europe expect?

  • A slowdown in the total number of migrants from traditional sending countries.
  • Fiercer international competition for migrants with high levels of human capital.
  • Increasing numbers of migrants from South Asia and Africa with lower levels of human capital.
  • Fewer migrants seeking settlement in ageing and depopulating agricultural regions.

In my next post, hopefully next week, I'll discuss ageing, depopulation and migration in New Zealand in a bit more detail, once I've visited a couple of rural areas and learnt more from academics and local people. I'll also have some more photos to post.


Cameron, M.P., Jackson, N. and Cochrane, W. (2014) Baseline and Stochastic Population Projections for the Territorial Authorities of the Waikato Region for the Period 2013-2063, National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis, University of Waikato.
Department of Labour (2009) Demographic Characteristics of Permanent Migrants, Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment Website, Accessed: 15 January 2015.
Hansford, D. (2015) Full to Brimming, New Zealand Geographic, 131: 30-32.
SNZ (2015) Population Clock, Statistics New Zealand Website, Accessed: 15 January 2015, 12.45pm.
SNZ (2015b) Population, Statistics New Zealand Website, Accessed: 15 January 2015.
Worldometers (2015) World Population Clock, Worldometers Website, Accessed: 15 January 2015.