Immigration Has Little Impact on U.S. Aging: New Census projections show small effect on working-age share of population

By Steven A. Camarota and Steven A. Camarota on May 16, 2013

The Census Bureau has released new projections that examine the impact of different levels of immigration on the United States. The projections, analyzed by the Center for Immigration Studies, show what demographers have long known: immigration has only a small impact on slowing the aging of America. Many promoters of the Gang of Eight immigration bill, which roughly doubles legal immigration, argue it's needed to forestall aging, but the Bureau's new projections show immigration's impact is slight.

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Many worry that there won't be enough workers in the future to support the economy or pay for government. While immigrants often arrive young, and have somewhat larger families than natives, immigrants age just like everyone else, and the differences with natives are not large enough to fundamentally alter the nation's age structure. The debate over immigration should focus on other areas where it actually has a significant effect.

The tables released by the Census Bureau show:

  • The Bureau's high-immigration projection shows that if net immigration totals 67 million by 2060, a total of 57.3 percent of the U.S. population will be of working age (18 to 64). The low-immigration projection (35 million immigrants by 2060) shows a working-age share of 56.4 percent.

  • The high-immigration projection assumes 67 million arrivals by 2060, roughly double the 35 million that the low projection assumes. Yet the working-age (18-64) share of the population increases by less than one percentage point.

  • Turning to the 65 and older population, the new projections also show immigration has only a small impact. The high-immigration projections show that 21.3 percent of the population would be of retirement age in 2060, compared to 22.6 percent under the low-immigration projection.

  • Mathematically, immigration levels simply cannot have a large impact on aging. An important 1992 article in Demography, the leading academic journal in the field, points out that "constant inflows of immigrants, even at relatively young ages, do not necessarily rejuvenate low-fertility populations. In fact, immigration may even contribute to population aging."

  • The Census Bureau concluded in projections done in 2000 that immigration is a "highly inefficient" means for increasing the percentage of the population that is of working-age in the long run.

  • To understand why immigration has a small impact on aging, it is helpful to remember that although many immigrants arrive young, they grow older like everyone else. As a result, in 2012 the average age of immigrants was 43 years compared to 37 years for natives.

  • It is also important to note that the Total Fertility Rate in the United States (for immigrants and the native-born together) is 1.98 children per woman (ages 15-49). Without immigrants, the rate is 1.88. So immigrants do increase the nation's TFR, but only by .1 children on average.

Table 17 in the Census Bureau's new projections shows the net immigration levels under the Bureau's high and low immigration assumptions. Table 3 shows the share of the population to 2060 that is of working age — ages 18 through 64 — under the Bureau's high- and low-immigration projections.

The 1992 Demography article mentioned above was authored by Carl P. Schmertmann. It is entitled: "Immigrants' Ages and the Structure of Stationary Populations with Below-Replacement Fertility", (Vol. 29, No. 4). The 2000 Census Bureau population projections mentioned above can be found here. The average age figures for immigrants and natives discussed above is from the public use file of the Annual Social and Economic Supplement of the Current Population Survey from 2012. The Total Fertility Rate discussed above is from the public use file of the 2011 American Community Survey, also collected by the Census Bureau.

View the Senate bill and CIS Senate testimony and commentary here.

NOTE: This posting was revised on May 16, 2013.