The Strange Death of Hope? Ireland’s birth rates now at lowest level on record

In 2019, Ireland’s birth rate fell even further, sliding to the lowest level ever on record according to the Central Statistics Office.  

That means we’re having far fewer children now than we did when this was a much poorer country, with less resources and supports available to families. If children, according to the UN, are an expression of our hope in the future, is modern society’s persistent reluctance to have them an expression of the opposite?

Is this the strange death of hope? What is driving this pessimism, this inability to see that our own future will be bereft not just of the economic growth  but also of the love, support and care we need if we don’t have children?

Ireland’s falling birth rate is a relentless downwards trend, and one that’s mirrored elsewhere. Economists and demographers are now furiously ringing alarm bells, but the crisis is approaching fast and politicians and policymakers are refusing to take effective action. Certainly in this country none of them are asking why fewer children are being born year on year.

Data from the CSO showed that the number of births in Ireland fell by 10% year on year for the first quarter of 2020. There’s nothing new in that. From 2009 to 2019, a period marked mostly by economic growth, we continued to have fewer babies – the birth rate in that period fell by a shocking 20%.

Our fertility rate, the number of children per woman, has now fallen further to 1.7, significantly below replacement level of 2.1. Like all of Europe – and much of the rest of the world – it would seem we’ve lost interest in replacing ourselves.

However, according to studies, having fewer children is not what women – or men – actually want. Globescan, a consultancy, polled people in 19 countries about ideal family size, and found that people wanted more children than they expected to be able to have. “For more and more couples, the greatest source of anguish is that they have fewer children than they want, or none at all,” the survey concluded.

An OECD study produced similar findings, concluding that: “in all countries the number of children women intend to have is far above the actual number they already have, which points to barriers in family formation across the OECD.”

As I wrote previously, the fall in our birth rates didn’t happen in a vacuum. For decades the media, NGOs, policymakers, politicians and cultural influencers have beaten a loud and persistent drum telling people not to have children.

Think of almost every apocalyptic movie you’ve seen. Over-population is usually the chief cause given for the destruction of the world. That narrative is still being relentlessly pushed despite all of the facts now pointing to precisely the opposite conclusion: that a looming population implosion – falling populations and subsequent collapsing economic growth – is what will change life as we know it.

We’ve also experienced the constant belittling of motherhood as an option for women. We are repeatedly told that our contribution to society is best measured by our paypacket, a belief reflected in tax individualisation and other policies designed to make life harder for families.

So we know that many people want to have more children, but because of a myriad of reasons including housing, commuting, the decline of marriage, negative social attitudes and more, they are not having them. That’s a crisis that can and should be addressed: it’s not an intractable problem.

But the only measure ever discussed by politicians is more childcare, when many women don’t feel encouraged by the prospect of leaving their child in a créche at the crack of dawn ahead a lengthy commute to work and then repeating the same process before getting home to fall into bed exhausted.

Neither has it helped, of course, that the State facilitated the abortion of 6,666 children in 2019 in Ireland, or that the former Minister for Health, Simon Harris, spent millions on providing abortions while no funds were made available for new supports for women who continued with their pregnancies.

The recent study published in The Lancet  was just in a series of increasingly grim warnings on this topic. The Irish Fiscal Advisory Council predicted that our rapidly aging population will also bring rising healthcare costs which we may be unable to meet – and that the pension age will rise to 69 by 2035.

If that seems unthinkable, consider this: the OECD says that “because we are living longer and having fewer children” retirement age will increase “a stunning 8.4 years” between 2015 and 2050. So the OECD reckons that you’ll be working until you’re at least 73.4 years old, and that’s not even a worst-case scenario.

Jim Power, Chief Economist with Friends First and a senior lecturer at the UCD Smurfit School of Business told the Irish Daily Mail last week that the decline in births is “one of the biggest challenges facing the country”.

There won’t be enough income to pay for pensions, he warned, adding that the pension age will have to be raised. “Unfortunately, many of our political leaders just don’t have the political strength to state the bleeding obvious—it’s a time bomb ticking away,” he said.

Power claimed that we needed to turn to immigration to deal with the crisis, because people having more babies was “not going to happen”. The experience of a small number of countries who have taken a different approach suggests he might be wrong in that assertion.

The population of Hungary fell an astonishing 10% from the eighties until 2019. At first the government offered the kind of financial incentives which had been rolled out in other countries (and which haven’t really worked) but it was only when policies were introduced which supported marriage as well as child-rearing that the birth rate began to rise.

The experience of other countries shows that there are many reasons for the collapse in birth rates, and finding solutions to the problem is neither easy or straightforward. But we need at least to start somewhere, rather than continuing to ignore the crisis as the establishment media and our politicians have done.

Otherwise we’ll still be sitting on our hands when that time-bomb goes off.

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