Demographics in North America: Not just US

This year, the Saïd Business School at Oxford launches GOTO, an ambitious new project to focus the university’s attention on a particular topic of global import. The first topic is demography, with a focus on aging. In my first post, I argued that discussing the effects of aging demands discussing immigration, too. In my second, I take a look at demographic trends in the US and North America more widely. Reposted: 

With its population of 311 million and GDP of $15 trillion, the US accounts for nearly 60% of North America’s population and over 80% of its economic output. It is tempting, then, for Americans to think of our problems and opportunities at a national, rather than hemispheric, level. Putting US demographic changes in a more regional context, however, isn’t just about being a good neighbor: it helps us understand the changes taking place within our own country and more accurately forecast their effects.

The headlines in the US, of course, are of shock and alarm at our falling birth rates, slackening immigration, and ageing workforce. Thanks to a virility-sapping, multi-year recession, demographers now expect the US population to grow 10% more slowly in the first half of the 21st century. And immigration, the finger in the dike of American demography, is slowing.

What about the rest of the neighborhood? Looking northward, Canada’s has for years added a little over 1% to its population of 35m, for many of the same reasons as the US (e.g. a declining birth rate, later first births). My colleague and classmate Greg FitzGerald argues that ensuring Canada’s ongoing attractiveness to immigrants is a large part of how Canada will mitigate the challenges of an ageing population–no mean feat given competition for brains and labor from emerging economies.

South of the American border, the demographic story of Mexico and Central America is starting to mirror that of their English-speaking, northern neighbors. Whereas Mexican women used to give birth to (and export) astonishing numbers of people, the birth rate among Mexico’s 100m people has dropped to 2.4 children per women, and may fall below the replacement rate of 2.1 within next ten years. That demographic dividend, combined with the fact that net emigration to the US has dropped to zero in light of Mexican growth and tougher conditions for migrants in America, means that Mexico may be headed into the prime years of one the healthiest, best educated, most productive work forces in its history.

Keep moving south, and the story gets less clear. The seven countries that make up Central America are home to some 40m people, but research on their populations’ growth and movements is scarce: front-page Google search results for the query “Central America demography” include papers from as far back as 1986, before the births of over half of the region’s population. One recent study suggests that El Salvador’s population growth mirrors that of Mexico: ageing, growing more slowly, getting slightly more wealthy. Guatemala and Honduras, by contrast, remain stuck in a cycle of low-incomes and high fertility rates.

What does all this mean for the United States? Perhaps not that much: after the 2000 census, the big shock was that the US population was growing much faster than expected, heralding environmental doom. A recovering economy may yet pull immigration numbers back up and inspire more Americans to bet big (biologically speaking) on America’s future.

Even if the American economy recovers, it will be tiny Honduras and Guatemala, rather than Mexico, that will most strongly feel the pull of El Norte. If Mexican growth holds, American companies will have to look elsewhere for cheap labor. That may include the non-Spanish-speaking countries that make up the immigrant base of Canada–which, if it follows Greg’s advice, will fight hard to keep them.

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