AUSTRALIA could have a fight on its hands in coming decades to attract the migrants needed to ensure a labour force large enough to offset productivity losses caused by a rapidly ageing population.
John Piggott, the director of the newly created Australian Institute for Population Ageing Research at the University of NSW, said the problems associated with an ageing society were not confined to Australia, meaning skilled workers would become coveted around the world.
"In 40 years the world will be very different," he said. "At the moment there are 400 million people aged 60-plus across Asia. By 2050, it will be 1.25 billion. It's important to realise it's not just an Australian issue.
"It will become more difficult than some might imagine to maintain migration levels, because everybody will be wanting them. There will be serious migration competition."
As Australia looks ahead to determine the right mix of migration and natural population growth to meet the economic challenges of its ageing population, Professor Piggott said developing policies to promote greater workforce attachment for workers older than 55 was another productivity opportunity.
"We could be looking at ways to change workplace practice to make it more appealing to older people," he said. "For instance, allowing them scope to care for their elderly parents, or look after their grandkids. We're better at this than we used to be but we've got some way to go."
Developing sophisticated population policy, one of the roles of Professor Piggott's new institute, is critical to the nation's forward planning given the proportion of Australians older than 65 will almost double to a quarter of the total population by 2050.
At present, five Australians of working age support every person older than 65; by 2050, the proportion is forecast to be 2.4 people of working age.
Such statistics prompted the Howard government to offer a universal baby bonus in 2004 in a bid to increase the nation's fertility rate, and the rate of our migration intake has become a thorny political issue.
Melbourne mother of three Donna D'Allessandro said she joked with her husband on becoming pregnant with Matthew, her youngest, about their contribution to the nation. "We did say one for Scott, one for Donna and one for the country," Ms D'Allessandro said, a reference to former treasurer Peter Costello's call to Australian parents to boost the population. "But really, we always planned to have three and government policy didn't have much to do with it."
Ms D'Allessandro said she wasn't too concerned about the size of Australia's population in 40 years' time, provided there was sufficient infrastructure to deal with the increased numbers.