Over the next several decades the vitality of Western countries will depend on their ability to successfully integrate immigrants from many and diverse backgrounds. The United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, and Britain have insufficient native labour pools to prevent them from becoming granny states by 2050. (Germany needs 200,000 immigrants a year just to keep its factories running.) Only successful immigration can provide the markets, manpower, and youth necessary for Western countries to remain competitive and prosperous in a global economy.

Countries such as Canada, the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand, of course, were built on immigration, and continue to welcome large numbers every year. Over half the skilled immigrants in the world—the majority from non-European, developing countries—come to the United States annually, and another 40,000–50,000 new immigrants (including many from developing countries such as China and India) arrive each year in New Zealand.

Yet the challenges of absorbing such high numbers can be significant, especially in cities such as Auckland, where a great majority of immigrants, temporary workers, and international students reside. The tensions that naturally emerge can lead to public ambivalence about immigration and its contribution to the development of New Zealand’s society and economy.


How does a country successfully integrate newly arriving migrant communities? That question was central to a recent research project at the Centre for Social Justice in London, England, led by a working group of which I was Chairman. It is only in the last sixty years that Britain has seen immigrants of any consequential number arrive on its shores, and it has struggled to develop a post-empire narrative and a clear national identity that is welcoming of outsiders. A particular challenge has been integrating immigrant groups from former British colonies—some of whom have now lived in England for nearly four generations—who continue to remain outside the social, economic, and political mainstream of British life.

The urgency of these questions was heightened in the summer of 2001, following a series of race riots in several post-industrial towns and cities across northern England. Those riots culminated in three days of arson-filled violence in the city of Bradford, against the backdrop of the city’s abandoned textile factories, between members of the white working class and Bradford’s large Pakistani Muslim population. Over 300 police officers were injured, £7 million in damage was caused, and 200 arrests were handed down.

Over half the skilled immigrants in the world—the majority from non-European, developing countries—come to the United States annually, and another 40,000–50,000 new immigrants (including many from developing countries such as China and India) arrive each year in New Zealand.

In the wake of these riots, Tony Blair’s Labour government quickly established an investigative Commission, whose influential report assigned primary blame for the disturbances on the stark divisions that existed between South Asian and white communities: living “parallel lives” in separate residential areas, attending segregated schools, and rarely crossing paths in the course of work or socialising.


The answer to this problem, the Commission’s report said, was to increase the level of interaction between the different communities, which would help bring “community cohesion.” This was a new concept, by all accounts hastily formulated, and marked the formal introduction of “community cohesion” into the lexicon of public policy. The British government duly rolled out a series of national policy initiatives: local governments began sponsoring multicultural festivals; schools were required to show how they were “promoting community cohesion” in the classroom; non-profits applying for government funding were expected to demonstrate how their project worked across ethnic boundaries.

Yet in the course of our research, talking to scores of officials around the country, it was clear that such a top-down approach to “community cohesion” was viewed with a mix of bewilderment and frustration over expectations that local governments “deliver” such policy directives—for despite numerous attempts at Government performance indicators, it was nearly impossible to objectively measure the success of community cohesion initiatives.

A second frustration also became clear. Underlying the community cohesion framework was adherence to a set of assumptions known in sociological circles as “contact theory.” Contact theory claims that the way to reduce prejudice between majority and minority group members is through interpersonal contact. Conflict, in other words, is largely due to lack of exposure and interaction with different points of view and ways of life; conversely, greater exposure leads to diminished prejudice and conflict.

Yet, as leading sociologist Richard Alba has written in his book Blurring the Color Line, contact theory “has been the subject of reams of social-psychological research that shows it to hold only under certain restrictive conditions,” and that habitual contact does not guarantee positive cultural exchange. Interactions can, in fact, reinforce animosities. When middle class groups who share similar educational and economic backgrounds interact, for example, any religious or cultural differences that surface may be viewed as interesting and enriching. When groups with wide socio- economic disparities interact, however—or where different groups feel alienated, each in their own way, from mainstream culture— interactions can actually intensify perceptions of difference and feelings of threat. Community cohesion, therefore, was felt by many to be a simplistic solution to a complex set of challenges.

railway track community integration
Pakistan – Nasir Khan


What, then, did we propose? History suggests that successful integration is rooted in the economic success and social mobility of those who immigrate. Though there are, of course, exceptions, the pathway to successfully integrated societies is not generally a mysterious thing.

It is a natural, two-way process in which immigrants (and their children and grandchildren) slowly change their language and culture as they come into contact with the host society while, in time, the host society also changes by accepting greater diversity and eventually incorporating new cultural elements introduced by minority communities. In the most successful cases, this process happens at the immigrant community’s own pace, as they seek their own interests—especially economic and educational interests in pursuit of a better life for themselves and their children—instead of being “pressure cooked” into conformity from the outside.

As this happens over time, one typically observes a gradual decline in the cultural, ethnic, and linguistic markers that were so prominent in the first generation. Those markers (say, food or holiday traditions, or particular professions historically associated with certain immigrant groups) become increasingly optional for individuals. The markers no longer represent static identities imposed upon them (either by their own community or by the host culture). Perhaps most importantly, a successfully integrated society is one in which such markers make little difference in limiting anyone’s opportunities for achievement.

Though there are, of course, exceptions, the pathway to successfully integrated societies is not generally a mysterious thing.

The process by which this occurs, over the course of generations, results from a mix of individual strategies on the part of the newcomer (the immigrant who moves to suburbs with good schools for their children), as well as cultural and institutional shifts on the part of the host culture which affirm their acceptance of greater diversity (legislation ensuring equal access to education and employment, for example, or increased minority media personalities). But perhaps one of the most important pathways to integration is upward social mobility.

Upward social mobility measures the degree to which people’s social status rise from one generation to the next. It assesses the relative chances that children can do better than their parents. This is especially important when it comes to migrant communities, where the first generation is typically starting further behind the host population, in hopes that their children and grandchildren will have the potential for better socioeconomic opportunities than they would have had otherwise.


A prime example of the role that social mobility plays in integrated societies can be found in the American context. Today, Americans of Irish, Italian, Jewish, or Asian descents are fully integrated into American life, and social distinctions based on the different origins of many groups have faded to the point of near invisibility. As Robert Putnam puts it in his Johan Skytte Prize Lecture, the cultures of the immigrant groups have by now “permeated the broader American cultural framework, with the Americanisation of St Patrick’s Day, pizza and ‘Jewish’ humour.” Their socioeconomic achievements resemble, and frequently surpass, white Americans. Intermarriage, long considered by sociologists to be the final boundary of integration, now characterises half of all marriages amongst U.S.-born Asian-American young people. This has resulted in the mixed ancestry, for example, of nearly two-thirds of all children born to Japanese-American parents in the 1980s. “In some ways,” Putnam writes, “‘they’ became like ‘us,’ and in some ways our new ‘us’ incorporated ‘them’.”

What many forget, however, is that America was not always this way. Early in the twentieth century, the first generation of today’s integrated ethnic groups comprised over 40 percent of the population in cities such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. They were segregated in close-knit enclaves served by their own ethnic shops, cinemas, banks, and radio stations. The wider population, who regarded these Catholic and Jewish newcomers to be racially inferior and religiously suspect, viewed them with alarm.

A recent study of inner city Pakistani youngsters painted a poignant picture of their young men, morally adrift and alienated alike from family, mosque, and wider society: not British enough for the majority society, not Pakistani enough for their parents, and not Muslim enough for the imams.

It was widely felt that they were unable to integrate, and lacking in qualities such as self-discipline and a “Protestant work ethic.” What enabled the wholesale integration we observe today to come about so quickly? In large part it was due to the social and economic advancement enabled by a range of U.S. policies that rewarded aspiration: the GI Bill, which enabled young minorities returning from World War II to access free university education; an explosion of new professional jobs in a growing economy that required precisely the kind of training young minorities were being supplied at college; and changes to federal housing loan regulations which enabled young minority families to buy homes in America’s expanding suburbs. This meant that within a generation minorities were able to access higher education, which enabled them to compete for middle class jobs and higher incomes, which in turn enabled them to leave the immigrant enclaves of the city to buy suburban homes next to white Americans. Such socioeconomic parity created a pathway to social relationships, intermarriage, and the eventual disappearance of colour lines and ethnic boundaries.

The unique historical circumstances that drove the sheer scale of expanding opportunities in postwar America are not, of course, likely to be repeated any time soon. But it remains an example of just how rapidly social mobility can bring about widespread integration.

Pakistan valley pink community
Pakistan – Nasir Khan


We found this to be true on a smaller scale in Britain, as well. To the degree that there are successful examples of integration in the UK, the Gujarati Indian community stands out. Having developed their entrepreneurial business skills in East Africa, members of the first generation who immigrated to the city of Leicester used these skills as stepping stones to success. Today large numbers of their British- born offspring are attaining high levels of educational achievement, economic prosperity, and increasing social integration.

Other groups continue to struggle, however, especially Britain’s sizeable South Asian Muslim population (the largest number of which are from rural Pakistan), which continues to experience markedly higher poverty rates and welfare dependency than any other group in the country, even up to four generations after their initial settlement. Their overall lack of economic advancement parallels their social and political marginalisation. This has led to security concerns, as well, given their roles in recent flash points in British history, such as the 2001 race riots, or the London Underground tube bombings of 7 July 2005.

In seeking to understand the lack of economic and social participation of groups such as the British Pakistanis, we were particularly struck that it did not appear to be due primarily to external hindrances, such as racial discrimination. Other visible minority groups, including many from nearby regions across the subcontinent of India, had demonstrated great socioeconomic success in Britain during the same period of time. What we discovered, instead, were a range of self-defeating practices within the community itself: extended families that continued to keep themselves socially and residentially segregated; parents that regularly took their children out of British schools to send them back to Pakistan for extended periods; rigid clan structures maintained from their villages of origin, which largely excluded women from the workplace and young people from having a voice. Our research showed that the majority of Pakistani children spent every afternoon after school in the local mosque, where imported imams (only eight percent of whom are native English speakers) taught them in Urdu and Arabic. A recent study of inner city Pakistani youngsters painted a poignant picture of their young men, morally adrift and alienated alike from family, mosque, and wider society: not British enough for the majority society, not Pakistani enough for their parents, and not Muslim enough for the imams.

What keeps this cycle of segregation and deprivation in motion, even into the third and fourth generation? Research shows that it is a result, in part, of their marriage patterns. In contrast to the Hindu, Sikh, or East African Muslim communities—in which young people marry aspirationally, and choose partners who already live in Britain—young people in the Pakistani community, under intense cultural pressure, overwhelmingly marry cousins from their country of origin. Thus, they import thousands of new spouses into Britain every year. Data from a leading longitudinal study, the Born In Bradford project, suggests that within the majority of the British Pakistani community, 80 percent of spouses are still sought from “back home.” This means that, even for fourth generation British Pakistani children, an astounding 80 percent have at least one parent who is first generation (and hence possessing low job skills and little English). Thus, families that may technically be third generation perpetually remain, in effect, first generation when it comes to social capital and integration. More worrying still, due to clan practices, approximately three out of four of these marriages are between first cousins. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the rate of cousin marriages has increased rather than decreased across generations.

Not surprisingly, the health deficits that result from such high levels of cousin marriage are alarming. The prevalence of infant and childhood disability, for example, is ten times higher in British children of Pakistani origin than other ethnic groups.

Such socioeconomic parity created a pathway to social relationships, intermarriage, and the eventual disappearance of colour lines and ethnic boundaries.


What is an appropriate response to these challenges? In short, it is this: long-term integration is dependent on redressing deprivation and enabling upward social mobility over the course of several generations. Even if economic parity does not guarantee integration, it makes it much more feasible. In this respect, governments might focus their policies less on trying to achieve the chimera of cohesion per se (though the duty to maintain law and order, of course, remains), and focus more on the conditions which best enable cohesion to emerge.

But if social mobility is a key condition of integration, it means that policymakers must be willing to ask potentially sensitive questions over why some groups continue to do worse than others. Over the years, debates over why some people in the West remain poor have ranged between two poles. One explanation blames powerful economic and social forces beyond the control of any one individual. This belief holds that it is the very structure of the economy that denies poor people sufficient income, and so the only just solution is to counter those forces by indefinitely providing the poor with what they lack. An opposing explanation, while not discounting the role of outside economic and social forces, wants to argue that poverty can result from other factors too: poor home lives, individual choices, cultures of poverty that are handed down from one generation to the next. Because this perspective is denounced by some as racist, it has historically led to the curtailing of serious research on certain problems, as policymakers shy away from researching behavior which might be construed as stigmatising particular groups.

But the hurdles to social mobility are not the same for everyone. Successful integration, therefore, depends on a willingness to not only address comprehensive hurdles to mobility (for example, failing school systems), but also bespoke hurdles to mobility distinct to different groups. Whether government is always best situated to address such distinct hurdles is, of course, another question. But the future vitality of our countries depends on the capacity to at least have the conversation.

Jeff Bailey

Dr Jeffrey W. Bailey

Dr Jeffrey W. Bailey is the Executive Vice President of Arete Scholars Fund in the United States. Jeffrey served formerly as the Vice President for Research and Development at the Georgia Center for Opportunity and as the Managing Director of the Centre for Social Justice in the United Kingdom, where he chaired the Centre’s policy research on social cohesion, with a particular focus on ethnic diversity and social mobility.