A conversation about second-generation immigrants and mortality

In a Q&A, Penn demographer Michel Guillot discusses recent work showing that male children of immigrants from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia have a mortality rate nearly double that of the native population in France.

A crowd of people on an outdoor staircase in France

Many immigrant groups have lower mortality rates than native populations, an idea known as the “migrant mortality advantage.” This often piques the interest of researchers. 

“It’s a bit of a puzzle,” says Penn demographer Michel Guillot, part of the University’s Population Studies Center. “That’s where we were starting from. We wanted to use unique French data to look at this very general question, and then look at what happens with the second generation.”

Guillot and colleagues from the French Institute for Demographic Research (INED) in France and Stockholm University in Sweden dug into whether children of immigrants retain or lose this advantage. In a paper published in Demographic Research, the team shows that one group in particular—second-generation males from the North African countries of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia—has a mortality rate nearly double that of the reference population.

Penn Today spoke with Guillot about what those numbers mean, both generally and in the context of European immigration policies, plus what might come next for this work.


Can you explain the migrant mortality advantage?

It’s this surprising finding that we see around the world, that immigrants actually have lower mortality than the native population. You’d anticipate immigrants would have higher mortality because they, on average, have lower education and other challenges usually associated with higher mortality. But what we observe is the other way around. 

It seems like a fair bit is known about immigrant populations, but you wanted to look at the children of such groups, specifically the second generation. Is that right?

Exactly. There’s some debate in the literature about what happens with the children of the immigrants. Do they preserve or lose this advantage and look like more like the native-born populations? We wanted to address that question. 

There are very few studies of this kind because it’s rare to have data that will allow you to identify second-generation individuals. In the U.S., there are almost no studies of second-generation individuals because you need data not only on your own place of birth but also of your parents. Also, this is a specific experience that’s somewhat lost by the third generation, so it’s important to assess it separately. We thought France provided an interesting context. 

What made France a good place for this research?

We knew there were some serious disadvantages for second-generation groups there, especially those from North Africa. We knew there were education gaps, labor-market disadvantages, but we wanted to know what was happening with their health and mortality. In France, North African immigrants are a very important population, a major migrant group attracting a lot of attention, a little like Hispanics in the U.S. It’s significant, demographically, and there are concerns about their proper integration into French society. 

What were the main findings of the work?

If you look at the reference population, people born in France with two parents born in France—neither immigrants nor second generation—they have a 16% chance of dying between age 18 and 65. That’s consistent with what we know. And southern European second-generation immigrants maintain the advantage of their parents. For them, mortality is about 11%. But when you look at the North African-origin second-generation males, for them mortality is almost 28%. That’s 1.7 times larger. 

What does this mean in the context of immigration policies in France and beyond?

This work touches on whether the migrant advantage is transmitted. Here we give an example where it is not transmitted, and not only is it lost, but it’s reversed. More broadly, it also speaks to the need to understand generational trajectories of immigrants. They’ve gone through a lot of filters to arrive in a new country. They’re usually a select group; they come with a strong health capital. But for some, those qualities, from what we find, are starting to disappear in the second generation. 

Where do you hope to go next with this work?

One direction is infant mortality of the children of immigrants, which is a little easier to analyze because you can look at one birth certificate and you have the identity of both parents. 

We would also like to find a way to study cause of death in second-generation immigrant adults. In France, they are currently preparing a major survey of immigrants and their children. We’ve advocated for the inclusion of health information such as behaviors like alcohol use and smoking, as well as something related to body mass index. That won’t help with the external causes of death, but it will tell us more broadly about the health of the population. 

What additional clarification would cause of death provide for this research?

Right now, we don’t have all the data we would like to, so that leads to a lot of hypotheses. We surmise that this is not a story about cancer or diabetes, not even smoking. Even though we don’t have direct information, we believe this is a story about external causes of death like motor vehicle accidents, suicide, drug poisoning, and alcohol poisoning. 

Funding for the research came from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health (Grant R01HD079475). 

Michel Guillot is a professor in the Department of Sociology and associate director for training in the Population Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania

Other contributors to the research include Myriam Khlat of INED and Matthew Wallace of Stockholm University.