Confronted with the inescapable reality that the workforce in much of the developed world is graying rapidly, policymakers are beginning to take the increasingly stark demographic landscape more seriously.
While these governments acknowledge immigration is not the sole answer and that other measures, such as raising the retirement age or enticing more women into the labor force, would help alleviate the strain, they are considering immigration as a means to inject much-needed youthful labor into their aging workforces.
One example of greater openness to immigration is Japan, which has long resisted opening its borders to immigrants despite its rapidly aging population.
In June, members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) issued a bold report that calls for Japan to make foreign residents 10 percent of the nation's population — meaning an additional 10 million-plus people — in the next half century, up from less than 2 percent currently.
According to media reports, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is taking the report seriously though he said that overcoming Japan's preference for exclusivity will be the main challenge to establishing a new immigration system.
The report also recommends that Japan aim to have 1 million foreign students in the country by 2025, an acknowledgment that foreign students can be an important source of skilled workers.
Japan already is taking small steps toward increased immigration. After receiving parliamentary approval in May, the government admitted 200 health-care workers from Indonesia as part of an economic partnership agreement between the two countries that will eventually bring 1,000 such workers: 600 nurses and 400 caregivers for the elderly.
This is the first time Japan has allowed a large number of foreigners to work in hospitals and nursing homes, according to Japanese media.
Demographic pressures have also factored into new labor migration policies in Norway and Sweden. Norway is considering a more user-friendly process for recruiting highly skilled immigrants, while Sweden has just launched a new, entirely employer-driven system for issuing needed work permits (see Issue #2: The Recession-Proof Race for Highly Skilled Migrants).
Tobias Billstrom, Sweden's minister for migration and asylum policy, carefully articulated Sweden's position in a government brochure:
"I do not believe that increased labor immigration is the only appropriate response to the demographic challenges we are facing," Billstrom wrote. "More labor immigration is only one of several instruments in efforts to prevent labor shortages and to maintain the supply of labor in the short and long term."
One of the provisions of the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum also signals the first-ever intergovernmental political decision to address labor shortages partly through migration. The pact's introduction states, "[International migration] can contribute decisively to the economic growth of the European Union and of those Member States which need migrants because of the state of their labor markets or of their demography."
The pact, which seeks to harmonize several aspects of immigration policy across the European Union while maintaining Member States' sovereignty, received the approval of the 27 Member States this fall. It encourages Member States to implement labor-migration policies, but many have yet to make substantial commitments to step up employment flows.
At the EU level, Moldova and Cape Verde signed on as pilot countries for mobility partnerships to facilitate legal migration and control illegal migration (see Issue #9: Warming up to Circular Migration?).
The European Union also took a small step forward with Asia in April, when it convened a labor migration meeting in Brussels that included officials from 10 Asian countries, including India and the Philippines, and 16 EU Member States.
In contrast to Europe, South Asia and some parts of Southeast Asia are experiencing rapid population growth.
Participants called for continued dialogue at the ministerial level. They also agreed "there are mutual benefits to strengthening cooperation on the issue of migration flows from Asia to Europe especially in light of the demographic and economic dynamics that characterize both regions," according to the meeting summary.