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The rising birth rate – time to eat humble pie?

August 28, 2009 by
Filed under: Public policy, Uncategorized 

A few years ago I wrote and published a short book with my father.  ‘What are children for?’ explored what might lie behind the declining birth rate in developed nations . The book got some news coverage and was  serialised in The Times. In the first days after publication it sold a few hundred copies, then, after getting some pretty mixed reviews (mainly from women who questioned our authority to write on the subject) it disappeared without trace. It was great fun to work with Laurie and I like occasionally using the phase ‘in my book’, but otherwise it was a strangely inconsequential episode in my life.

I was reminded of the book by new ONS data showing a rise in overall fertility, even among the indigenous British population. ‘What are children for?’ suggested there might be strong underlying cultural reasons for the declining birthrate so perhaps I should be admitting we got it wrong. Then again, perhaps not. 

A general rule among those who study birthrates is that over time the higher rate among migrant groups comes back towards the indigenous norm. Although rising, the UK fertility rate is still below the replacement rate of just over 2.0 per woman. This is the same among all other Western European nations, where it is immigrant groups that keep the overall level closer to or above the replacement rate.

What the statistics don’t show, as far as I can see, is a comparison between second generation immigrants and the long term indigenous population. I suspect the 1.84 child per woman rate for the UK born population includes a higher rate for second generation migrants but a much lower rate for middle class women. If this is the case and migration levels remains the same or decline (as they have done in the last year), we would still expect to see, over time, a replacement rate consistently below 2.0. This means the number of people dying each year exceeds the number being born, as it already does in Germany.          

Overall, I agree wholeheartedly with Felipe Fernandez-Armesto who argues this morning that we shouldn’t worry about increases in the birth rate. As he says, the important thing as far as sustainability is concerned is not how many children we have in the developed world but how the population uses resources. As he points out, the global population increased fourfold in the 20th century but per capita resource consumption multiplied nineteen fold. Also, while it is good policy to enable women in developing countries the power to choose to have fewer children, it remains the case that the very best way to bring birth rates down (both in nations and in groups within nations) is to help people become better off.  

So, I’m not quite ready yet to abandon the argument in ‘what are children for?’. In essence, we suggested the usual arguments made to explain the decline in the birth rate among the middle classes (the cost of children and the impact on women’s careers) were inadequate. Instead we explored whether other factors such as a loss of faith in human progress or the decline in the idea of family professions and family businesses had diminished some of the cultural meaning of parenting. (For those who ask why we need a reason to parent, we reminded our readers of the overwhelming evidence that, unlike having a partner, a garden or a dog, having children has no aggregate effect on adult happiness levels.)

Anway if you want to read the elegant, convincing argument in full you’ll have to buy the book.  But be quick, of the 2,000 copies in the second run there are only about 1,980 still available .



  • Will

    “higher rate for second generation migrants but a much lower rate for middle class women”.

    Do you really mean to imply that they are mutually exclusive groups?

    • matthewtaylor

      Fair point. No, but although they overlap they will also have different aggregate average charcteristics. Just like you could compare boys and girls exam performance by class background

  • Susmita

    “But be quick, of the 2,000 copies in the second run there are only about 1,980 still available .”

    Matthew, I was so pleased that you wrote that book and I’d never even met you then – blog readers, go out and grab that 1,980!!

  • MIchael (in UK)

    Commendable honesty as ever Mathew – how many of us also nurture the goal of being able to say “well…in my book…” (memo to self – must get back on the book project).
    I think this is the sort of thing you should work into your planned stand up comedy routine – maybe something along lines of “I really only wrote it so I could say…”?

    With the books themselves – obviously what you need is to generate sufficient sales to cause a Gladwell tipping point, and then as numbers decline you promote that, casing the Cialdini scarcity principle to take hold, mopping up the remaining copies.

    • matthewtaylor

      If only Michael, if only

  • ad

    ” I suspect the 1.84 child per woman rate for the UK born population includes a higher rate for second generation migrants ”

    Presumably, if you know how many first generation immigrants were in the country at a given time, and what their birth rate is, you could estimate the effects of the second generation immigrants. At least you could set an upper limit to their effect on the national birthrate, if you assume that they are unlikely to have a higher birthrate than first generation immigrants.

    • matthewtaylor

      Good point. I don;t know whether ONS does this caculation but it would be interesting.

  • Katy T

    Just returned from my third holiday –forth if it’s permissible to include a period at home sans enfants. On the basis of how it felt, it was qualify.

    The question posed in the title of your book is very interesting – an interest perhaps from the sociologist in me.
    I must confess horror and disbelief that there exists overwhelming evidence to suggest that children do not in aggregate bring happiness to adults.

    A well known sociological aphorism that springs to mind each time I encounter a report that GB and Labour under his helm are doomed, is
    “if men define a situation as real they are real in their consequences”. GB is not doomed and there remains hope. Despite widespread media predictions he is not forsaken– remember the ashes?.

    ‘Back to the Game, Yo!’ as would be said in Balitmore’s projects.

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks Katy. Is GB doomed? On the one hand, the Conservatives have still not cemented the trust they need to ensure the votes for victory on the other, although I havn’t seen the polling, I suspect a large majority of the population has set their minds firmly against re-electing Prime Minister Brown.

  • Matthew Kalman

    HI Matthew

    Is resource-use really the important thing we need to think about when we are talking about population increase?

    Social cohesion, a shared British identity… things like that are not major concerns, right?

    As long as Gaia survives…! ;-)

    BIrths to forgeign-born mothers shot up from 13.6% in 1998 to 24.1% in 2008; do we just sit back and see if it reaches 42.7% in another decade?

    … Despite – as you have periodically mentioned – the accompanying collapse in social capital that Robert Putnam’s research uncovered…?


    • matthewtaylor

      Hi Matthew

      Nice to hear from you again. I suspect the increase in births to foreign born mothers may have something to do with who the foreign born mothers are and where they come from. Of course, social cohesion matters but – given that some of the places in the UK with the biggest BNP support have very low levels of inward migrations – we should be careful about assuming a simple correlation between numbers and social impact. Some of the biggest cohesion issues have been with UK born Muslim population

  • Matthew Kalman

    Hi Matthew,

    I don’t remember the map of where the BNP’s highest support is – just got the sense that it’s not usually where I hang out… ;-)

    You’re certainly right re social cohesion issues and Muslim populations: Ipsos-Mori has highlighted that social cohesion is negatively correlated with with the level of Pakistani and Bangladeshi population – though social cohesion is, by contrast, positively correlated with having a “large Indian population”…!

    That recent Christopher Caldwell book ‘Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West’ certainly seems to have helped put immigration and fertility issues on to the agenda (for others than the BNP, that is!).

    I see that the Telegraph recently ran its own investigation on the unspoken issue of “Muslim Europe: the demographic time bomb transforming our continent”:

    Were such a transformation to take place, I suspect it would rather undermine progressivism in general – with the whole anti-Bush alliance with Islamic organisations proving a rather brittle marriage of convenience…


    PS Had really hoped to get along to your ‘Connected Minds’ event on 8th – but had forgotten that it’s my older son’s first day at school… (I left a phone message to free up my place for someone else – I see it’s full). Have to make do with transcript, audio, or whatever…

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