The Demographic Deficit - Changing Britain (Part III)

One of the most challenging factors about modern life in Britain, and even more so in Europe and other parts of the world, is the demographic deficit caused by population decline or imbalance.

Some history

The post-World War II “baby boom” ended in the 1960s. For many years after that a common assumption was that the problem with the world was over-population. Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book, the Population Bomb, was given great publicity, along with a general philosophy that small is always beautiful. Ehrlich argued that over-population was going to destroy parts of the planet with “hundreds of millions … going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs [to help]”. (This was more or less T R Malthus’ view, an 18th century demographer, who said that sooner or later if populations grow there will not be enough food to feed them). So population reduction, including reduction in developing countries (thereby to reduce fossil fuel consumption), became a global good and a global responsibility.

But good intentions can have unintended consequences, especially with demographic interventions, as in the 1990s people began to realise. In 1996 there was an (early warning) article entitled, “The world’s most intractable problem” by Barbara Beck in the The Economist publication, “The World in 1996”. This highlighted the simple fact that people are living longer and “the number of births is increasing more slowly” (and this is global). It meant for us in Britain that in 1995 24% of the population were 65 or older and 46% were of working age. But (if things stayed the same) in 2040 39% would be 65 or older and 32% of working age. But compared with Japan that was no problem at all. For in 1995 20% of Japanese were 65 or older and 56% of working age; but in 2040 52% would be 65 or older and only 20% of working age. Even so, why should we worry – it was a long time ahead? And in the UK and the developing world much of this was due to advances in medicine, so thank God. Yes, people have smaller families in poorer countries when they do not have to allow for infant mortality; and smaller is cheaper. And “smaller is cheaper” appeals in developed countries as well. Indeed, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the advent of a market economy, it was reported that people did not want babies in the former Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. Indeed, rich countries were all adjusting their fertility down, as people found children expensive and, to some degree, inconvenient for their desired lifestyles. But what is the result in 2013? Birth rates in Japan and Europe are now well below replacement level. And people are worried. Paul Ehrlich has lost support, as famines have been caused more by corrupt governments than over-population and it is seen that fertility rates were declining even when he first wrote, and have been since (except for a tiny 3% of the world).

In 1996 low fertility was seen fundamentally as a pension problem in developed countries (pensions always having to be funded by the successor generation and if that is getting smaller, of course, that is serious). Not far behind pensions were worries about medical expenses for the elderly. So what can be done? There were six basic suggestions in the 1990s and they are still being suggested today: i) secure higher birth rates to swell the numbers contributing; but that, it was said, was not on as “people are not easily persuaded to have more children for the greater good, if fewer would be better for them personally”; ii) have a flow of immigrants; “but such a flow creates its own problems”; iii) reduce pensions; iv) raise taxes; v) expand private provision; and vi) put up the retirement age. Because all of these have costly political price tags, and politicians only need to plan 5 years until the next election, few will vote for unpopular measures that may benefit another government and will benefit another generation.

However, what did not, and does not, feature in much of this discussion as a cause for not having babies, is the loss of the Christian faith and with it the Christian sex ethic. We now know that a number of factors from the 1960s sexual revolution have all contributed to a decline of fertility - sexually transmitted diseases; the wide availability of contraception and abortion; pornography; cohabitation; the divorce epidemic; the decline of traditional marriage; people marrying later in life as well as an increase in female education (a good thing) and jobs without concessions to mothers.

Some facts

And there is a definite decline in the UK fertility rate – that is the average number of children that would be born per woman if all women lived to the end of their childbearing years and bore children according to a given fertility rate at each age. The golden number for replacement is an average of 2.1 but we are well below that. The figures for the first decade of the 21st century in the UK were, 1.74 (in 2000); 1.73; 1.73; 1.66; 1.66; 1.66; 1.66; 1.66; 1.66; 1.66 (in 2009). In the last three years numbers have gone up to 1.92; 1.91; 1.91 (in 2012) – due to older women conceiving while immigrant (foreign born) mothers now account for 25% of the births. The average European Union figures are far worse – in 2010 they were 1.58 (with, for example, Italy 1.32; Greece 1.37; Germany 1.42; Spain 1.47; Belgium 1.65; but France, much better, 1.97). And those numbers generate “demographic momentum”. So populations grow while in decline. Jonathan Last, a demographer, concisely summarizes the principle as follows. “Consider a town composed of 10 young couples (population 20). Each couple then has three children, giving our town a total population of 50. If those children all marry and each couple has two children of their own, the population swells to 80. On the surface it looks as though our town is growing, even as fertility is slowing. Now suppose the next generation has (on average) 1.5 children per couple. Even as our original inhabitants die off, the town’s population increases again to 83. However, our little town’s fertility rate has fallen by 50 percent (from 3 to 1.5)! Yet its population keeps growing because of demographic momentum – the built-up supply of people from earlier generations. The rule of demographic momentum is this: You don’t see the effects of fertility decreases until the last above-replacement generation dies. Now let’s say the fourth generation in our town holds the fertility line at 1.5. The town’s second generation is elderly and as they die the population does fall to 70.”

The fact for us in the UK is that our demographics demand massive immigration. In the last week of July it was reported that the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) is saying net immigration would have to rise to an average of 260,000 a year over the next 50 years to keep debt (as a proportion of GDP) at current levels. A recent study (Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future) argued that to keep “dependency ratios” (of workers to retirees) constant between 2000 and 2050, Europe will have to admit more than 1.3 billion immigrants by the middle of the century! As things stand it would seem the most available will be from the Islamic world of Turkey, the Middle East, North Africa and the horn of Africa. That has consequences.

Even more serious for global stability are the problems in Russia. In 2005 Russia had 143 million. By 2025 it is projected to be down to 136 million (or even 121 million). There are a combination of possible causes - from abortion (with 30% more abortions than births), the world’s highest rate of divorce, a tripling of births outside marriage, and disease (not least alcoholism). All this explains why President Putin is more dictatorial than expected and has just passed strict laws against homosexual sex (which is sterile) and was strict against the sexually decadent “Pussy Riot” group. And China, too, is hugely vulnerable from its “One child” policy. By 2050, the country will be falling by 20 million every 5 years. One in four will be over 65. All of this is why it is shocking that David Cameron wants to export “Gay Marriage” globally and so further destabilize marriage. Doing so would encourage the “Demographic Transition” (which is now) when, instead of being family and then child centred, the individual’s self-actualization displaces children and the family. So children become just a lifestyle choice. And these ideas are spreading world-wide, according to recent research, even among Muslim women. By contrast, hope for the world is from a return to, or adoption of, the sex and marriage ethics of Christ. Interestingly, a survey found that women for whom religion was very important had a fertility rate of 2.3; for secular women it was 1.8.

Conclusion - an ancient example

The early Church was facing a similar demographic deficit. Julius Caesar and then Augustus and other Roman Emperors passed laws to promote marriage and fertility. But such measures failed. The result was that as early as the 2nd century slaves, gladiators and foreign mercenaries had to fill the ranks of the army. “Meanwhile,” writes Rodney Stark in his book The Rise of Christianity, “in keeping with the biblical injunction to ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ Christians maintained a substantial rate of natural increase.” They “outbred” the pagan world. Marriage was honoured, but abortion, infanticide, divorce and remarriage, cohabitation, sex outside marriage and homosexuality and bisexuality were certainly not. There were people in the church who had sinned in these ways and were forgiven, together with people who would have loved to have had children but for different reasons could not. But people were taught to live for Christ chastely, whether single or married; and if married with children, to be concerned not primarily for their own fulfilment but for Christ’s glory, the family of the church, their own families and children, and only then themselves. The result was the sub-title of Stark’s book: “How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries.”

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