Population politics

Mike Dixon Julia Margo
21 February 2006

On Christmas Day, 1085, William the Conqueror, intending to discover how much tax he was due, set out to chronicle England’s demographic landscape – a project which resulted in the Domesday Book. This was an early example of an enduring fascination: changes in the demographic makeup of the population would consistently intrigue and agitate kings, queens, politicians, policymakers and academics the world over. Today this fascination is just as apparent – the latest public figure to voice concerns about the fertility rate is the European Union’s commissioner for employment, social affairs and equal opportunities, Vladimir Spidla, who is widely expected to announce measures in June to combat a decline in Europe’s birthrates.

Fertility has been falling across Europe for more than four decades. In Britain, after a post-war "baby boom" peak of 2.95 children per woman in 1964 (far above the 2.1 needed to maintain a constant population), it plummeted through the late 1960s and 1970s, and continued a steady descent until 2002. In recent years there have been very slight improvements and the current rate stands at 1.74.

Similar patterns have been seen across much of the more developed world. Spain’s fertility rate dropped from 2.9 in 1970 to 1.25 in 2002, Italy’s plummeted from 2.4 to 1.26, Japan’s slid from 2.1 to 1.32 and Slovakia’s has fallen from 2.4 to a disastrous 1.19.

At the same time life expectancy has been increasing rapidly – currently by sixteen minutes every hour in Britain. The concern is that unless governments intervene, Europe’s welfare-states will become increasingly unsustainable, and previously prosperous economies will start to stagnate without enough people in the workforce to offset ageing populations. The prospect of formidable increases in dependency already has politicians in Italy and Japan tearing their hair out. There were 1.61 people aged 15-59 for every person aged 0-15 or 60+ in 2000 in Italy and 1.64 in Japan, but the UN predicts that by 2050 these numbers are likely to decline to 0.86 and 0.82 respectively. This means that there could be more pensioners and children in the population than people in the workforce to fund their education and care, an unprecedented phenomenon.

Mike Dixon and Julia Margo are research fellows of the directors' research team at the Institute of Public Policy Research (ippr)

Their ippr research paper, Population Politics), is published in February 2006

Also by Mike Dixon in openDemocracy:

"Tony Blair’s opportunity: an Anglo-Social European model" (July 2005

Concerned about the future, many governments are now implementing policies to raise fertility rates. Several countries, including Canada, Estonia, Singapore and Japan, have adopted specific demographic targets or aspirations, collectively known as "family policy" or "population policy", which are used to inform policy development, particularly in the areas of migration, skills and pensions. Australia already has a pro-immigration and pro-natalist strategy. And the French government made headlines across the world when it announced in late 2005 that it was to offer cash incentives to middle-class mothers to have a third child. This initiative follows more than a century of efforts to encourage immigration and higher fertility in France.

Sweden and the Nordic countries have a long history of social policies aimed at affecting fertility, and there is an enduring consensus that the state has an important responsibility for helping people balance their work and family life. However these countries do not have an explicit population policy. Instead the Nordic governments employ a "suite" of policies – including high-quality childcare and extensive parental leave, which, it is hoped, act together to create an environment which is conducive to higher fertility. Somewhat less conventionally, in Japan the government has attempted to raise fertility and encourage marriage through sponsored dating games, hiking trips and cruises for single people.

These various initiatives have met with varying degrees of success. In France, politicians such as the education minister Gilles de Robien boast that "Demography is a very great source of vitality for France", appealing to their citizens’ patriotism in urging them to populate La Republique. And in social-democratic Sweden, talking about the benefits of universal childcare for both children and the economy resonates strongly. Social-affairs minister Berit Andnor said in 2005 that his government has "been able to increase fertility rates. This is important for economic development. And it is something we are proud of."In these countries politicians have managed to introduce policies that have caught the public imagination.

But this is not the case everywhere. In Spain until recently, there had been strong public opposition to any government action aimed at increasing fertility, partly because such policies were associated with Franco’s dictatorial regime and partly because there was a misconception that fertility was too high, and a strong sentiment persists that family creation and structure are private matters. Hence money is earmarked for helping families in times of need rather than encouraging higher fertility. This is a problem for Spain as it may soon suffer the consequences of low fertility.

How does Britain fit into this pattern?

The British complex

The post-1997 British government of Tony Blair, like its European neighbours, is increasingly aware of the implications of increased longevity and low fertility. But it has gone no further than exploring social-policy responses to ameliorate the negative outcomes of an ageing society (such as reforms to counter a pensions shortfall) or to exploit the positive potential of this new demographic, for example by providing older people with opportunities to retrain.

British ministers may privately be concerned about low fertility, but the government has stopped short of explicitly framing it as a development with profound consequences for society, in stark contrast to their continental counterparts. Why?

Cultural factors may be the key. In Britain there is a particular history of antipathy towards state intervention in private lives and British ministers are wary of sounding prescriptive about individual lifestyle and childbearing decisions. In a recent debate about the 2005 Work and Families Bill, trade and industry secretary Alan Johnson insisted that though the measures would help Britons to balance work and families, the policy was not aimed at increasing fertility: "This is not ‘breed our way’ to economic success. This is…a very British approach", reflecting the prevailing view in British political circles – ministers talk of influencing population trends at their peril.

This view may be grounded in experience. When Patricia Hewitt commented in September 2004 on the economic and social benefits of having more children, this was interpreted in some quarters of the press as an "edict from the nanny state" for women to have more babies. Interestingly, Conservative MP David Willetts was applauded for his perspicacity when he argued the same point, suggesting this is an issue the right finds easier to address.

The British left recoils from associations with big government and nanny-statism, a residual hangover from Margaret Thatcher’s anti-state rhetoric in the 1980s, which seemed to resonate strongly with important sections of the public, coupled with the perceived failures of corporatism in the 1970s.

Historical associations play their part too. The Fabians – founding-fathers of the Labour Party - dabbled with eugenics in the early 20th century. In his 1907 tract The Decline of the Birth Rate, Sidney Webb argued for state policies which would induce the "right" kind of people to breed. Unappealing in their own right, such policies became the focus of revulsion following reports about horrific experiments undertaken in Hitler’s death camps. Incidentally the term "population policy" is nearly extinct in Germany for this reason.

Yet there is a strong philosophical framework for defending interventions in socio-demographics from the charge of nanny-state interference, which derives from the liberal egalitarianism of thinkers such as John Rawls or Ronald Dworkin. Those in favour of such a conception of freedom argue that an empowering state should ensure that everyone has the opportunities and resources to pursue their own life-course - rather than simply removing impediments and ensuring mutual non-interference or promoting a particular ideal of the good as proponents of "positive liberty", in Isaiah Berlin’s famous schema, would favour.

But there is another reason why the British government may have been reluctant to act. The concerns of dependency ratios, government spending and global power that are so pressing in much of Europe are less so in the United Kingdom. Britain’s demographic history leaves it in a better position than many other countries to deal with the challenges of an ageing population. Its fertility rate, although low, remains relatively high by international standards. And the latest projections predict the population of 60 million people will increase by 5 million over the next twenty years, or 9 million over the next fifty. In historical perspective, these are small increases – Britain’s population has nearly doubled since 1900.

Britain’s political economy, with its high levels of male and female employment, a flexible labour market, relatively low employment taxes, the injection of migrant labour, and increased spending on public services and childcare, mean that the government is unable to justify intervention to raise fertility in Britain in terms of a macroeconomic priority, as many other European and Asian countries have done. The international comparison has made British politicians and policymakers relatively sanguine. But are they right to assume that demographic change will be so innocuous?

The evidence suggests not. Britain in 2006 is at a demographic fork in the road: fertility patterns over the next twenty years will determine its demographic future for the next fifty and beyond. If fertility stays at the current level – or falls further – the country would face similar problems to Italy and Japan as soon as 2030. The view over the approaching horizon would be one of rapidly increasing pressure on state spending; the Institute of Public Policy Research (ippr’s) report Population Politics estimates this as potentially exceeding 2.7% of GDP. But Britain, like Italy and Japan today, would be too far down a dangerous demographic path to turn back easily. Predicting the demographic future is a risky business, particularly so far in advance. But this analysis should give the government pause for thought.

The progressive challenge

So it is likely that we have underestimated the salience of Britain’s demography for state spending commitments. But have we also underestimated its importance for policy priorities?

The simple answer is yes. An emerging body of evidence from across the globe shows that diverse demographic trends have severely exacerbated poverty and inequality over the past few decades and will continue to do so in the near future. ippr’s analysis shows that demographic change – shifting patterns of household composition, falling fertility and an ageing population – probably accounts for 20% of the enormous rise in inequality in the country since 1979, and reveals that if Britain had had the same pattern of household composition in 2003-04 as it did in 1979, it is likely that there would be 280,000 fewer pensioners, and 70,000 fewer children, in poverty.

At worst, continued inaction may leave an unsustainable demographic legacy. At best, it would be a missed opportunity to work towards social justice, reducing poverty, inequality and future care needs, and improving environmental sustainability. But is there political space for action? ippr’s research has revealed a range of unmet "demographic aspirations". For example, there is a huge discrepancy between the number of children Britons want and the number they actually have, resulting in a "baby gap"’ of more than 90,000 babies a year; a major cause is that people are still not able to reconcile work and family life.

British women face a financial "fertility penalty" if they have children earlier in life and almost a third return to a less well paid job than before they give birth. The average woman foregoes £564,000 in earnings over her lifetime if she has her first child at 24 compared to a similarly educated childless woman; even if she waits until 28, she will still forego £165,000. So what should the government do?

The challenge is to respond to Britain’s demographic problems in a progressive way. We need to remove the barriers preventing people from having the families they want. French-style cash incentives would be culturally inappropriate and regressive: paying mothers to opt out of the workforce is bad for gender equality, bad for children’s life chances and just plain unfair. For the most part, both men and women want to play an active role in family life and in the labour market too. Policy should help them to do so. We recommend Swedish-style childcare provision, and better paternity and maternity leave. But the first step has to be for British politicians to openly acknowledge that Britain faces demographic problems, just like the rest of Europe.

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