Britain's mysterious baby boom

 
Baby Women in the UK are having more babies

Britain has undergone a dramatic baby-boom in the first part of this century - and experts suspect that, inadvertently, Tony Blair is the daddy.

According to a report out today, women in the UK have suddenly started to have significantly larger families: in 2001 the average was 1.64 but by 2008 it was 1.97.

Quite why the noughties should have inspired such a turnaround in Britain's fertility rate is something of a mystery. The experts are confident the explanation is not immigration but think it might be an unintended consequence of policies to reduce child poverty.

You may remember all those Doomsday scenarios a decade ago of imploding European populations, with fertility spiralling downwards. Well, it hasn't happened. Fertility rates across the EU have stabilised and increased in some countries - notably the UK.

While the chances of reaching the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman looked "remote" for Britain in the early years of the millennium, it "now appears much more likely".

Something extraordinary occurred shortly after Tony Blair became prime minister that, according to research by the think-tank Rand Europe, meant "of all the countries of the European Union, the UK has had one of most dramatic turnarounds in period total fertility over the last five years, with recent gains more than reversing the slow decline of the previous two decades".

Graph

The graph tells the story: the high fertility rates (TFR) of the sixties plummeted with the availability of the contraceptive pill and stuck well below the level required to replace the population for 25 years.

It was a similar story in many developed European countries and the warnings inspired some governments to introduce policies encouraging their citizens to breed. The European Union, fearful of an economic catastrophe from low fertility rates and an aging population, made a clear commitment in 2005 to "demographic renewal".

The British, however, have traditionally rejected the notion of politicians interfering in family life. As today's Rand report puts it: "Successive UK governments have pursued an essentially neo-liberal policy, leaving decisions about childbearing to families and maintaining a laissez-faire attitude towards the economy."

So, British changes to the fertility rate are accident rather than design, which makes the steep rise during the last decade all the more curious. Whatever happened here was sufficiently dramatic to outstrip the concerted efforts of other countries to achieve the same result.

It is all a bit of a puzzle. The experts at Rand Europe looked at a range of explanations as to why British women had, apparently, changed their minds about having larger families.

Like many people I suspect, my immediate thought was that higher fertility rates might be a consequence of higher immigrations levels. Apparently not.

Immigration has had an impact on the birth rate (the number of babies): foreign mothers now account for a quarter of all births.

Immigration has not had any significant impact on the fertility rate (babies per mother): the big increase in immigration between 2001 and 2008 was from Eastern Europe, notably Poland, but women from the accession countries do not generally have more babies than British-born mothers. In fact, the fertility rate in Poland is significantly lower than the UK - 1.2 in 2003 and now just under 1.4.

"Overall, the total effect of immigration over the past 50 years has probably been to slow the decline in TFRs due to the higher fertility (on average) of foreign-born women, particularly those from the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh). However, the immigration of people from Eastern Europe since 2004 is unlikely to have had any impact on the increase in TFRs since 2001."

If anything, greater restrictions on immigration from higher fertility non-EU countries following the wave of arrivals from lower-fertility Poland probably had a negative effect on fertility. The mystery deepens.

We know that throughout the 1980s and 90s women in the twenties were having fewer babies than previously while women in their late thirties saw a moderate rise in fertility rates. In 2001 something changed.

Graph

The story of this graph is the purple line - women aged between 25 and 29. Fertility rates had been falling inexorably since 1980 and then in 2001 the trend reverses. It is almost as if women in their late twenties realised the thirty-somethings were overtaking them in the baby-stakes and decided to get breeding.

What really inspired that change? The Rand Europe researchers rule out a number of possible factors: GDP seems unrelated to fertility rates; higher levels of female education and labour force participation don't appear to have any impact; fewer and later marriages have probably had a negative effect on fertility because married couples tend to have more babies (although divorce and remarriage might mitigate this effect). It was something else.

In the end, the researchers concluded the most likely explanation was a policy never intended to fill the maternity wards - New Labour's commitment to eradicate child poverty.

At first, the evidence didn't look too convincing: the impact of welfare changes appeared to be "ambiguous". The reforms were thought to cut both ways because "families with greater income may be able to afford to provide for more children, but better job prospects and earning power increase the amount of income forgone when parents take time out of the labour market to raise children."

One aspect of the reforms, though, did seem to have a significant impact on people's decision to have more children - working family tax credits (WTFC). One study found that the payments increased the fertility of women in couples by 10%. Why? The money was expected to encourage mums back to work. Instead, they were staying at home and having another baby.

"This difference may be explained by the fact that eligibility for the WTFC depended on one of the couple working: many women in couples found that the WTFC increased family income without providing any incentive to enter the labour force, and may even have enabled them to drop out of the labour force in response to their partner's increased earnings."

As the researchers put it, "in attempting to improve the quality of children's lives, the policies are likely to have had the unintended effect of increasing the quantity of children born".

It is a reminder, perhaps, of how the law of unintended consequences works. Tony Blair's determination to help the young may have, inadvertently, helped with the challenge of the old.

 
Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • Comment number 72.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 71.

    Surely it's just because the telly is getting so boring - and sofas are getting a lot softer...

  • rate this
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    Comment number 70.

    Free market has a lot to do with mothers having children later, when fertility is lower. House prices are not regulated and "highest bidder" for selling forces house prices to such high levels that the young have to work and focus on careers, both husband and wife working and not able to have children, to pay the mortgage. Ultimately, it means the old making money and there are fewer children.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 69.

    The story of Jesus was of a non-materialist egalitarian, for example "If you have two coats, give one away". Those countries which embrace capitalism are not Christian. The issues with aging population and families with low childbirth rates are mostly related to capitalism, in that workers work and not have children, old people are not cared for by family but expect the state to perform it.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 68.

    @lady_liberty;
    You're right about Judeo-Christianity. But unfortunately you're wrong about the British having a wonderful culture. We haven't got a culture anymore precisely because most Brits have abandoned Judeo-Christianity and now their 'culture' is merely to be entertained. We need immigration to re-civilise us.

  • Comment number 67.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 66.

    No sex please we're British!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 65.

    lady-liberty,
    In the U.S there is too much of a movement toward marriage and family and the' good-old Christian values' especially in the mid-west and the southern states.There's too much conservativism there already...

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 64.

    As a teacher in a very slum area of London - I can say the rise of birth rates among some of the ethnic minorities is due to the lack of affordable housing - Due to Thatcher policies - Many of the girls opt for babies as it is the only way to "afford" a flat - The council has to pay for it. The influx of immigrants exacerbates the problem.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 63.

    Hmmm.

    As a teacher in a slum area of London - I can say our school's percentage of each year's intake of foreign children has risen dramatically - reflecting the rise of immigrants. Here it is easy to distinguish the ethnic origin of the majority by the language spoken - It is not English

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 62.

    We have the same situation in the United States. There are higher birthrates among immigrants and minority populations. The British have a wonderful culture, and I hope and pray there is a movement back toward marriage and family. I'm very concerned for the West. There's no denying that the nations in the northern hemisphere are the most prosperous, and it's largely due to Judeo-Christianity.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 61.

    Perhaps it has also been down to the fact that under the Labour government we had growth and low unemployment and therefore people felt that they could have children. Birth rates are likely to fall as the policies of this government come through - stopping child benefit, reducing WTC, childcare help - this may not be best thing long term for paying for the elderly of the future.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 60.

    I'm persuaded Mr EASTON's article...to visit my GP. I seem to be having hallucinations; I'm seeing Black and and Asian women with huge numbers of kids, but apparently this isn't true.



  • rate this
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    Comment number 59.

    Testing_times did you go to school? perhaps you need to pop back and see your teacher and ask them to go back over 'averages' with you again..

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 58.

    This is a complete disaster - only our stupid politicians would think the best way to reduce child poverty is to pay more to those who have more children. We should be working for smaller families. Now we have more housing problems, more young unemployed, more pressure on food and water prices, more crowding on transport, and continuing falling standard of living. What about our quality of life??

  • rate this
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    Comment number 57.

    Interesting, in that it would seem counterfactual that it wasn't driven chiefly by demographics. However, perhaps not. You only have to travel to the more affluent districts to see that there has been a surge in births amongst those communities where neither immigration or benefits are pertinent. Couldn't it as easily though be that the grandchildren of the baby boomers are simply coming of age?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 56.

    It is obviously because of mass imigration. I can't believe this is even being discussed as though it were a mystery.

    Under Blairs watch we saw immigration at a level never seen before in the UK. Then after decades of decline fertility rises. ITs hardly surprising is it? When we have millions of people from second and third world countries coming in, many of whome are religeous.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 55.

    Not everyone has a baby because of the money, sometimes it is out of love.......
    I have had 3 children, 2 of them in the 1980's and then my last one in 2005. That is a 20 year gap between siblings...why?....why not I say....and great fun I am having too.....I am a 40 something, workng and educated woman who has chosen when and why to have children...money never came into the equation....

  • rate this
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    Comment number 54.

    I think it's just a simpler human emotions based on a bad economy. It is proven with past baby booms during sour economies. People have less disposable income and more time at home and therefore create more babies. This is in addition to monetary losses typically opening your eyes to what's really important in life, not money!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 53.

    Malthus at work?

 

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