Austria is very old


I have just returned from a month-long trip to Austria for research. Other than the wonderful time I had with my hosts, something I took from the trip is that Austria is very old. Of course the country and culture themselves are very old, but I mean the literal people.

The age distribution of Austrians walking around cities skewed much older than what I would expect in America. It was not uncommon for most people on a tram or sitting at a cafe to be in their forties, fifties, or higher. Young people were around but only made up majorities in the city center or at night. This seems different than what you would see in New York City, Atlanta, DC, or even my small hometown in South Carolina.

It turns out that Austrians are measurably older than Americans. In the US, about 1 in 3 people (36%) are 50 or older. In Austria, the number is about 2 in 5 (42%). In total, Austria’s population is the 14th oldest in the world, while the US is 62nd. This doesn’t completely explain what I saw (there are regional differences in age distributions, plus I was subject to confirmation bias), but it makes me feel a little less crazy.

I’d be concerned if I was Austrian. Aging populations mean fewer workers support more people, so there’s less money to go around for everyone. Austria could try to get more workers, but their fertility rates have fallen to around 1.4 children per woman, the country seems to have a reputation for being unfriendly to immigrants and raising the retirement age makes people angry. They haven’t had much success improving their slow productivity growth, either.

Austria isn’t alone with its demographic problems. Most developed countries are in the same boat, which the New York Times described in an excellent write-up earlier this year. The key takeaways are that Europe and East Asia are aging very fast, and the US is aging slower thanks to high immigration. The only places getting younger in the near future are Africa and India.

This is a great time to make it easier to move to and stay in the US. Far more people want to move here than we accept. Our current immigration policy is to make most of them to wait, possibly for decades. Why not let them in?

The Cato Institute has a collection of proposals for how to increase immigration. One that I like, from the perspective of deal-making, is expanding visa access for high-skilled workers. Republicans don’t want to take the huddled masses yearning to be free, but maybe they’ll agree to take the educated masses yearning to work at Google1.

At a bare minimum, we should get back to normal, pre-COVID levels of immigration. We handed out embarassingly few green cards during the pandemic. Let’s open the doors again.

  1. Did you know that the US has a special tax treaty with India that lets Indian students in the US take the standard deduction? A non-Indian foreign graduate student pays around a thousand dollars a year more in taxes than Indians or Americans.