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Britain’s tumbling birth rate
Sensemaker audio

Britain’s tumbling birth rate

Britain’s tumbling birth rate

In the UK, we’re having fewer children than ever before. What’s going on?


transcript
nimo omer, narrating:

Hi, I’m Nimo and this is the Sensemaker. 

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, why are we having fewer children? And why does it matter?

***

Women protesting in London

But a low birth rate could have more of an impact on your life than you think… 

It’s not just your life that changes if you choose not to have kids. Society’s changes too.

It’s all about the shape of the population and right now it’s changing.  We are all getting older but fewer children are being born. And that has huge implications for us all.

Currently, the fertility rate is 1.58 children per woman.

But after the war – in the 50s and 60’s – the birth rate rocketed.  Kids born then were known as the baby boomers. 

In 1964 the total fertility rate was nearly double what it is now – 2.98 kids per woman.

Then came along contraception, the legalisation of abortion and the women’s liberation movement.  Women had more freedom than ever to  choose if they wanted a family. 

At the same time, medical advances along with better – living – standards meant the children born after the war were living longer. 

The result? More people over 60 – and that’s more people needing economic, medical and government support – and fewer people to support them financially. 

That puts strain on the public purse.  After retirement, people pay less tax than when they did when they were working — and they receive more benefits – like a state pension and health and social care. 

And that could mean your taxes going up – like the upcoming health and social care levy – to foot the bill. 

***

But it’s not birth control that’s responsible for fewer children. 

Having children is incredibly expensive – especially in the UK.

The OECD estimates that typical working parents spend 22% of their income on full-time childcare – that’s twice as much as parents in other Western economies. 

Having a child while also paying for expensive homes and a university education is a big ask. 

More of us are concerned about the climate crisis too, with people  like Sir David Attenborough saying — we need to lower population growth if we want to save the planet. 

“I have no doubt that the fundamental source of all our problems particularly our environmental problems – is population growth”

Sir David Attenborough

Immigration is another factor when it comes to child birth in the UK. 

Although the birth rate on a graph shows a drop, it would be even more pronounced if it weren’t for immigration. 

In 2020, for example, 29.3% of all live births were to women born outside the UK.  This is the highest since records began in 1969. 

In the same year, 34.8% of all children born in England and Wales had either one or both parents born outside the UK

All this is happening against a political backdrop in which the  government has made it clear it wants to exert greater control over the numbers of people who come into the country – especially from the EU.

“As home secretary at this defining moment in our country’s history I have a particular responsibility when it comes to taking back control – it is to end the free movement of people once and for all”  

Priti Patel, 2019

So where are these women coming from?

The answer is many countries but the main ones include Romania, Pakistan, Nigeria and Poland – countries where birth rates, for a variety of social and cultural reasons, are higher than the UK’s. 

European nations had slowly been creeping up the list – which may all change now because of Brexit. 

***

These changes to the birth rate may sound like moving numbers on a spreadsheet – but they are worrying governments around the world. 

The UK isn’t the only country seeing a falling birth rate 

China’s controversial one child policy, which was introduced in 1979 to cut population growth – has now been turned on its head as officials push for more births. 

As of this year, you are allowed to have three children in China – and the government is incentivising parents by helping with the cost of child care. 

“With its ageing population the birth rate slump and decline in working of working age people pose a threat to China’s economic and social ambitions so today the governments policy of only allowing two people per family – became three.”

Channel 4 News

It is also proposing to reduce the number of non medical abortions. 

In Europe, Hungary, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Poland – which recently banned abortion – released a joint statement in September, stating:

“Increasing the number of European children is essential to preserving Europe’s Christian culture and other religious traditions for future generations”

That’s when policies on birth rates can become controversial.  

Could we see more governments rolling back the reproductive and social freedoms fought for by women? 

There are other ways of boosting birth rates, of course. 

In France, generous welfare spending and cheap childcare have slowed the decline in their birth rate.  In Sweden, families are paid monthly allowances for children – as well as a generous 480 days of paid parental leave to share between partners. 

***

You may be thinking – but if all these countries have low birth rates – how is the world’s population still increasing? 

Well in the UK – although the birth rate is historically low – that ageing population skews the numbers. The population is still growing and the ONS estimates the UK population will reach 70 million by 2031, and that the number of over 85 year olds will double over the next 25 years to 3 million.

So next time you chat to your friends about having a kid – or another one – consider this: you may be having a larger impact than you think. 

Today’s story was written by Phoebe Davis and produced by Imy Harper.