An Aging Continent Grapples With Immigration

Rick Steves: Exploring Europe, exploring travel as a political act

08.20.09 | 10:56 AM ET

REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch/File

I am a Europhile. I freely admit I have a romantic fascination with Europe and an appreciation for its way of life. But I’m not blind to the fact that Europe has its character flaws and is grappling—not always very well—with some serious challenges of its own.

As the birthrate has dropped in recent years, Europe is becoming a geriatric continent. While this is not a problem in itself, Europe’s luxurious cradle-to-grave welfare system is only sustainable with more active workers and fewer retirees. People who worked all their lives with the promise of the cushy old-age benefits their parents enjoyed won’t docilely accept the harsh reality as dictated by the new arithmetic. As in the USA, it’s difficult to take away expected entitlements without a fight. Europeans love to demonstrate. And as courageous politicians try to make cuts to address the emerging crisis, there will be plenty of angry marches clogging Europe’s grand boulevards.

Interestingly, as Europe’s native population declines, its population growth may come largely from immigrants. And Europe’s immigration challenges are much like America’s. Around the world, rich nations import poor immigrants to do their dirty work. If a society doesn’t want to pay for expensive apples picked by rich kids at high wages, it gets cheaper apples by hiring people willing to work cheaper. If you’re wealthy enough to hire an immigrant to clean your house, you do it—you get a clean house, and the immigrant earns a wage. That’s just the honest reality of capitalism.

In Europe, Gastarbeiter—German for “guest worker”—is the generic term for this situation because Germans so famously imported Turkish people to do their scut work a generation ago, when Germany’s post-WWII economic boom finally kicked into gear. These days, virtually every country in Western Europe has its own Gastarbeiter contingent. Berlin—with over 100,000 Turks—could be considered a sizable “Turkish city.” France’s population includes millions of poor North Africans. And even newly wealthy Ireland now has 100,000 Polish people taking out its trash. It’s striking to hear my Irish friends speak about their new Polish worker as if he or she were a new appliance.

But invariably, wealthy people begin to realize that their “cheap labor” is not quite as cheap as they hoped. In Europe, the importation of labor creates fast-growing immigrant communities that need help and incentives to assimilate, or society at large will pay a steep price (as we saw in 2005, when the shooting of a black teenager by French cops ignited violent riots that rocked the poor African and Arab suburbs of Paris). Working constructively with its new minority populations is a crucial issue for the future of Europe.

Rick Steves

Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. He is the author of Travel as a Political Act.

10 Comments for An Aging Continent Grapples With Immigration

Mike Williams 08.20.09 | 12:44 PM ET

I think Europe has had its fill of immigrants.  Given Europe’s long history of xenophobia and racism it won’t be long before the anti-immigrant backlash comes, and then look out. You can see the right and far-right rising all around Europe, and the left is dying a quick death.

Green Card 08.20.09 | 2:45 PM ET

From a humanitarian perspective, our fellow human beings, who migrate to support their families, continue to suffer at the hands of immigration policies that separate them from family members. This suffering should not continue.

Now is the time to address this pressing humanitarian issue which affects so many lives and undermines basic human dignity. Our society should no longer tolerate a status quo that perpetuates a permanent underclass of persons and benefits from their labor without offering them legal protections.

grizzly bear mom 08.20.09 | 5:06 PM ET

It will be challenging as people of different religons, values, cultures, etc replace those of the “Old World.”  Banning headscarfs in France is one of them. 

Also people have been guestarbeiting to countries all over the world to earn a decent wage to send back to their families for as long as it was possible.  Chosing to do so doesn’t mean that the wealthy country owes them a green card.  It is similar to being a contract worker anywhere.  You (only) are welcome as long as there is work to be done.  When there isn’t, go back to where you came from.

J Taylor 08.20.09 | 5:51 PM ET

There is no way on Earth the people of Europe are going to sit back and turn their countries and culture over to Islam, No way!
Rick Steves, it is only a matter of time before Islamophobia engulfs European politics, and when that happens these new politicians are not going to be spending time worrying about integrating Islam into society, their going to be spending their time planning Islam’s exodus from Europe.

MaryJ 08.20.09 | 11:27 PM ET

The Europeans don’t have children because they are expected to support Third Worlders’ children as well as their own. They can’t afford to have many of their own children in that case. And Mike Willliams, there’s nothing “racist” about indigenous people wanting to hang onto their way of life and their own lands that they have lived in for thousands of years. Europeans aren’t Americans—their ancestors have lived on that continent for 40,000 years. They don’t owe it to anyone.

Mark 08.21.09 | 7:47 AM ET

maybe we should embrace travel and tourism as well as working in foreign countries as a new way of life—-which hopefully will lead to more integration economically—-but also integration of the consciousness that we are one small planet and that countries boundaries are pretty artificial

Jennifer 08.21.09 | 7:50 AM ET

“If you’re wealthy enough to hire an immigrant to clean your house, you do it—you get a clean house, and the immigrant earns a wage. That’s just the honest reality of capitalism.”
This statement is the crux of this issue for both Europe and the US!  It angers me when people suggest that certain jobs are inhumane or beneath even an immigrant!!  Many of the businesses and families that rely on the “cheap labor” of immigrants are decendants of immigrants who did the very same things to get by and make a better life for thier families!  They did it and maybe now, generations later, their extended families are reaping the benefits but that’s how it works!  It does not happen overnight and will probably take more than one generation.  That’s the way it is and has always been!  Is it realistic or fair to expect that an immigrant who does not speak the language of a country and who may have very few pertinent job skills is going to be offered their dream job or even a job they really want?  No, it is not!  Why do people expect that things should be different for immigrants now than they were 100 yrs. ago?  Everyone pays their dues at some point!

MaryJ 08.21.09 | 11:43 AM ET

Jennifer is correct. My family has lived in the US for 350 years, but my generation was the first to make it into the middle class. It’s unfair for newly come immigrants to expect to have things it took us established Americans centuries to earn, especially when they want things like college educations at our expense!

SAS 08.21.09 | 11:36 PM ET

Immigrants everywhere have rights and dignity. They have an obligation to respect the laws of the country they live in, and a responsibility to contribute to the societies they live in. They do NOT have an obligation to unconditionally assimilate into their host countries, and they do have the right to maintain their own identities if they so choose to. The cliche that immigrants do not ``integrate’’ is a remarkably poor, if overused whip to vilify immigrants. It is every bit as fallacious with Muslims in Europe as it is with Hispanics in America.

Immigrants are here to stay and their rights are human rights. Europeans of all sides of the political debate need to accept this reality and move on. And if Europeans feel that immigration is a mostly developing world issue, let them not forget how millions of Europeans immigrated to the New Worlds of the American as Australia, more often than not at the expense of the indiginous non white populations. At least Muslim and Hispanic newcomers have not tried putting their hosts in reservations !!

J Taylor 08.22.09 | 2:06 AM ET

“Immigrants are here to stay and their rights are human rights. Europeans of all sides of the political debate need to accept this reality and move on. “

I wouldn’t be so sure of that. Remember, we are talking about the continent of Europe where 6 million Jews were sent to the gas chambers. Islam is going to be seen as a threat in Europe, and one way or another that threat is going to be neutralized.

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