An Aging Continent Grapples With Immigration
Rick Steves: Exploring Europe, exploring travel as a political act
08.20.09 | 10:56 AM ET
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.