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Britain is exporting droves of retirees to Spain, in exchange for young Spanish workers

Off to Spain!
Off to Spain!
Image: Reuters/Kevin Coombs
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Immigration was at the heart of the Brexit debate, yet little attention was paid to a key factor: the age of migrants coming in and out of the UK.

Pensioners are one of Britain’s great exports, according to recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Of the 296,600 British citizens who resided in Spain in 2016, around 40% were 65 or over. Just 21% of British migrants in Spain were 30 to 49 years old, while 8% were 15 to 29. The ONS data fits with Spain’s 2011 census data, which found that 48% of British migrants in Spain were retirees.

Spanish migrants in the UK are, in comparison, a whole lot younger. Of the 132,000 Spanish citizens living in the UK in 2015, half were 20 to 39. Nearly 60% of these migrants were working. Spanish migrants were more likely to be employed in banking and finance (25% of Spanish citizens versus 17% of the total workforce), and in distribution, hotels, and restaurants (25% versus 19%) than the native population.

Spain has become an increasingly popular retirement spot for Brits. The number of UK migrants 65 and over residing in Spain jumped from just under 27,000 in 2002 to over 120,000 in 2016.

The ONS data on migration between Britain and Spain reflects a wider pattern. Foreign-born workers in Britain are on average younger than their UK-born counterparts, according to a recent report by the University of Oxford. Around 76% of foreign-born workers who arrived in the UK between 2010 and 2015 fit into two age groups; 16 to 24 and 25 to 35. While the UK-born workforce aged over the past 20 years, the proportion of older foreign-born migrants (aged 46 and above) decreased.

Since the Brexit vote, EU migrants have left the UK in droves. Net migration—the difference between the number of immigrants entering the UK and those leaving—dropped by 84,000 from 2015 to 2016, according to the ONS. An estimated 339,000 people left the UK in 2016, an increase of 40,000 from the year before. The large majority of those leaving were EU migrants.

This has promoted UK business to ring the alarm bells (paywall). At one farm in England, the owner pointed out that just one Brit (paywall) applied to work picking soft fruit (he quit after one day). Businesses have called on the government to be more honest with the public on the UK economy’s dependence on migrants—or risk serious labor shortages along with a difficult economic future.