The baby problem is not confined to liberal democracies
Miriam Cates identified the issue, but she is wrong about the cause
Yesterday we were faced with the slightly strange vision of a British home secretary lamenting the failures of British immigration policy. Yet we should have some sympathy for Suella Braverman. She is in the unenviable position of carrying responsibility for immigration policy, vainly and impotently trying to rein in the seeming unstoppable flow of arrivals. David Cameron’s rhetoric about “tens, not hundreds of thousands” did not solve the problem. Nor did Brexit, although it did mean our arrivals increasingly came from further afield, rather than from Europe.
Whatever the exigencies of the day — legal frustrations over the Rwanda plan, Britain’s ever-expanding industry for manufacturing Masters degrees for people from overseas, or the arrival of Ukrainian refugees — the underlying problem is too often overlooked. Without understanding demography, the vast and relentless pressures for more immigration can never be grasped, never mind overcome.
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Conservative MP Miriam Cates came close to it, speaking on the same day and at the same National Conservatism conference as Braverman. Decrying our lack of babies, Cates was wrong to put emphasis on Western democracies. Ask officials in Tehran or Beijing whether the rather different reigning ideologies of their polities are much better at producing home-grown citizens of the future, and you will find them wringing their hands.
In both cases, promotion of family planning (shamefully coercive in China) from the 1980s did not help, but a change of course in recent years has yielded little in terms of new births in either China or Iran. The self-styled Illiberal Democrats in Budapest have got the country’s fertility rate up, albeit still below the level of the more liberal democracies of Northwest Europe.
The fact is that in Britain we have had sub-replacement fertility — too few children ultimately to replace ourselves — since the days of Edward Heath. Whatever the reasons, political, economic or (as I believe most important) cultural, the situation is only getting worse. All of this means that as younger boomers start to retire, there are simply too few youngsters coming in to replace them.
You can rearrange the deckchairs by getting more people to start their working lives a bit earlier, but curtailing their education will frequently curtail their productivity. Government could also try to shift the retirement age by a few years, although that is not working out so well for Emmanuel Macron. Then there’s getting more of the apparently work-shy back into the labour-force. But without boosting fertility rates, the fact cannot be ignored that back in the 1970s and early 1980s there were nearly four people aged 21-65 for everyone older than that and now there are barely three. In another thirty years there will be barely two.
This is why, despite sluggish growth, sector after sector is crying out for labour. And it’s true well beyond Britain’s shores. From US brain surgeons to German factory hands, decades of too few babies is translating into too few workers. And so the captains of industry are constantly petitioning the Government to lower the barriers to immigration and issue more permits. The public may say it wants lower immigration but the first time someone cannot get a plumber to fix their dripping tap or their mother’s operation gets cancelled again for lack of theatre staff or the petrol pumps have dried up for lack of tanker drivers, that tune will change.
Immigration is at best a short-term fix. Waning economic prowess means our earning pull is weakening for workers in hitherto poorer countries. Traditional providers of labour to the US, UK and Germany such as Mexico, India, Poland and Turkey are experiencing their own falling or low fertility. We shall soon enough find out that the only way to fix Braverman’s problem is to address Cates’s.
Mr. Morland gives the impression that the well, as regards employment, is dry. He thinks that there’s nobody left to fill the vacancies.
Sadly, this is not the case, as Neil O’Brien made clear (https://conservativehome.com/2022/08/08/neil-obrien-challenges-for-the-new-prime-minister-welfare-getting-more-long-term-sick-people-into-work-is-a-moral-and-economic-imperative/). The problem is that employers want several things:
they don’t want to waste money training the undereducated, they want people who are ready-trained; they want the kind of docile employees who are usually associated with migrants, they want good people at rock-bottom pay rates, and they don’t want to spend money on automation, or providing adjustments for those with physical disabilities.
Employers, quite reasonably, want to make a profit. It is unrealistic to expect employers do all these things – at enormous expense – while also being more heavily taxed and regulated, and while keeping their prices competitive during an inflation crisis.
I entirely agree, Mr. Walsh. We are not very business-friendly at the moment, as Robert Colvile at the CPS has pointed out on numerous occasions. We need to prioritise. So which takes precedence, the long-term sick or net zero?
Just one point – do you have any evidence that migrants are docile? In fact plenty to indicate just the reverse if allowed to work (those awaiting asylum review aren’t allowed to). You seen them picking fruit and harvesting our crops? The reason so many employers want them is they know this exactly.
I think the word docile was appropriate – as opposed to using the term lazy.
The issue of getting more long-term sick back to work and adjusting benefits so it incentivises working is not a systemic fix for the demographics problem. Our education system was distorted by Blair with 50% going to university – whilst vocational/on-the-job training and (decent) apprenticeships were effectively trashed. Blair was a catastrophe for the UK. Changing our culture and becoming more kid/ family friendly (as Japan have been doing) are moves correctly starting to address the root cause. Tax incentivisation for organisations to develop automation by innovation should also be a strong theme. Fruit/crop picking is crying out for automation, and would have a big opportunity for new start-ups with a rich export market for the UK. Additive manufacturing with smaller machines may also reverse some of the globalised offshoring of making simple commodities that can be made in-country, on-demand cutting transport delays and logistics costs. One absolutely critical thing the government must do is get our energy independence up and prices down to reduce all of our costs and increase our competitiveness.
The conclusion is wrong.
We don’t necessarily need more people. We can create and use greater automation and raise productivity.
Yet another article that claims “the underlying problem is overlooked” and yet fails to mention the actual problem most people have with the current influx: illegal immigration.
It’s not that we don’t need skilled people to maintain the UK’s economy – what we really don’t need is people trying to gain entry via channels which then results in their incarceration and processing at horrendous cost (to the UK and to themselves) with the potential for them to disappear and either become involved in criminality or further exploitation by criminal gangs.
This is just so achingly obvious – the difference between controlled and uncontrolled immigration – that i seriously question the intellect of writers of articles such as this, in failing to address the real issue.
It is actually both illegal and legal immigration. There is still a lot of legal unskilled immigration – supposedly dependent families, etc. . It is our choice – or should be – whether and how much we wish that to continue. There is simply no way that the current levels of legal migration are high skilled and high salary workers.
The lack of open and transparent information on these things from the government doesn’t help. We are simply told “they’re all contributing”. It’s not true – some are contributing a lot, others are costing the state. Discrimination isn’t a popular word these days, but the job of an immigration system is to discriminate between people we need or want and those we do not. We’ve already accepted that principle in a points-based system. It’s simply a question of where we draw the line. Which should be our decision.
Of course, i understand that – but i’ll maintain what i’ve posted in that by far the most vital concern is to put a stop to attempts to enter the country illegally. Legal immigrants aren’t costing the UK £4m a day to accommodate whilst their applications are processed – they’ve already been processed and accepted.
I’m not sure why this very simple point wasn’t addressed in the article.
Up to the 1950’s we somehow got by with one third of our current numbers. AI is predicted to take up a huge number of our jobs, and there is a mass extinction going on, directly attributable to our activity – I’m sure we can find a way to deal with a smaller and shrinking population.
The problem with a fertility rate less than 2 is not that the population shrinks to smaller but that it shrinks to zero.
That said, the shrinking population is not a universal condition and clearly some cultures are immune. What this means is many cultures will simply disappear due to a lack of children, and that is quite sad. It also means those cultures that foster higher levels of fertility will continue to expand and ultimately more than fill the spaces left vacant – like is happening in the UK, which has both a low resident fertility rate and rapid population growth.
According to that logic, the problem of a fertility rate more than 2 is that it will lead to there being no more space on the planet to put new babies.
The Japanese have had a rate lower than 2 for decades, and a shrinking population (without immigration to reverse that trend) …and I’ve yet to hear the fear that they will disappear- until now! We are clever monkeys, we have options; and unlike many other problems we have, this one is happening in slow motion.
…leaving the fear out of it, the math of fertility has it’s own exorable logic, that does mean there will be no one left in Japan by the end of the next century. (If not corrected by immigration, or an unlikely revival now in the birth rate.) The Hans Rosling Ted Talks on this topic are entertaining, and informative.
There are so many variables, known and unknown, that there is effectively nothing that can be deduced, long term, from the fertility replacement ratio at any one point. Some of those variables are the effects of death, conflict, and crowding on sexual desire, the desire for children, and even the gender of babies. People likely get keener on having kids when they have a good amount of space (unlikely in Japan), and get hornier when death is around. When an active, overly confident commentariat opines in these circumstances, people are misled by and eventually get fed up with ‘elites’, safetyism, journalists, Elon Musky Captains of the Universe know-it-alls. We know a lot, but there is more we don’t know.
“People likely……get hornier when death is around.” Please explain. Thank you.
This is what a hospice worker told me. More seriously, it has often been posited that there are deep automatic mechanisms for sex, libido, adjusting to circumstances – crowding, resources, youth (obs), status (R Murdoch still at it). The gene for sociopaths, aka the Warrior Gene – seems to be switched on by conflict – probably so that they can more effectively survive, and protect the tribe. Definitely a young science, definitely something going on.
Very true. The Ted Talk predictions that the Japanese will disappear “by the end of the next century” are just silly; there are so many things that might happen to change that destiny.
I think what people mean to say is “if all variables remain unchanged and trends continue just as they are, then the Japanese will…”. I wish those people would be more clear in their rhetoric. And less confident in their own correctness.
To them I say: Life is change. Time is just one thing after another. Deal with it.
Unfortunately, modern history shows poverty is the primary driver of population growth.
The only cultures immune to population growth have a citizenry so desperately poor families must rely on lots of offspring to work to support, and care for, their elderly parents and grandparents.
That’s hardly a recipe for national stability. Hence, massive numbers departing their impoverished homelands for greener pastures.
I suppose making this the template for all nations everywhere would solve the immigration issue, so there is that.
The lower fertility is even beginning to be seen in Africa…
Computers were also predicted to take over much of our jobs, and look at how that worked out …
How did it work out?
They took most of our jobs.
I’ve read a few times that the ‘technology took away jobs’ idea is an illusion. It may do so for a period of time, and for some people – but overall, in time, it makes work more efficient, and releases people from the drudge work that people don’t like to do. Technology, along with trade, have been the greatest poverty-relieving forces in history. The negatives – it has, somewhat, made work optional, even for the poor/underclass – and after centuries of dreaming about not working, it turns out that work is key to wellbeing. On a more positive note, growing numbers of people are (re)discovering independent trades and supplying services/goods to those who want something more personal, careful, human.
Welcome to post democratic neo feudalism.
The problem may be partially mitigated medium term with AI developments, extended working life and enhanced productivity, but Author is correct immigration will inevitably play a role. And this is what Tories been so dishonest about. They know this but can’t bring themselves to say it as they are fixated on creating some blue water between them and Labour, and furthermore recognise it undermines one of the key B/S arguments behind Brexit. Eventually everyone bumps into reality however much they twist and turn.
However if immigration essential we can better manage it – skills, naturalisation process, perhaps 2-stage citizenship and proper honest public discussion. We can stop the demonising language now too. We are going to need these people. The young are already pretty chilled about higher level of diversity and immigration. They are not going to pay for us oldies without it.
Us oldies really should be paying for ourselves. It’s the original sin of the UK welfare state that most are not. They’ve got this properly sorted in some countries (e,g, Singapore). We decided to pass the bill on to the next generation.
You are correct that greater automation will help here. And it’s available.
Do you remember when the Tories proposed that old people should pay for social care through the sale of their house post mortem?
Labour cleverly weaponised that as a ‘granny tax’ that would force old people out of their own houses. The policy was dropped.
Old people need carers. Either they pay with the equity in their houses, or the taxpayer pays now and the old people’s heirs get the cash. This doesn’t seem fair as many young taxpayers can never buy a house.
Also, these heirs are always described as ‘their children’ which is manipulative.
Yes I do. It was a largely sensible policy. And honest. Why should the general taxpayer – many of whom are low paid – subsidise someone’s inheritance ? But due to Theresa May’s utter incompetence with the timing and marketing of the policy, it’s dead for a generation.
We’ve simply got to get rid of the “something for nothing” and “free stuff” mentality in this country if we’re going to make any progress. Earned income must be preferred in the tax system over unearned income.
Scotland is like some text book example of the free stuff fallacy right now and a steadfast example of demographic Armageddon and how not to deal with it.
Why do people always focus on yesterday’s question?
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