Picture credit: Alexey Emelyanov/Getty
Artillery Row

Arresting the fertility crisis

Britain needs more babies — and it is far from alone

This week a study in the Lancet revealed that the UK now has a Total Fertility Rate of just 1.49 children per woman. Total Fertility Rate is the average number of babies that each woman has given birth to by the end of her fertile years (usually around 45 years old). TFR is the measure used by demographers to track changes in populations over time, and it is well established that a TFR of at least 2.1 children per woman is needed to achieve “replacement rate” and maintain a stable population.

The UK’s TFR has been declining since before the 1970s, but the news that the average British woman is now having just 1.49 children is a cause for significant concern. In order to maintain the labour force and an economy that can support pensions and healthcare, we need one baby to be born for each 50-year-old in the population (so that the baby enters the workforce at around the time the 50 year old will retire). For some time now there has been a discrepancy between the number of babies born and the number required for demographic stability; this “Birthgap” currently stands at around 200,000 babies per year.

We are already experiencing the impact of this birthgap. The labour force is extremely tight. There is a shortage of workers in vital sectors, especially in social care. Schools across the country are considering staff redundancies because of declining pupil numbers. Local councils face a funding crisis as rising adult social care bills blow huge holes in their budgets. And, as is often reported by newspapers (and keenly felt by us all), taxation levels are at a record high. Although political parties are prone to ascribing high taxes to government failure, increased public spending (and the tax rises that are required to fund this) is an inevitable consequence of an aging society. In the 1970s, there were four people of working age for every pensioner. Thanks to declining birth rates the ratio is now three to one, and fast approaching two to one. In other words, each worker in 2050 will, through their taxes and labour, have to support double the number of pensioners than a worker in 1970. If you want to know why taxes and public spending are so high and the health and care sector so stretched, look no further than the declining TFR.

So far we have plugged the gaps created by low birth rates with massive levels of immigration. Over the last decade, nearly 10 million people in total (4 million net) have migrated to Britain  (although many of these are not workers but dependents themselves who inevitably add to the pressures on housing, public services etc). But importing workers from elsewhere is a short-term fix because, even if there was democratic consent for a high immigration model (and there isn’t), the Lancet study shows that by the end of the century, 97 per cent of all countries on earth will have too few young people to sustain their own economies. Just five nations are expected to have above replacement TFRs; in every other country, the population will be shrinking fast. Even those countries with above-replacement TFRs will have historically low birth rates of barely three children per woman. There just will not be any “surplus” workers available to migrate to developed countries, and even if there were, those stagnant, aging Western nations will have long-since lost their “pull factor”.

The global fertility decline is a monumental threat to society as we know it — not just here in the UK, not even just in the West, but pretty much everywhere in the world. Empty playgrounds, school closures, unstaffed care homes, eye watering national debt and shortage of the most basic goods and services are all on the horizon. For too long, we have bought into the idea that the world is overpopulated and have failed to understand the frightening significance of declining birthrates. 

Even now in Britain, despite demographers like Stephen Shaw and Paul Moorland sounding the alarm for some time, politicians and commentators continue to ignore the issue. Many fail to understand that immigration will not always be available, and some don’t realise that we are not facing a one-off population contraction — like after a war or pandemic — but a spiral of decline where each generation is a third smaller than the one before. In addition to a misunderstanding of the data, policy makers avoid talking about fertility rates for the understandable reason that no one wants to be seen to be commenting — or, worse, passing judgment — on the very personal decision of whether and when people decide to have children. Indeed if women no longer wanted to have children then I, too, would conclude that nothing can be done and the UK is doomed to become a giant abandoned retirement island.

it also has a detrimental impact on the lives of women (and men) for whom unplanned childlessness is the source of a profound sense of loss

But the good news is that polling shows that an overwhelming majority — 92 per cent — of young British women do still want to have children. On average, women have the aspiration to have 2.3 children. Indeed the average family size has not changed much since the 1970s — most mothers today have two or three children, as they did 50 years ago. What has changed — and the factor that is driving the decline in TFR — is the number of women who never have children at all. On current trends, as many as 30 per cent of the current cohort of young women will never become mothers. Remember, the vast majority of these women do want to be mothers, so this is an tale of what Stephen Shaw has termed “unplanned childlessness”. This phenomenon not only affects society and the economy, it also has a detrimental impact on the lives of women (and men) for whom unplanned childlessness is the source of a profound sense of loss, as Shaw documents so powerfully in his highly acclaimed film.

The question for policy makers therefore is how to reduce the barriers that make it difficult for women who want to become mothers to have that first baby. In a poll I commissioned last year, the reasons for delaying or giving up on motherhood were many and varied, but household finances, career worries and the inability to find a partner were significant factors. Many women don’t believe the UK values mothers enough and the majority were concerningly unaware about the facts of declining fertility.  

Those in government cannot bury their heads in the sand any longer

There is clearly no single policy lever that can be pulled to raise fertility rates. But given the sheer scale of the threat posed by low birth rates, we must throw the metaphorical kitchen sink at removing the obstacles that prevent young people from having the children that they say they want. This means genuinely affordable housing for young people, low taxes for families, better maternity rights, improved fertility education and a reversal of the “anti-family” narrative that too often paints children as an economic burden rather than the foundation of our future. 

Of course we cannot guarantee that such a “pro-natal” approach will work. But when we consider the alternative, it would be unthinkable not to try. Those in government cannot bury their heads in the sand any longer.

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