Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah

Beware tales of U.K. overpopulation: in future we may need all the people we can get.

Having already experienced unprecedented immigration in recent years, the United Kingdom should, apparently, be bracing itself for millions more in coming decades. Almost all of the coverage of the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) projections has focused on how more immigration could lead to a doubling of the U.K. population by 2081. But this frenzy is unwarranted and could distract us from far more fundamental challenges.

For a start, there has been little coverage of the huge range in the projections. Look carefully and the total population could be anywhere between 64 and 108 million by 2081, depending on how many children we have, how long we live and how much immigration exceeds emigration. Dig deeper, and you will see the population could actually fall to 50 million, with no net immigration and no improvements in life expectancy.

We have no reliable way of knowing where in this range we will be in seven decades’ time. In 1965, the ONS’ predecessor predicted a U.K. population of 75 million by 2000. Given how far off this proved, we should instead be talking about how to respond to the drivers that will shape population change.

One key factor is an ageing population. The U.K.-born workforce actually fell last year; this year we will see more pensioners than children in the U.K. If we are not careful, there will come a time where there will not be enough British workers doing British jobs to pay for public services and pensions. Even in a full-employment scenario, migrants will need to complement the domestic workforce. It is the composition, not the size, of the population that matters.

The oft-evoked image of hordes of hungry migrants clambering to get into the U.K. also misunderstands the future drivers of migration. The patterns show that future migrants are more likely to be bankers than famished farmers. Indeed, far from trying to limit immigration, there is a good chance the U.K. will have to compete hard with other developed countries to attract the best and brightest from around the world.

Other potential drivers — global economic inequalities, climate change, and war — are unlikely to result in vast numbers coming to the U.K.. Instead, if improvements in border controls and technology continue, the impacts of such displacement will be felt more by the neighbours of war-torn, poor or environmentally-devastated countries. Uganda will bear the brunt of problems in Rwanda; India will pay the price of flooding in Bangladesh. The developed world, now home to only around one in five of the world’s refugees, is unlikely to provide shelter.

Perhaps the most worrying assumption is that future migrants will behave like past migrants. While many of those who came to the U.K. in the 1960s stayed permanently, this is unlikely for today’s Poles, in the vanguard of a new generation of circular migrants. In an increasingly mobile world, projections based on old assumptions may be little short of useless. The more we worry about how many more people will be crammed into these islands, the greater the risk of us ending up with far fewer people: lonely souls struggling to cope in a brave new world. — ©Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2007

(Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is director of research policy at the U.K. Institute for Public Policy Research.)