By Artjoms Ivlevs
On June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom (UK) held a historic referendum in which citizens voted, 52% to 48%, to leave the European Union (EU). The outcome of this vote has sent shockwaves around the world and is likely to change the course of British and European politics for years to come. It is widely recognized that immigration played a major role in the decision of the UK to leave the EU: immigration was a dominant theme in the pre-referendum debate and remains a key issue as the UK prepares its exit from the bloc. Specifically, the proponents of Brexit argued that the levels of immigration to the UK from other EU countries have become too high; exiting the EU would enable the country to control immigration from the EU. Slogans such as ‘immigrants take our jobs’ and ‘take back control of our borders’ have resonated well with the UK general public, for whom immigration has indeed become one of the biggest worries.
However, for some time scholars have been pointing that immigration has few, if any, adverse effects on the labour markets of migrant-receiving countries (Constant, 2014; Peri, 2014). Such findings, coupled with mounting worries over immigration levels, raise a question: in what ways does immigration affect the well-being of people in migrant-receiving countries – beyond the realm of the labour markets? In a study “Local-level immigration and life satisfaction: The EU enlargement experience in England and Wales”, published in 2018 in Environment and Planning A (Ivlevs and Veliziotis, 2018), we explored the effects of immigration on the subjective well-being, and in particular life satisfaction, of local residents – a relationship that has so far received little attention in both the literature and public debate.
To answer our research question – whether immigration affects the life satisfaction of residents in a host country – we focused on a recent immigration wave to the UK. Following the 2004 enlargement of the European Union, the UK opened its labour market to citizens of the new EU member states (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia – also known as the accession or A8 countries). As a result, 1.5 million East Europeans started working in the UK between 2004 and 2011. In 2015, Poles – the largest group among the A8 migrants – became the largest foreign-born group in the UK, overtaking Indians, the Irish, Pakistani and Bangladeshi.
Besides being fast and unexpectedly large, the A8 migration to the UK was also geographically unevenly distributed (see the map below). The demand for jobs in the geographically-concentrated, ‘migrant-intensive’ industries, such as agriculture, food processing and manufacturing, meant that that some UK communities were affected by the East European migration much more than others. We related the local-level intensity of A8 migration to the changes in people’s life satisfaction over time. To capture the local-level migration intensity, we used data from the Worker Registration Scheme (WRS), which documented, between 2004 and 2011, the number of A8 workers starting a job in the UK at the local authority level. To capture changes in individual life satisfaction, we used the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), which followed the same people over time.
Geographical distribution of A8 migration in England and Wales, 2004-2008, % of local population
Source: Worker Registration Scheme and authors’ calculations.
Our results showed that immigration from the A8 countries in the UK on average was not related to the life satisfaction of UK nationals. However, important sub-group differences emerged and are presented in the graphs below. More intense local-level immigration was associated with lower life satisfaction among older people, as well as the unemployed and the economically inactive, while the life satisfaction of younger people and those in employment went up with local-level immigration. We have also obtained somewhat weaker evidence that the life satisfaction of better educated UK nationals and those with higher incomes increased with immigration, while the life satisfaction of people with low incomes decreased with it. All these associations were pronounced in the ‘migration shock’ period – the first two years after the UK opened its labour market to the new Europeans – and became statistically insignificant in the longer term.
Predicted life satisfaction as a function of the local immigration rate for respondents of different age, employment status, income and education
How can one explain these results? A positive association between immigration and life satisfaction for the young could be because young people are in favor of diversity brought about by immigration. In contrast, older people might be particularly opposed to diversity and change, as well as be concerned with the (perceived) pressure immigrants put on local health services; this could explain why the elderly become less life-satisfied when larger immigrant inflows take place. The negative association between the local immigration rate and life satisfaction among the unemployed could mean that people in this group feel that their chances of getting back to work and their labour market bargaining power get weaker with higher levels of immigration – a form of labour market competition. At the same time, those in employment do not seem to be threatened by labour market competition, as their life satisfaction increases with the levels of local immigration.
The finding that life satisfaction increases with local-level immigration among those with high incomes and relatively high levels of education could indicate that these groups do not perceive Eastern European migrants as labour market competitors (which is consistent with the fact that the A8 migrants are concentrated in low-skilled sectors/occupations). Instead, the wealthier and better educated could be gaining in life satisfaction through, for example, enhanced social life (many A8 migrants are employed in the hospitality industry, keeping its product prices low) or satisfaction with house or family life (A8 migrants increased the supply of cheap household services).
Overall, our results suggest that immigration does not affect the well-being of different groups of people in the same way and that labour market considerations are unlikely to be a dominant factor in explaining the links between immigration and natives’ well-being. In addition, the fact that the life satisfaction of particular groups, such as the elderly, decreases with immigration has implications for the formation of immigration policy in most developed immigration-receiving countries, where populations are aging and older people are generally more likely to vote. From this perspective, the recent decision of the UK to leave the EU could well be explained by the negative association between A8 immigration and the life satisfaction of older people in the UK. This contention, however, hinges on the assumptions that 1) the Brexit referendum vote was indeed largely about restricting immigration, and 2) life satisfaction affects people’s immigration policy preferences.
Reference to the full paper:
Ivlevs, A. and Veliziotis, M. (2018). “Local-level immigration and life satisfaction: The EU enlargement experience in England and Wales”, Environment and Planning A 50(1): 175-193.
The article is also available on the UWE Research Repository.