January 14, 2022 - 7:00am

In 1934, Aldous Huxley wrote an article in the magazine Everyman which asked “Will the depopulation of Western Europe and North America proceed to the point of extinction or military annihilation?” He based his concern on a paper in the journal Sociological Review, which forecast that by 1976, Britain’s population would have fallen from 44 million to 33 million. 

The birth rate had been falling since 1870, and people thought that it was going to carry on. A group of biologists and statisticians also put together a report predicting that the British population would drop to just 17.4 million in 2000, and 4.4 million by 2035.

They were, as we now know, wrong. Instead, after the war, there was a huge baby boom, and people started forecasting that the world faced disaster through overpopulation and that we needed to clamp down on birth rates immediately because we were all about to starve. And those people were wrong too.

This is all worth remembering when we read that “the natural population of the UK will begin to decline by the middle of the decade”, based on Office for National Statistics projections released this week. The number of births per year is falling, and is expected to be outstripped by the number of deaths by mid-decade. The concern is that it will be difficult to maintain the functions of the state — pensions, healthcare and so on — with an increasingly elderly population and fewer people of working age.

This forecast is unlikely to be as off-base as Huxley’s: we are better at these things, and besides, it’s only predicting a few years ahead. I like to keep in mind that we’ve got these things wrong before, though.

Still: if it is true, what should we do? If the goal is to increase the population, there are only two options: encourage immigration, or encourage people to have more babies.

Unfortunately, the second of these has a bad reputation. “Pro-natalist” policies intended to drive up the birth rate are associated with authoritarian Right-wingers like Viktor Orban, and with forcing women to become breeding machines. But that is silly — it’s perfectly possible to create policies that help women to make the choices they want about family size.

As this fascinating piece by Jeremy Driver, making a progressive case for pro-natalism, explains, the problem is not usually that people (in Western countries, at least) are having more children than they want: on the whole, they’re having fewer. In OECD countries, men say they want about 2.2 children, on average, and women say 2.3. That would stop population decline. But they actually end up having about 1.6, on average. We are not forcing women to be brood mares: modern Western society prevents many women from having as many children as they’d like.

And that’s often because they can’t afford to have more. So rather than policies which coerce women, we could encourage a higher birth rate by creating policies which give women more financial freedom. More generous maternity leave, for instance, seems to raise birth rates, as do simple cash payments to new parents. Subsidising childcare (or helping older people retire more easily, so they can help look after their grandchildren) has a similar effect. 

Driver also points out that the housing crisis makes it prohibitively expensive for many would-be parents to own homes large enough for the family they want: he points to papers showing that the UK and US housing crises have delayed or prevented parenthood for hundreds of thousands of people. Simply building millions of homes would help reduce the financial burden on would-be parents and make it easier for them to have the families they want.

Some people might say that a declining population isn’t a bad thing, and that for the sake of the climate we ought to not have so many people. I disagree — I think having more kids in Western nations will probably help, rather than hinder, our climate response, on the whole. And I also think that having more people is a good thing in its own right, since what is the point in anything if not people and their lives?

But even if you disagree, most of the policies I’ve mentioned above — which seem to be effective at improving birth rates somewhat, even if none of them are a magic bullet — are sensible policies which we should be employing anyway, to make citizens’ lives easier. More housing, more generous maternity leave, and cheaper childcare are the sort of things that allow people to build the lives they want, whether or not it leads to  more babies. If it helps us to avoid Aldous Huxley’s vision of the future, nearly a century after he was wrong the first time, then so much the better.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.