In this article in the Daily Telegraph, Jeremy Warner refers to the French demographic model. For decades, the French have introduced measures to help increase their fertility rate. This was done by introducing family-friendly measures. These measures are explicitly targeted to entice families to have three or more children and to help families with three or more children. Our Government should start thinking in terms of these lines. Warner is advocating the introduction in the UK of family measures similar to those present in France.
There are many things that France gets wrong – but also quite a lot which it gets right. France’s exemplary family friendly tax system is one of them.
Together with other incentives to make having children easier, this is extraordinarily popular among voters and therefore consistently commands support across the political spectrum. On the whole, the Élysée doesn’t meddle with it, whoever its occupant.
No such systemic backing for the family exists in Britain, where to the contrary more or less everything seems these days to conspire against it.
So when the Office for National Statistics announced last week that the birth rate in England and Wales has hit its lowest level since 2002, it really shouldn’t have come as any surprise. Having children is being progressively priced out.
But while the birth rate keeps going down, the population keeps going up. Go figure. Spoiler alert; it’s not just because more people are living longer.
You have to go right back to the middle of the Second World War to find a significantly smaller number of recorded live births than we’ve got at the moment, and before that the mid 1850s, when the British population was less than half what it is today.
The ONS didn’t calculate the fertility rate in the latest release of data, because of uncertainty about the size of the population, but in 2021, the live birth rate was 55.8 per thousand women, yielding a fertility rate of 1.62 per woman.
This is actually relatively high by European standards – in Italy and Spain the rate is just 1.2 – but in itself it is still quite a lot lower than would be needed to keep the population from falling in the longer term, and is significantly lower than France, where the rate is 1.83 births per woman.
France’s almost unique “code de la famille” – initiated before the last war in response to concern over a falling birth rate and consequent shrinkage in the numbers of economically active workers – explains quite a bit of this discrepancy.
Legal rights to prolonged maternity and paternity leave are much stronger than here in Britain, while taxpayer funded family and stay at home allowances are far more generous.
Free pre-school child care and big tax breaks for those with young families complete the picture of a system which is deliberately framed to encourage a more prolific birth rate.
These policies are not the only factor. More affordable housing may also play a part, even if you have to move outside the big cities and tourist areas to find it.
Faced with the prospect of having to bring up your children in a broom cupboard, it is in any case no surprise that here in Britain, many young women are choosing not to have them in the first place.
Bringing up a family has always been financially punishing for all but very high earners. But with rising lifestyle expectations, it today seems particularly punitive and unaffordable.
That said, there is nothing particularly unique about Britain, other perhaps than its shortage of reasonably priced housing. As a general rule of thumb, the richer a country gets, the fewer babies it is likely to have. In part, this is just a consequence of longer lives, more effective birth control, and greater welfare.
To put it bluntly, you don’t need as many children if more of them are living to adulthood and the state provides the support in old age that would once have come from your family. More or less every country, as it ascends the economic ladder, eventually ends up with a falling fertility rate.
And it’s why the only places on the planet where the fertility rate is still high tend to be relatively poor – parts of Africa and the Middle East, and so on.
It’s reckoned that Nigeria’s population, and that of a number of other sub-Saharan African nations, will double by the middle of the century, but they are almost unique in this regard. Even in India, the fertility rate is plummeting.
The difference is stark. According to World Bank data, the fertility rate in sub-Saharan Africa and other low income countries is 4.6 per woman. In a high income country, by contrast, it averages 1.5.
Small wonder, then, that the developed world is flooded by migrants trying to get in. There is a mismatch in demographics that naturally drives those from poorer nations to seek opportunity in more prosperous ones.
Yet by putting pressure on infrastructure and resources, it also accentuates the problem of lower birth rates in the indigenous population. Housing, schools, healthcare – they are all likely to come under strain in any economy where the population is growing faster than its own natural, self-sustaining rate of change.
Where much of the infrastructure is breaking under the pressure of population growth, moreover, it further reduces the attractions of parenthood. It’s a vicious circle.
It used to be fashionable to argue that high levels of migration were good for productivity, and therefore more than paid for themselves. That may once have been true. Think of the skills and expertise that Huguenot refugees brought to England from France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Or that highly educated Europeans still take with them to America.
But whether that’s also true of today’s wave of low skill migration from the developing world is much more debatable, and so far at least, is certainly not supported by the data.
Declining birth rates, and a consequent ageing demographic, meanwhile bring their own productivity challenges, for they imply fewer economically active people per head of population.
Despite its declining birth rate, the UK’s population has risen by nearly ten million since the turn of the century, yet productivity effectively stopped growing fifteen years ago, a hiatus of almost unprecedented longevity.
With the “grey vote” growing by the year, politicians become naturally inclined to prioritise spending on the past (pensions and healthcare) over investment in the future – education, training, infrastructure and yes, supporting young families.
It also makes the shortage of affordable housing worse, because it promotes nimbyism and opposition to housing and infrastructure development. Watch Labour rip up the planning laws when it gets into power, a terrible vengeance on the ageing middle classes masquerading as justice for the young.
In the end, it is sometimes said, history is all about demographics; they explain so much. Today’s world is an object lesson in this abiding truism.
This article is an extract from The Telegraph’s Economic Intelligence newsletter. Sign up here to get exclusive insight from two of the UK’s leading economic commentators – Ambrose Evans-Pritchard and Jeremy Warner – delivered direct to your inbox every Tuesday