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Collapse: Irish Birth rate hits new lows

Fourteen years ago, in 2007, Ireland boasted the highest birth rate in the European Union. As the Irish Times reported, when the figures were released, that year, “women in Ireland had an average of 2.05 children, compared to 1.98 in France and 1.92 in Britain.”

In general, if you want to understand birth rates, 2.1 is the key number. That is to say, that if the average woman, over the course of her lifetime, has 2.1 children, then the population will not naturally decline. In 2007, we were just about touching it. It is probably not a coincidence that in 2008, when the great recession hit, that number began to fall. Where is it today? Not in a good place, is the answer:

Birth rates have fallen dramatically over the last decade, and the number of births in Ireland fell by 8.8% in 2020, during the pandemic. Our birth rate is now on course to touch 1.5 – a fall of over 25% in just over a decade.

Birth rates are one of those things that politicians should be worried about, but, for very good structural reasons, they are not. The bottom line is this: fewer births is very bad news for a country in the long term, but, broadly, good news for politicians in the short to medium term. Why? Because children must be provided for. School places. Childcare. Special Needs Assistants. Children’s hospitals. On and on and on it goes: The more children that are being born, the more capacity that must be provided to provide services for those children, and their parents. From the perspective of a politician, it is much cheaper and more efficient just to import fully grown-up migrant workers to fulfil the needs of the economy: Those people have been educated and looked after somewhere else, so from a pure accounting perspective, an imported migrant worker is much more valuable to the Irish economy than an Irish child.

Nor should it be any particular surprise that the Irish birth rate has fallen as dramatically as it has. The factors behind the fall are not hard to understand: Most people aspire, if they have children, to be able to give those children a secure home and a good start in life. That is very hard to do, or have any confidence to try, if you cannot acquire a house, and are spending your twenties and thirties in relatively insecure rental accommodation. We have also shifted our direction, as a country, dramatically when it comes to our societal expectations of women, and the affordability of one-income families. For more and more women, establishing themselves in their career is a necessary prerequisite to starting a family and, for all that feminism might appear triumphant in Ireland, a great many women appear to feel that they must delay motherhood until they are sufficiently secure in their working lives to attempt it. Add in the ready availability of contraception and abortion, and very few families get started accidentally, these days.

It is vanishingly unlikely that the baby drought will become a political issue, for the simple reason that challenging the second half of the preceding paragraph is a political death sentence, and because, as mentioned above, the low birth rate is not a particular problem for politicians.

It is, however, a major long-term problem for the country.

Ultimately, somebody is going to have to pay back all the money that the state has borrowed over the last decade. And worse again, somebody is going to have to pay the taxes to fund the pension and healthcare bills of Ireland’s aging population. Already, the last election was dominated by a major row over a plan to raise the retirement age and ask people to work longer. The reason for that plan – unpopular as it was – is that ultimately, there are not enough working people in the country to fund pensions and healthcare for millions of pensioners. There are only two ways out of that problem: We either reduce the number of pensioners by shifting some of them back into the working age population, which was the proposal, or we import masses of people from around the world to work in Ireland and pay our pensions. From a political perspective, the second solution is marginally less unpopular than the first.

But it also comes with downsides: Migrant workers have substantially less reason to be loyal to the country than children born and raised here, and may not stay. They place a more immediate short term strain on our infrastructure requirements, exacerbating (through no fault of their own) demands for housing and other services. In some sectors of the economy, they contribute to keeping wages low. And of course, a sudden shortage of migrant workers (as is being experienced, for example, in the poultry industry today, and the strawberry sector last year) can have devastating consequences.

It would be much more sensible, in the long term, to seek to address and reverse our declining birth rate. It is not, it must be said, a particularly complicated problem: Hungary has addressed it simply by providing major tax breaks to women who have more than two children. Building more homes – or, more to the point, allowing more homes to be built – will also help.

There is a moral and philosophical point here, too: Like ‘em or loathe ‘em, children are the future of the country. The whole reason we organise into a country, and into a society, in the first place, is to provide the safety and security necessary to produce, protect, and raise, children. For the whole of human history, the object of life has been to leave a better world for those who come after us. Without children, one might very well ask “what’s the point of it all?” They, after all, carry our names, and our culture, and our memories, and our achievements forward, and keep those things alive after we ourselves have gone.

A country, and a culture, without children, is a country, and a culture, without a future. This issue does not seem to matter much to politicians. It should matter very much to the rest of us. People have not stopped having children because they do not want them. They have stopped because they do not feel able to provide for them. That, more than anything, is an indictment of modern Ireland worse than anything that could be said about the Ireland that came before.

 

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