The population of the United Kingdom has been steadily rising this century. Since the turn of the millennium the “old country” (as it used to be known to most in New Zealand) has grown by about 11 per cent (or 7.8 million people). Although the total fertility rate during this century has stayed below the replacement rate of 2.1 (oscillating between 1.6 and 1.9) the population has grown at a rate of between 100-200,000 people annually. When strong net migration is added into the mix, you have a western nation that is growing at consistent rate.
However this sustained natural growth is slowing. According to The Economist, the number of babies born in England and Wales (90 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom) fell in 2019 to 640,000, fewer than were born in the final year of the Second World War. The total fertility rate declined to 1.65, far fewer than the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. After keeping up with the French rate for a number of years, English and Welsh women are now nearly reaching German levels of fecundity.
At the same time the age of first time mothers is rising: it now stands at nearly 31. The proportion of births involving induction or caesarean section is also rising, from 31 per cent at the turn of the millennium to 50 per cent today. But this is not a sign that women are merely postponing their families while keeping them at the same size. If that were the case the birth rate for women in their 30s and early 40s would rise as that of women in their 20s fell. But for the last few years the birth rate for those women in their fourth decade has fallen and it has only marginally risen for those aged 40 and over.
Migration has of course been the answer for many countries faced with low fertility rates. Not only do migrants top up the natural population growth, they also tend to increase the birth rate as they have more children than their native compatriots. In 2019, nearly 30 per cent of the new babies in England and Wales were born to immigrant parents. But immigrant fertility rates are also falling: in the last 15 years it has suffered a precipitous drop of 0.5 children per woman, to 1.97. Recently, larger numbers of migrants to Britain are coming from low-fertility countries like Italy, Lithuania and Romania. In short, the demographic help that migration brings is lessening for the UK.
Thanks to COVID and the resulting depression, it is unlikely that these fertility rates will rise anytime soon. Understandably, many in the UK have lost confidence in their future employment prospects. If fertility rates are anything to go by then this may be particularly true of working class couples. In 2019 two of the poorer regions: North-East England and Wales had the lowest fertility rates any other region. This mirrors the experience of other rich nations where birth rates have fallen sharply among women who do not go to university, a group that usually have children earlier and have more of them.
The UK’s population is in little danger of shrinking anytime soon. But its future demographic prospects are, despite Brexit, looking distinctly European. It is sliding into the fertility rate occupied by the average of EU countries: like the rest of them, the UK will be increasingly reliant on migration to fuel population growth in the years ahead.