The hidden opportunity in mass migration

As our economies re-open post-Covid, climate change means that increased migration is inevitable. Can we win the coming war for talent?

It might be time to accept that the world will not go back “to normal”. Oh, eventually Covid-19 will recede into an endemic disease. Our economies will fully open again. It may be next year. It may be the year after. But it will happen.

But we’ll re-emerge into a different world. The sheer scale of the changes we’ve wrought on our lives through the measures we’ve taken to save lives will have a massive impact. To take the theme of the pandemic-cancelled NEXT20, the world halted, and it opens up, some issues will catch fire.

And, as Parag Khanna illustrated so beautifully at the NEXT Limited Edition, migration is likely to be a dominant political issue for the next few decades. 

The new face of migration

The immigration is certainly something that halted — and is now catching fire. As borders sporadically re-open, and conflicts escalate, we’re seeing crises from the English Channel, with dozens of people losing their lives, to the Belarusian border.

Politicians, as is their way, want to offer clear solutions, but as many are finding, such issues aren’t easily amenable to resolution through political fiat. The reason for this is straightforward: migration is far from a straightforward issue. It’s a complex mix of “push” factors and “pull” factors:

  • Push factors drive enforced migration, like the need to escape from war zones or life-threatening climate changes.
  • Pull factors include the desire for a better job, a better standard of living, or to move to a more pleasant location. 

These also interact with both national and transnational politics and laws, and are shaped by the largely immutable facts of geography. Yes, it’s one of our old friends, a highly complex system, prone to exponential effects

To both “solve” the migration issues, and to win the looming war on talent, requires countries to acknowledge the complexity of the issue, and then attempt to carefully influence it in their favour. And, to achieve that, they need to understand the factors at play.

Let’s look at some of them. 

The Pandemic

Much as we’d love to forget it, Covid-19 is not yet over, and its effects will be felt for years to come. It has led to migration already — including people who had settled in other countries, choosing to return to their native land for safety, support or to aid their relatives. Reverse migration is still migration, and part of the global flows of talent and people.

We’ve spent quite some time examining the way that the pandemic is likely to reshape our cities, our towns, and how we work. This is, if you like, micro-migration: migration within existing nation states.

But the global movements of people have been shaken up dramatically, and will most likely never be the same again. In effect, though, these movements of people are another form of supply chain. They just supply talent and workers, rather than goods. These supply chains have been disrupted by the combination of border closures, travel restrictions and vaccine mandates. And so, any interventions in the supply chains are prone to the kinds of bullwhip effects we’ve talked about before.

Indeed, governments are finding it hard to trigger the migration they need, as the UK is finding out. Both its temporary visas for lorry drivers and its scheme to recruit scientific talent have had poor, or in the latter case, literally no effect. Immigration is not a tap you can turn on and off. Intentionally or not, the UK has done an excellent job of persuading opportunity migrants that it is not a welcoming place for them. 

Khanna, speaking to Isabelle Roughol on the Borderline Podcast, made clear his scepticism about the British approach. By failing to acknowledge the complexity of the issue, it leaves itself unable to either stop migration or to attract the skilled workers it requires.

The Climate Crisis

These are skills that both companies and countries are going to need, as the climate crisis will inevitably boost migration globally. As climate change accelerates, many places in the world are likely to become less habitable. Some will suffer dangerous rises in temperatures, some will suffer from flooding or increased extreme weather events. 

People will, inevitably, as they realise their current life is unsustainable, choose to change it. And for many, that will mean moving where they live. This is an opportunity, not a threat. Many of the countries that most need skilled workers, through declining birth rates or other demographic factors, could solve their economic issues by embracing this. 

But they’re not. 

Those who need migration, reject it

As Khanna put it:

It’s a status quo bias. It’s a generational conservative bias. Older people who themselves are the ones most in need of caregivers, who mostly need to be imported, are the ones who are voting against immigration. They’re not thinking about fiscal stability either because they’re primarily concerned with the preservation of their entitlements in terms of the pension system, and so forth. 

Even the most optimistic read of the outcome of COP26 suggests that dramatic climate change is on its way. Any country that isn’t doing demographic modelling based on those changes, and taking a hard look at the choices that it entails, is missing one of the major opportunities of the 21st century. 

Enforced Migration

While all loss of life is tragic, there is something more acute about the wasted potential in the death of a child. And the news that a little girl drowned trying to get to the UK brings that home. How desperate do parents need to be to put their child in such danger? This is the reality of enforced migration, and it’s only likely to grow.

We’ve already discussed how environmental shifts are likely to displace people. But countries will find themselves with changing access to fertile land, fishing, mineral resources and more. Even clean water might become an issue for some. In some cases, that will lead to revolution and war.

The climate crisis may well lead to the biggest resettlement of people in the history of humanity. Is there any chance we can manage that without a terrible cost in human suffering and the destruction of economies? 

Canada’s northern lights migration

In Parag Khanna’s recently published book Move, he outlines one optimistic vision of the future — his “Northern Lights” scenario. In simplistic terms, this is the future where the countries of the global North, in particular, absorb the enforced migration. They use those people, that talent, to reform and recharge their economies, and humanity moves forwards. 

Khanna cites Canada as an example of the sort of country that is moving in the right direction. It is, he points out, blessed with a geography that means it is likely to suffer fewer adverse effects from the climate crisis than other countries. And, it’s already pursuing a careful immigration policy. It takes nearly as many migrants as the US, but has a fraction of the existing population of its southern neighbour. 

Just as migration is a complex system, so is the war for talent. Because companies will — eventually — go where the talent is, or they will wither in the marketplace. The countries that slowly build the sorts of human talent supply chains that allow their people and their economy to prosper through this challenging few decades will have an inevitable competitive advantage.

Are you where you should be?

Photo by Shubham Dhage on Unsplash

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