A demographic deficit?

Britain has more pensioners and fewer kids. The numbers aren't a problem - the debate about them is.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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Towards 2003, and the UK gets another year older.

The government today publishes its long-awaited green paper on pensions – a policy response to the UK’s ‘ageing crisis’. And at the end of last week, the Office for National Statistics published the latest fertility trends, showing that the number of children being born keeps going down.

The ageing trend is certainly significant. But is it a problem? As a demographic trend, no, it is not. As a discussion about how society views itself today and in the future, the ageing debate is a real barrier.

The population of England and Wales for mid-2001 is estimated at 52million. There are more people aged 60 and over than there are people aged 0-15: about 12million compared to 10.5million (1). To put it another way, about one-fifth of the population is a child, and almost a quarter is around pension age. Of the pensioners, there are one million people – two percent of the population – in the very elderly category of 85 or over.

So far as the over-60s go, this is something to celebrate. As Phil Mullan has argued on spiked, people are living longer, healthier lives – 60 isn’t old these days, and even 85 isn’t exceptional (see A mature response to ageing). Of course, this trend raises questions about whether the current retirement age, of 65 for men and 60 for women, is appropriate, and it raises questions about how to organise pensions. But society is quite capable of dealing with these issues – provided it adopts a mature approach.

Trailing the government’s green paper, for example, the Work and Pensions Secretary Andrew Smith, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the fixed retirement age was ‘increasingly anachronistic’.

‘We need to enable people to work longer to erode that cliff edge where, at present, you are a valued member of the workforce on Friday and shifted off into retirement on a Monday’, he said. ‘We shall be examining everything that can be done to enable people to move more flexibly towards retirement.’ (2) In the near future, then, people over 65 may be able to carry on working, or working and drawing a pension at the same time.

This makes a lot of sense. Even if some people actually quite like the ‘cliff edge’ approach to retirement, from society’s point of view it makes little sense to prevent a group of people from playing a productive role, simply because they have hit an age that, in the past, made them elderly. Far better for people to carry on supporting themselves when they can support themselves, than to cast healthy, energetic, experienced members of the labour force on to the scrapheap and treat them like a burden to society.

Unfortunately, however, the ‘flexible retirement’ idea does not stop the ongoing, angst-ridden discussion of the burden that an ageing population places upon everybody else – and proposals that are anything but ‘flexible’. Everything from the state of the stockmarket to people’s irresponsible personal behaviour is cited as a cause of current and future pensions crises, and ideas have been mooted about the need for compulsory pensions, and putting more energy into getting people to save.

These ideas are less practical proposals to deal with real problems than downbeat prejudices, born out of a jitteriness about the future. After all, if people can carry on working, why worry about getting them to save? If they are using the equity in their property to boost their everyday spending, why is that a problem? Individuals seem to have all manner of strategies to cope with retirement.

Yet rather than adopting the outlook that we can negotiate the consequences of living longer by having more active lives, today’s society seems stubbornly wedded to the notion that an ageing population is A Bad Thing, and people should hunker down with their savings books, eking out the pennies so that their retirement is half bearable.

The falling fertility rate raises similar concerns about the present and the future – but these, too, are misplaced. There were 595,000 live births in 2001, compared with 604,000 in 2000 – a decrease of nearly two percent; and the total fertility rate was 1.64 children per woman of childbearing age. This is the lowest rate ever recorded since 1924, when this annual measure began; it is a huge drop from the peak fertility rate in 1964, of 2.93; and it is well below the ‘replacement level’ of 2.1 children per woman (3).

Those women who do become mothers are getting older, too. The average age of women at the birth of their first children has increased from 25.7 in 1991 to 27.1 in 2001. There are more children born to women aged 30-34 than there are to women aged 25-29, or to women aged 20-24 – a marked contrast with 1991. About 20 percent of conceptions end in abortion – except in London, where about one third of conceptions are terminated (4).

The reasons behind changing fertility patterns also give some cause for celebration. Women have control over their fertility, and more control over their lives and work – meaning that they can have children later, if they want to, and do not need to have them at all if they don’t. The advance of reproductive technology has helped to make later childbearing more feasible.

And when it comes to the practical problems that tend to be raised about falling fertility rates and later childbearing, many of these don’t seem like problems at all. So childless people will have no kids to look after them in their old age – but if you believe the hype about the vast sums of money one needs to shell out on one’s kids throughout their dependent years (or even if you calculate the real figures), one would assume that childless couples can put their cash into savings, and pay for retirement care.

There are concerns about older mums having to look after older parents as well as young kids – but as older people become healthier and less dependent, this hardly seems like a big problem. As for the issue of fewer children meaning fewer people working – this can be sorted out through flexible retirement, à la Andrew Smith. Falling fertility rates and late motherhood will not bring the economy, or society, to its knees, and the jitterers who worry about this would do well to calm down.

But while falling fertility rates won’t lead to significant practical problems, the trend does reflect a broader negativity about how society sees itself, today and in the future. A society confident in itself and optimistic about where it is heading would surely want to reproduce itself, create a new generation in its image. It would not keep raising problems about the financial and emotional costs of kids, and the inability of parents to cope with childrearing. It would not give rise to the notion that individuals should do and achieve everything they want to achieve before starting a family, because once they have kids, freedom, ambition and flexibility die a sudden death.

A self-confident society would see both longevity and procreation as a blessing, whereas today’s society greets both with a wary ambivalence. The problem isn’t ageing, but a jaded approach to the world.

Read on:

A mature response to ageing, by Phil Mullan

A barren elite, by Jennie Bristow

(1) Population Trends 110 (.pdf), Winter 2002, Office for National Statistics, 12 December 2001

(2) Radical shake-up of UK pensions, BBC News, 17 December 2002

(3) Births in England and Wales, 2001 (.pdf), Office for National Statistics, 12 December 2001

(4) Birth Statistics, Series FM1 number 30 (.pdf)

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Topics Politics


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