This article was originally published on 19 February 2022. It has since been updated to reflect new fertility rate figures.
There are some questions in politics — how we can close the north-south divide, how to unwind a 20-year house price boom without destroying the economy — that are hard to answer. Others — hmmm, why is Rishi Sunak’s popularity in freefall now he’s stopped handing out free money? — are much easier. “Why is Britain’s birth rate declining?” is clearly one of the latter. The mysterious thing is not that people are having fewer kids. It’s that they’re still having as many as they are.
Numbers first. In late January the Office for National Statistics noted, in an “ooh that’s interesting” kind of a way, that in 2020, for the first time, half of women in England and Wales remained childless by their 30th birthday.
The fertility rate — that is, the number of births per woman — fell precipitously from a high of 2.93 in 1963 to a low of 1.69 in 1977 before spending the rest of the last century bouncing around the 1.7 mark. In the 2000s, it briefly climbed as high as 1.92; the most recent data, for 2021, has it at 1.61, an increase on 2020 (1.59), but still less than the 1.66 recorded in 2019. The replacement rate — in which the number of people dying is balanced by the number entering the population through means that don’t involve an uncomfortable chat with the Home Office — is 2.1. Don’t think too much about that .1 if you want to stay cheerful: the point is, were it not for immigration, Britain’s population would fall.
It’s quite normal that, as countries get richer, their fertility rates fall. Women in developing countries tend to have more children for all sorts of reason — higher infant mortality rates and less focus on education for girls, to name but two — and as countries get richer the numbers tend to fall. There is a reason you don’t tend to hear the words “demographic time bomb” in relation to countries that aren’t already rich.
[ See also: Stop blaming women for falling birth rates ]
But there’s something more specific to the UK happening, too. For the last few years, the number of women who don’t have kids by their 30th birthday has climbed steadily. But the number who don’t have them by 45 — the point at which the ONS says, in a phrase unnervingly reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, women “complete childbearing” — has remained fairly flat since the early 2000s. The obvious reading of this data is that women are leaving it later to have children; having fewer kids and a lower national fertility rate are the inevitable results.
Why would they be doing this? This is where we get to the easy question I mentioned: because having a child requires both money and stability, and for more than a decade now the entire world seems to have been conspiring to deny the under-40s either. Since 2007 this country and its economy has rolled from crisis to crisis: the crash, the recession, austerity, the next recession brought about by austerity, Brexit, the pandemic, another recession (a really big one this time) exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. Anyone under 35 has never known the good times.
What they have known, though, is an economy in which wages barely rise, a huge pile of debt if they’re a graduate and a housing market in which the only way to attain secure housing is to buy but the only way of buying is to inherit money, move a long way from the best jobs markets or, preferably, both. Throw in the cost of childcare, often compared to a second mortgage — which, given the size of mortgages these days, is no small deal — and the whole venture seems prohibitively, terrifyingly expensive.
Is it any wonder that people might not want to have children when they’re living in a shared flat, or don’t have room for them, or know they can be evicted at almost no notice? Or when they can’t see how they can afford a kid if they don’t keep working, but don’t see how they can afford to keep working if they have a kid?
If the government is genuinely concerned about the birth rate there are things it could do: make renting more secure, or invest massively in childcare or, hell, even reform planning rules to build enough new family homes. But it has so far chosen not to do those things — chosen, indeed, to raise taxes on the young to protect the interests of the old. This is not an irrational way for a government elected by the grey vote to behave. By the same token, waiting much, much later to have kids is not an irrational way for the under-40s to behave either.
Why is Britain’s fertility rate declining? Gee, I dunno, why does it hurt if you punch yourself in the face?