by Tom Chivers
Friday, 14
January 2022
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The progressive way to boost birth rates

The UK population is forecast once again to decline — but it needn't happen
by Tom Chivers
Credit: Getty

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.

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AC Harper
AC Harper
10 months ago

Put on your cold rationality hat a moment and ask the forbidden question: Would the world be a better place if there were more or fewer people?
A lower birth rate would pose some problems in the medium term (one or two generations) but eventually there would be less demand and impact on the environment, less crowding and pollution. But we could still keep our technology and infrastructure.

Andy Moore
Andy Moore
10 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

You should always ask, and then what. What if life expectancy still grows, do you slow the birth rate down again? My observation of people who talk about over population, tend to see the solution in those who come after them.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
10 months ago
Reply to  Andy Moore

Or other peoples kids! If people are so worried about overpopulation why don’t they just top themselves.Digntas might be the answer.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
10 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

It is not clear if our technology and infrastructure would survive a steep demographic decline. I suspect our technology and infrastructure are not so robust. Already our supply chains and service industries are taking a battering from a pandemic with an infection fatality ratio of around 1%.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
10 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Exactly. I’d happily go back to the population levels of the 60s and 70s and a time when people could cook for themselves, fix their own stuff, glass was recycled, people took a trolley to the shops and didn’t get farmed off to an old folks home because their family took more responsibility for them.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
10 months ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Working class men particularly died in their fifties and sixties. Smoking and industrial diseases plus medicine couldn’t fix as much. Recently in Winsford. Liverpool overspill in 1960- 70s. Whole cemetery with dead before 65. Families actually didn’t need to look after oldies.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
10 months ago

Rich countries are very heavily geared towards two-child families. Whenever I talk to parents who have more than two children, I always find myself saying “I never thought of that”. The “family passes” for two adults and two children. Not being able to fit three car seats in the back of a car. Cars that don’t have an iso-fix point in the middle seat. Hotel rooms that fit two adults and two young children at a squeeze but won’t accommodate any more.

John
John
10 months ago

People carriers are our best friend!

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
10 months ago

Replacement level 2 out 2 in, sounds perfect to me.

David Wildgoose
David Wildgoose
10 months ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

It’s not replacement level. Accidents and other misfortunes mean the replacement level is more than two.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
10 months ago

What Chivers doesn’t address is that subsidies and free housing of all sorts has encouraged young women to have children but that stable families (including fathers -which appear to produce a better outcome for the children) has not been, for the most part ,the result.
He is just advocating yet another piece of social engineering that will make life worse for most in practice.

Last edited 10 months ago by Jeremy Bray
Iris C
Iris C
10 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

I agree! It is not couples having more children, it is a case of the many women who don’t get the chance to have children at all..
The policies of governments to discourage marriage or stable partnerships was the start of the decline and maternal women were the first to suffer. Many have given their best years to a men without male commitment, he moves on to fresh pastures, making it difficult for her to find another stable relationship, within which to have children..
Perhaps the government should reverse their policies, giving tax benefits to committed couples rather than both getting single tax benefits…. or some such thing..

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
10 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

I disagree, I’d say financial pressures are one of the major causes of couples splitting up. If the state can make families lives that bit easier, I think you’d find more stay together.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
10 months ago

Surely in all of this motivation to have more children, there needs to be a plan to mitigate against the damage the existing population already wreaks on planet earth. I’m not talking climate change – I’m talking environmental damage.
Poisoning the earth and waterways and oceans. Eroding wetlands, destroying animal species at an alarming rate – on it goes. Buying endless amount of tat – soon to be bought in a creepy Meta world where more and more people WFH and everyone’s preferences will be brought to the forefront of their shopping experience. Drones buzzing around delivering the tat within hours – contained in even more waste. Guzzling fast food in epic amounts from disposable containers until people in their giant jammies have to be winched from their beds and taken to a hospital bed in an ever more compromised health system.
So what is the future? I predict the future for the West will be more of the above and an increasing quantity of people fleeing Africa, Middle East, Central America etc to live in the Northern Hemisphere – who will of course let them in.

Last edited 10 months ago by Lesley van Reenen
Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
10 months ago

Sounds like Wall-E

John
John
10 months ago

These policies don’t always work. For example, Japan is making massive payments to encourage more children but it’s making little difference.
Ironically, part of the massive increase in housing costs in the 90s/00s was due to women joining the workforce. Two earners could afford far more and we had the period of gazumping.
Making maternity benefits more generous will either increase government spending or increase company costs – which will require more taxes or more inflation which will increase the cost of living. So I don’t think this will help.
Coupled with the increase of singles (see the quillette article on how the increase in women’s education and the fall in men’s means they have a smaller pool of suitable men to date).
Yet, religious people (particularly Muslims) value family over money and so prioritise children.
The issue is this strange belief that we can have both. Sorry, it involves a sacrifice – either less money or less kids. Personally, with 4 children, I totally believe it was worth it. But most don’t. So unless you change people’s VALUES, then incentives will have limited effect.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
10 months ago

Just got back from Finland. 5m pop. Finns don’t miss another 5m people who never existed. Nearly all Finns have a möki or forest cottage in the family. Nice lifestyle as land is cheap outside the Uusima area. Their forest cover- 76%. Ours, including commercial woodland, a pathetic 7.8%. Imagine the UK with circa 40m people? Can’t? That’s because we are truly frogs being boiled slowly by urbanisation and destruction of habitat as the scenes on beaches this summer showed.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
10 months ago

Isn’t endless ‘growth’ why we are in trouble? I don’t want billions more people crowding the planet and mostly just making up the numbers. Growth, it seems to me, is just an economic and social Ponzi scheme. We need more x so we import more x who need x so we need more x so we need more x. And so on.

Jonathan Patrick
Jonathan Patrick
10 months ago

Double income families with fewer children leads to higher levels of expendable income which drives prices up – particularly housing prices. This makes it increasingly difficult for those who want more kids or (gasp) have a parent stay at home with the kids manage to do so and still manage to pay the bills and own a home. This in turn pushes more of them to have fewer kids, increasing their expendable income and thus exaccerbating the problem. Not sure how you break that vicious cycle without imposing some pretty hefty penalties on expendable income which would certainly be very unpopular.

Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
10 months ago

Just a question. According to the ONS the UK birthrate has been below replacement rate since 1973 but the UK population has been steadily increasing since at least 1960. World population is still increasing. Does that mean that the low birthrate in the UK is not really a problem and that it simply means that world population is just redistributing?

ralph bell
ralph bell
10 months ago

Giving incentives for housing and families will have the added benefit and giving them more of a stake in their local community, which can affect crime, the environment, education, transport and society in many positive ways.

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
10 months ago

In an otherwise reasonable article, why in heavens name does Chivers have to bring up the “Climate”: “I think having more kids in Western nations will probably help, rather than hinder, our climate response“. Sort of invalidates everything else he has to say in the article doesn’t it. It’s like a broken record.

Last edited 10 months ago by Johann Strauss
GA Woolley
GA Woolley
10 months ago

‘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.’ Note the switch from ‘a declining population’ and ‘having more kids in Western nations’. And the riders: ‘I think’, ‘probably’, ‘on the whole’. The world is overpopulated already, the population is still growing, and taking the 3Bn out of absolute poverty to a comfortable standard of living will effectively add billions more carbon footprints to the planetary load. Nigeria alone, with an already unsupportable population, will add at least another 1/2Bn people in the next 50 years. I really worry when a scientist, of all people, asserts that because someone was wrong in the past, what they forecast can never happen.

Alan Bright
Alan Bright
10 months ago

Subsidising childcare (or helping older people retire more easily, so they can help look after their grandchildren) has a similar effect.” – I am not sure the solution is to give money only to those parents who don’t want to look after their children full-time. Simply increase child benefit. 

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
10 months ago
Reply to  Alan Bright

Due to the cost of housing, many families now require two salaries just to keep the roof over their heads