Reflections on Population and Fertility in the UK

I am a self-professed science geek (not to be confused with the “techno” variety) but with a curiosity that extends into various other categories. I enjoy scientific magazines most of all, but one can never get too far from the human interest perspective, otherwise it becomes dull. As it was, it was a National Geographic magazine special entitled “Population 7 Billion” which caught my attention one particular morning at my local library ( I expected it to reinforce my perceptions of population distribution and growth i.e. there are too many people just about everywhere and these populations are inevitably expanding too fast, whether through migration or natural reproduction.

I was fascinated to read that the world’s population growth rate actually appears to be slowing faster than expected. We have been rapidly approaching the birth of the planet’s 7 billionth inhabitant (he or she may already have arrived), yet the brakes are slowly being applied: “the UN projects that the world will reach replacement fertility by 2030” it is stated. It is speculated that world population growth would probably continue for another quarter of a century at least due to the huge swell of adolescents moving up the population pyramid.

However, the present decline in birth rates is considered “mind boggling” by the director of the UN Population Division, Hania Zlotnik although I doubt that the comments of demographers like Hania Zlotnik really filter through to the subjective mindset of the average non-policy-making citizen of planet Earth. Ask the average man (or woman) in the street whether or not he (or she) thinks there are too few or too many people on the planet and it’s a sure bet what the answer’s going to be. Yet, to observe the situation at the scale of a nation or region portrays a very different scenario. Take England and Wales for instance, the stats for which can be gleaned from the website of the Office for National Statistics,

If the figures are to be believed  the fertility rate of women in Europe (the number of children borne per woman over her lifespan) languishes well below the replacement rate (the number of children required to replace her and her partner and maintain a stable gross population): 1.4 versus 2.1. According to figures on the ONS site, the last female cohort in the UK population haveing a FR > 2.1 was from 1948 i.e. the generation of women born that year. They reached the end of their reproductive lives in 1993 (age 45); the trend for successive cohorts thereafter has been downward (see fig 1.). Note that the upper trend terminates at the 1964 cohort. This is last cohort to have completed their childbearing for which there is available data (up to 2009). The data trends are similar throughout most of Europe.

Average number of live children born, England & Wales, at ages 30 & 45 (credit ONS)

So it’s obvious that if Europe remained a closed system without migration to and from its borders, its population would, with time, diminish. Following naturally is the question of whether this would be a good situation, or a bad situation?

This must surely be viewed in light of what criteria we attach to the word “good”. Quality of life, access to education, healthcare and social welfare are all part of the equation we are familiar with and would want to perpetuate in some form or another. Usually this is tarried to economics and the state of government finances. The situation today is weighted favourably towards countries like Britain which have a strong currency, can afford to out-source primary industry and manufacturing to a large degree, import the finished goods and sell them back to us with a considerable mark-up. Hence the economy of countries like the UK become service oriented, which means we can indulge in consumerism, the arts, science, knowledge and technological advancement. The notion is that such things feed back into the equation and perpetuate, if not reinforce, the primary position. This is all good and well provided that the “things”, the services and institutions, maintain their productivity on the one hand, and the export economies don’t reduce supply or become too expensive in their provision of manufactured goods on the other.

It is my guess that the latter is unlikely to happen for a good while yet. The factories are there and the resources have not yet been plundered entirely (are we not only now entering entering peak oil?). In fact, as I write, it occurs to me that the question of global population is unhelpful. It doesn’t really say much at all about what it means to be a person at a particular location in time; their quality of life, their aspirations, their opportunities. After all, of the state of Texas were as densely populated as New York, the author of the NG special states, it could encompass the population of the entire globe. Not that we would want that of course, but the quality of life of the average New Yorker is not all that bad, from a New Yorker’s perspective. But we don’t all want to be New Yorkers, nor can the world support a global population of such inhabitants. However, it serves to illustrate a point, if only by alluding to an extreme.

There seems to be a contradiction, however, between the data and reality. I speak somewhat subjectively, through my experience of living and working in the UK, and my speculation pertains to the situation here. The baby-boomers are moving into the age of retirement, the population is fairly static, yet unemployment is rising and specifically, youth unemployment is at an all-time high. As I am to understand it, over a million young men and women between the ages of 16 and 24 are unemployed in the UK. This could be put down to a lack of initiative shown by these people, so say those of a cynical disposition. Perhaps there is some truth to this, but it is a minor truth.

A major truth is that the basic service jobs (the one’s that must by necessity employ a good proportion of your labour force: 30%? 50%?) are not exactly abundant. (anyone who has perused the Gumtree, Reed, Monster Jobs, Jobsite and the many other job pages can testify from the stats feedback i.e. commonly dozens, sometimes a hundred + applicants to compete with). London stands out as a possible exception as it does on so many indicators due to its size and the positive feedback mechanisms generating further growth in its economy and job provision. But my anecdotal experience in the south-west – Plymouth, Bristol and Swindon – was a bit more grim. In my experience it also far easier to find work as a casual employee than a permanent. The flexibility suits many people e.g. those with more than one job, mothers with children etc, but probably gives a false picture of the overall employment situation. Against this backdrop are businesses becoming more streamlined, more efficient, less people-intensive? I can’t answer that, but I suspect that is a factor.

It could be tentatively suggested that we are entering a period, perhaps a sustained one, in the UK and most other Western nations of low real growth, as indicated by GDP and per capita income, married with moderate to high unemployment. Couple this with problems in public sector finances and oft-toted “efficiency savings” by respective governments, increased costs of living and attendant loss of savings, what impact could this have on demographics? Most likely family size will be increasingly constrained by family income and what assistance the state is prepared to give. Inflation, higher VAT and other expenses have hit family incomes, this is no secret. Likewise, welfare payments are unlikely to bridge the gap and for middle-income families, increasingly less attainable. If economic indicators are a major factor in fertility and conception rates then the current downturn mitigates against any change in their gross downward trajectory over the last half century.

But the picture is more complicated than at first glance. A trend that has emerged in the last twenty years can be seen in the graph below (fig. 2):

Figure 2: Relative changes in age-specific conception rates, England and Wales, 1990-2009 (credit ONS)

It is obvious that women are choosing to have children at an increasingly older age, with the greatest increase in the 40 + age group. However, these changes are relative, not absolute. They don’t tell the observer if the actual increase in fertility of woman over 30 compensates for the slight decline in the lower groups. A similar but more informative graph is shown in fig. 3,  comparing the fertility rates in terms of conceptions per 1000 women in each  reproductive year (consecutive years between 15 and 45 years of age) at four different times: 1970, 1980, 1990 and 2009 (most recent data).

Figure 3. Age Specific Fertility Rates for select intervals (Data from ONS)

By integrating the areas under the respective curves one should get a cumulative fertility rate for the year in question. It is obvious that the curves have flattened and skewed towards the right with time i.e. towards older women. The flattening reveals that peak age-specific fertility rates (shown here as live births/1000 women at age x) have fallen drastically between 1970 and 2009 (by 1/3 from ~180 to 120). The peak reproductive age group has also shifted from 24 yrs to 30 yrs.

One other point to consider when talking of fertility rates are terminations as a proportion of total conceptions. I am quite staggered by the data: 21% of all conceptions in 2009 (~900, 000) were terminated by legal abortion. That’s almost 190, 000 pregnancies terminated, of which about 40, 000 are in the under 20 age-group. Half of them occur in the 20 – 29 year age-group. This is the data which jumps out at me although there is plenty more to be found on the sheets which can be downloaded from the ONS website.

On the question of migration I have read (once again anecdotal) that migrant fertility rates soon fall in line with those of the host country (another contradiction of popular perception?). There is more data on the ONS site that I haven’t had the chance to peruse.

An article of anecdotal interest is one I read in an Economist earlier this year (which one I can’t remember off the top of my head). The topic under discussion was one of “assortive mating”, a phenomenon which is increased substantially over the last half-century i.e. the percentage of degree-educated men procreating with degree-educated women. This probably has as much to do with the fact that the percentage of women with Bachelor degrees today (in the West? Or just the UK?)  is on a par with men, whilst 40 years ago, the percentage of women with Bachelors was a paltry 9%. So educated men and women should have a fair chance of meeting and mating. However, the fertility rate of such women is below the replacement rate: only 1.6. For high school drop-outs, by comparison, the rate is 2.4.

Ok, so it’s obvious that education equals lower fertility in Western women, and degree-holders are not a self-sustaining subset of the female population. Once again, lets consider what were to happen if this was a closed system. Essentially, given sufficient time the system (read “population”) could sustain itself, perhaps even grow, but it would be increasingly dependent on the progeny of the drop-outs to grow up, get a degree, and fill those job vacancies requiring degrees, because the degreed subset is unsustainable (FR = 1.6). One might be tempted to say that the gene-pool becomes diluted by less-desirable individuals, if intellectual achievement is considered a proxy for the possession of “intelligent genes”. There is probably some truth in this, and it must be some cause for concern. Of course, the intelligentsia are a class which draw on individuals from all backgrounds, so this picture is a simplification.

Food for thought I hope. Comments and discussion most welcome.


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