In the UK there was one recent headline that may have been lost amongst the Brexit turmoil (although of course it is a non-Brexit turmoil because the UK hasn’t actually left yet – only 3.5 years and counting…) The headline revealed that, for those born in the UK, 2018 was the first recorded year in which more died than were born in England and Wales.

I initially misread the headline and thought that the total natural change in the UK population had flipped over into the negative. But that’s not the case – instead more people born in the UK died than were born to UK-born mothers (487,000 vs 471,000). Further, that information was limited to England and Wales and excluded Scotland and Northern Ireland. (Interesting that the presumably Unionist Telegraph isfocussing on England and Wales only. What are your thoughts on the Union? If I were Scottish or English I would be in favour of Scottish independence. That would be for Romantic reasons if I were Scottish and economic and political reasons if I were English…)

When the entire resident population of England and Wales is looked at (including those not born in the UK) then the natural change in the population is still positive. But even this overall natural change is trending downwards towards negative territory. In 2012 there were 230,000 more births than deaths in England and Wales, but in 2018 the difference between the two figures had halved to 116,000 (657,000 births and 541,000 deaths). This number of overall births in 2018 in England and Wales was the lowest since records began to be collected in 1938. Taking into account Scotland and Northern Ireland there were total births and deaths in 2018 of course but there was actually roughly the same natural net increase of 115,000.

Why is the natural population change shrinking in the UK? Well, for one the total fertility rate of UK women is declining, like so many other parts of the Western world. The total fertility rate for UK born women decreased for 1.71 children per woman in 2017 to 1.63 children in 2018. For non-UK born women living in the UK, the total fertility rate has stabilised at around 2 since 2016. This is still below the replacement fertility rate but obviously quite a bit higher than for UK-born women. Ann Berrington, professor in demography and social statistics at the University of Southampton argues that the reasons for this low fertility rate are many but include people staying in education for longer and fewer teenagers having children. Berrington also mentioned economic factors such as the high cost of housing leading people to choose to have children later and the greater availability of emergency and long-acting contraception which means that fewer women are having unplanned pregnancies.

These figures show that continued population growth in the UK (as a whole and in Wales and England alone) is heavily dependent on immigration. When, and if, Brexit finally happens then the numbers of immigrants and their countries of origin may change substantially. This will have consequences for the UK’s population growth and structure. While women born outside the UK have more babies than women born in the UK, their birth rate is still below replacement. Thus, in a few years as the elderly start dying in increasing numbers and if birth rates remain low, it seems certain that the UK's natural population growth will start declining. It will be yet another European country unwilling or unable to reproduce itself. In that case, the only source of population increase will have to be immigration. Whether or not that is politically and socially sustainable is up for debate. 

Marcus Roberts is co-editor of Demography is Destiny, MercatorNet's blog on population issues.

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...