Not making plans for Nigel: why birth rates matter

21 Oct 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 21 Oct 2021

He's not called Nigel. Pic:Unsplash

At this time of year, every year, the media zooms in on birth statistics.

In England the big story is that there were no babies named Nigel in the past 12 months. We can expect more side-splitting ribaldry on the relative popularity of Seamus and Billy when the Northern Ireland figures come out.

Whilst this is all good clean fun it rather misses the point. What matters is not what people call their babies but how many there are. And this matters a lot.

It tells us how many nursery places we are going to need in the next few years, then primary school and secondary school places, then university places, how many young people will be joining the workplace and thus how many taxpayers we can expect in 20 years. Understanding birth numbers, what effects them and how they are trending is of fundamental importance to developing policy, both now and in the future.

Probe a little deeper and you find that there’s a long-term trend of declining birth rates in Western countries. Look closer still, as a timely report from the Resolution Foundation points out, and you find that this is not an even trend - within it there are periods of “boom and bust”.

Both of these are important for policy-makers – the peaks and troughs just as much as the overall decline. For example we’re now witnessing the massive impact that the post WWII Baby Boomer generation is having on public spending. This through increasing numbers of retired people and increasing strains on the health service from an ageing population.

It is important to note that the Baby Boomers do not represent the last peak in births – there have also been spikes in the years around 1990 and also from 2008 – 2012.

These are neither good nor bad per se but they do have impacts. For example the boom around 1990 was a factor influencing youth unemployment – the so-called “NEET” crisis 20 years later.

The peak leading up to 2012 explains the shortage of pre-school places for 2-4 year-olds that followed and the drop since accounts for their growing availability today.

However that peak is now working its way through the school system with pressures on post 16 education set to grow. The very good news is that, with proper planning, there will be an increase in numbers joining the workforce at a time when we’ll be requiring new skills as a result of the accelerating digital revolution.

When the pandemic struck and lockdowns were imposed there was much speculation in the media that this would lead to an explosion of sexual activity across the country leading to multiple births.

This proved to be a tabloid fantasy, birth rates dropped.

We’re therefore back on the downward trajectory once more and need to plan accordingly.

In order to do so we need to understand what factors lead to falling birth rates and what the consequences are. This helps decide whether the falling trend is a good or bad thing, and if bad if there is anything we can do to ameliorate the effects.

The  Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is an intergovernmental body with 38 (mostly wealthy) member countries. The average births per woman across these nations has fallen from 2.8 in 1970 to 1.6 in 2019. The UK is broadly in line over this period, falling from 2.4 to 1.6. The lowest rate of all is in South Korea which is below one.

The impact on China is also startling. The number of births there dropped 15% in 2020. That country abandoned its notorious one-child policy in 2016 and earlier this year announced that women could now have three children.  

The “replacement rate” – the number required for a stable population is 2.1, meaning that population will decline across these countries without immigration.

However fertility rates are to set to fall everywhere. Latest estimates suggest that the world’s population will peak at 9.73 billion in 2064, and then fall. By the end of the century 23 countries can expect their populations to have halved. 

Some of the causes of falling birth rates are obvious. They include: women spending longer in education; having greater career opportunities; availability of contraception and changing attitudes to gender roles.

The cumulative effect has been for women, certainly in wealthier countries to choose to have fewer children later in life. Falling birth rates  is an inevitable consequence of the emancipation of women.

Yet there’s more to it than that, a lot more. You can also argue that it is also evidence of continued discrimination against women.

For example The UK currently has the second highest child care costs in the OECD. To this you can add what some call the “motherhood penalty” whereby women can expect their earnings to have dropped by 40% by the time their child reaches the age of 10.

Then there’s  the house price crisis. Young people are much less likely to have children when still living with their parents or else trying to save their way out of the rental sector. Poverty and the precariousness of many jobs are also significant factors.

Many environmentalists will argue that falls in population are a good thing for the planet because they mean less demands on decreasing resources. And there are those who decide not to have children because of their fears of climate catastrophe.

But this still leaves problems to resolve - most obviously how countries cope with an increasingly ageing population with a lower proportion of people of tax-paying age. By 2100 the number of people aged over 65 are projected to outnumber the under-twenties by 670 million. How will this impact the welfare state and the performance of the economy?

Deciding whether or not to have a child is a personal choice for the woman concerned. This is not and should not be a matter for debate.

What should be debating is whether we live in societies where bringing up children has become too difficult for too many women as a result of poverty, job and housing insecurity and anxiety about the future.

What seems beyond debate is that we need low-cost or better still no-cost child care, family-friendly work policies and strong communities with safety nets for those who need them.


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