Birth rate drops to new low in England and Wales

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The birth rate in England and Wales dropped to the lowest on record in 2022, according to official figures that lay bare the pressures on the economy resulting from the nations’ demographic challenges.

The total fertility rate fell to 1.49 children per woman in 2022 from 1.55 in 2021, the Office for National Statistics found. The rate has been falling since 2010 and is now the lowest since comparative data began in the 1930s.

The statistics office reported 605,479 live births in England and Wales in 2022, a 3.1 per cent decrease from 2021 and the lowest since 2002.

The trend adds to pressures on the public finances and economic growth potential as it could reduce the proportion of working age people and drive further ageing of the population.

The fertility rate, the number of children per woman of childbearing age, means that without immigration the UK’s population would drop by about 25-30 per cent over a generation, said James Pomeroy, economist at HSBC. A shrinking natural population requires accepting either “more immigration, higher taxes, worse public services or a higher retirement age”, he said.

The fertility rate fell across most age groups but was highest among women aged 30 to 34, the ONS data showed. Until 2003, it was higher among those aged 25 to 29, signalling that women are delaying having children. Fertility rates were below 1.2 children per woman in many of London’s local authorities as well as in Oxford and Cambridge, where there is a higher concentration of women with a tertiary education.

“A declining birth rate will inevitably create pressure for continuing international in-migration,” said Tony Travers, professor in the government department at the London School of Economics. He added that the trend had implications for pension spending and the education system: “Primary schools are closing in inner London and other areas will follow.”

Other countries are facing similar challenges. Europe’s fertility rate dropped to 1.48 in 2021 from above 2.1 — the level considered necessary to keep a stable population without immigration and unchanged mortality — from the 1970s, according to UN data. In 2021, the UK had a lower fertility rate than France, Denmark and the Netherlands, but higher than Germany, Italy or Spain.

The figures suggest that the recent ONS population projections “are already well off course”, according to Jonathan Portes, economics professor at King’s College, London. The ONS forecast the UK population would hit 70mn by the middle of 2026, but the calculations were based on higher and outdated fertility rates,

Sarah Harper, professor of gerontology at Oxford university, said that policies helping parents stay at work, such as accessible childcare, had supported birth rates, but “it is worth recognising that the overall trend of having fewer children is very unlikely to be reversed in the longer term”.

For Harper, this means that the government needs to look for other solutions to alleviate the demographic pressure on the economy, including technological innovation, “more women productive in the labour market, supporting older workers to stay active for longer, [and] ensuring a steady flow of migrants to compensate for our lack of workers”.

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