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Views from the Center


Today, George Yang and I publish a new paper looking at the challenges that Europe faces with an aging population, and asking if the challenges that Africa faces with a burgeoning working-age population might be a mutually beneficial part of the answer. We think they might, but not under “business as usual” immigration policies. Current forecasts as well as some we make ourselves suggest migration will fill only a small part of Europe’s looming labor shortage, and African migrants will be a comparatively minor component of that migrant flow. That’s a huge lost opportunity for both continents.

Africa’s population aged 20-64 is forecast to climb from 534 million to 1.3 billion between 2015-2050—a three-quarters of a billion rise. Over the same period, absent migration, the population of Europe aged 20-64 will fall by more than 100 million as countries age and birth rates stagnate below replacement levels. In the paper we discuss some of the likely economic consequences for Europe of such a scenario and the various fixes that might be good but won’t be adequate, including more women in the workforce, later retirement, and robots. We also discuss the skills base in Africa, and suggest there will be plenty of young workers across the continent with the basic educational requirements to contribute to Europe’s economies. A huge literature suggests that, if they move, it would be good for them, good for Europe, and (thanks to the remittance, trade, and investment flows strengthened by migrants) good for the countries they leave behind.

Sadly, however, current trends suggest that the likely scale of migration under “business as usual” is grossly insufficient to meet Europe’s needs or to maximize Africa’s benefit.

We predict that the stock of working-age migrants in the European Union and the UK will rise by 16.5 million between 2015 and 2050. That compares to United Nations estimates that the EU and UK would need an additional 61 million working-age people in 2050 in order to keep dependency ratios (the ratio of workers to non-workers in the population) at their 2015 level, before taking into account the impact of migration. It should be noted that children born to migrants and retiring migrants themselves add to the dependency ratio, so that it will actually take considerably more than 61 million working-age migrants to sustain the 2015 dependency ratio in 2050 Europe, but the number gives a sense of the scale of the migrant gap. And only about one in four new migrants to Europe over that time span will come from Africa, assuming immigration policies remain broadly similar. The UK will need about eight million people to fill the worker gap, while we predict that it will get less than four million new working-age migrants and, as with the EU, only about one in four will come from Africa.

The numbers for the US reflect a country that, for all the aberration of the last four years, has been more open to migration than the old continent. The UN predicts migrants will add 27 million to the working-age population between 2015 and 2050—closer, but still short of the additional 42 million working-age people needed to keep the dependency ratio at a 2015 level. And between one in two or three may come from Africa.

Nonetheless, under business as usual, we predict only 29 million additional working-age migrants will come from Africa to high-income countries as a whole between 2015 and 2050, which is about four percent of the growth in Africa’s workforce over that period. It would be great news for Europe and Africa both if more of the other 96 percent had chances to migrate, temporarily or permanently, north of the Mediterranean. And it is time for policymakers in Brussels and London to wake up to the real migrant crisis: a potential shortage of people willing to come and fill the jobs Europe needs done.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.