The UK’s birth rate has hit a record low. Can it bounce back?

There are policies that could help stimulate population growth—but they will not be enough to reverse the decline

October 20, 2021
Image: Jeff Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: Jeff Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo

We are in the middle of a “baby bust.” The 2020 fertility rate was 1.58 children per woman in England and Wales, and even lower in Scotland at 1.29—figures that have decreased each year since 2012, making this far from just a pandemic phenomenon. If this trend continues it will, inevitably, lead to economic decline as the pool of adults of working age shrinks and the ageing population that they need to support grows. To halt the decline, the Social Market Foundation (SMF) think tank has suggested pronatalist policies to encourage people to reproduce. But even if the government were to adopt such policies, it might not be enough to reverse the ongoing decline.     

Our falling birth rate shouldn’t come as a surprise. People of reproductive age need to navigate a complex set of problems in order to have a child. They face job insecurity, the lack of decent maternity or paternity leave or benefits and extortionate childcare costs, as well as more indirect factors, such as the high cost and demand for housing and inaction on the climate crisis set against the backdrop of Brexit and a pandemic. While these issues affect people in different ways, depending on their wealth and where they live, this insecurity about the future isn’t going away.

Jimmi Hill, who runs a small bird of prey conservation charity, is not currently planning to have children due to his worries about “unstable” life in the UK, the prevalence of crime and inaction on the climate crisis. His wife shares his concerns about their carbon footprint and the state of the planet. “I’m a conservationist at heart and feel that biodiversity loss is one of the single greatest challenges my generation has to address—and this is largely down to humans’ overexploitation of the natural world.”  

The movement for being childfree is growing in the UK. A 2020 YouGov survey revealed that 37 per cent of the population who are not already parents felt they never wanted to have any children, and 19 per cent didn’t want them “any time soon.” The high cost of child-rearing, overpopulation and climate change were cited as some of the main socioeconomic reasons, alongside personal preferences like lifestyle choices or lack of parental instincts. Overconsumption by those with children in higher income countries accelerates climate change—so some people are opting out of adding more humans to an already unstable planet.

Sarah Harper, director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, says that normally birth rates increase after a pandemic, but this isn’t the case in the UK “as the impacts of Covid on younger people of childbearing age has been more like a recession, due to lockdowns.”     

Brexit has also had an impact on Britain’s birth rate, she explains, as “migrant couples tend to increase their childbearing for all sorts of reasons when they arrive in a host country, and it was kept high by women who were not born here or who have ethnic minority status.

“Britain is in real trouble after leaving the EU because we’re not replacing our population, and we’re not going to either.”     

Nando Sigona, a research associate at the University of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre, points out that “the UK is very behind in terms of the costs of childcare, compared with other European countries, as better policies make life in the family better.”     

Some countries have already tried to stimulate their birth rate, with incentives including tax breaks, three years' paid parental leave, a “large family card” for discounts on transport, subsidised childcare for under-threes (which the UK in part provides) and school places for over-threes. France’s attempt to slow the decline of its birth rate has been one of the most successful, even though it still isn’t growing its population.     

Birth rates are shrinking beyond Europe, with Japan—whose birth rate has fallen consistently since the 1970s—and South Korea also trying to stimulate their populations with a combination of daycare provision, improved child services, tax breaks and housing incentives. But these policies have also failed to increase birth rates, and both countries are addressing their workforce shortfall by relying on greater automation, so fewer workers are needed for manual jobs. It will take a while for the falling birth rates to fully hit the working population, giving adequate time and technological advances to address it. As Harper points out, there are ethical issues with encouraging people to have children, especially in an arguably overpopulated world with alternatives available. “When you give women a choice and an education, you empower them,” she concludes. The most deeply troubling of all policies is China's ruling to reduce "non-medical" abortions which has been criticised by both human rights groups and population experts.

The worker shortfall is exacerbated by discrimination, Sigona says, as prejudiced employers can avoid hiring or retaining older people as well as working-age migrants. He says that migrants coming to work in the UK require “safe channels of migration, promoting more cooperation between countries and creating larger areas of exchange beyond Europe,” adding that this would create “a more interconnected economy.”      

These measures might be more likely to address the fall in GDP growth resulting from a low birth rate than incentivising people to have children. Moreover, as the SMF notes, any policy that would significantly alter the fertility rate would likely cost tens of billions of pounds. Right now, confidence is low in the future due to climate inaction, Covid, Brexit, economic recession, high living costs and a myriad of other social factors. Regardless of any pronatalist policies, a natural increase in the birth rate looks a long way off. Making potential parents feel secure enough in the future to try for children requires lasting change, so it’s imperative that we find more ethical and effective solutions to solve the problems caused by a decline that looks unlikely to ease soon.