ANALYSIS: UK Population in Decline

By Lily Zhou
Lily Zhou
Lily Zhou
Lily Zhou is an Irish-based reporter focusing on UK news. Lily first joined the Chinese edition of The Epoch Times before turning her focus on the UK in 2020.
July 3, 2023Updated: July 3, 2023

News Analysis

As Pope Francis calls on young Italians to have fewer pets and more children, the issue of a declining fertility rate has also been brought to the fore in the UK.

Backbench MP Miriam Cates declared the approach of a population collapse at the UK’s first National Conservatism conference. Charity Population Matters, which campaigns against population growth, has dismissed such warnings as “a phantom menace” and a “quite fringe” opinion.

But statistics show that unless there’s a rebound in the fertility rate, the UK will soon join the growing number of countries with an ageing and declining population, facing significant economic and societal challenges.

Impending Decline

Official estimates suggest that the UK’s natural population may have already started decreasing, and immigration may only be able to push the overall population decline back by around 33 years.

For half a century, the total fertility rate in the UK, or the average number of children a woman has during her lifetime, has remained below the replacement level of 2.1—the minimum number needed for a population with a long life expectancy to naturally sustain its size.

However, the population has kept growing so far owing to longer life expectancy and the explosion of immigration.

But according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), in 2020, deaths surpassed births for the first time since 1976. Migration, which has been the main contributor to population growth since the 1990s, is about to become the sole driver for growth, projections show.

Epoch Times Photo
UK population estimates and projections. (Data Source: Office for National Statistics, Principle projection and zero migration variant, Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.)

Compared to countries that have “had an even lower fertility rate for longer,” the UK’s current situation is “serious but it’s not a collapse, it’s going from a bad position to a worse position,” demography author Paul Morland told The Epoch Times.

The UK’s total fertility rate in 2021 was 1.56. In South Korea and Japan, which fertility rates are among the lowest in the world (1.26 in Japan and 0.78 in Korea in 2022), the same level was last seen in the 1990s.

Statistics published by the Japanese government (pdf) show twice as many people died in 2022 than those who were born. According to projections by the United Nations, by the end of the century, South Korea’s population may decrease by half, or between one-third and two-thirds.

Epoch Times Photo
Total fertility rates trends in selected countries. (Data Source: World Bank. Contains open data licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license)

Morland said he suspects fertility in the UK is also going to “go a lot lower” as Generation Z appears to hold values that “correlate with much lower fertility.”

“What’s happened in the last few years … is we’ve had almost a collapse of birth among the under-25s. So I very much doubt that will be compensated for by those people having children later [in their lives], I think it’s a real value shift,” he said.

Old-Age Dependency

With a lower fertility rate and longer life expectancy comes population ageing.

According to ONS figures, in 2020, there was one pensioner in the UK for every 3.6 working-age people. By 2041, a pensioner will only be supported by around 2.8 working-aged people.

The World Bank, which measures the ratio using slightly different age brackets, has put the UK’s old-age dependency rate at around 32.3 percent in 2019. By 2075, the old-age dependency ratio is projected to rise to 53 percent, similar to the current level in Japan.

Epoch Times Photo
Observed and projected old-age dependency ratio in selected countries. (Data Source: World Bank. Contains open data licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license)

Stephen Shaw, data scientist, demographer, and documentary filmmaker, characterised the UK as having a “high” severity of “birthgap”—the number of areas where there are more 51-year-olds than newborns.

With an increased percentage of pensioners, fewer workers will either have to become more productive or pay higher taxes to sustain the increased demand for pensions and health care.

Japan has increasingly turned to robots to help look after the young and the old. The productivity of the country has also been rising, but it doesn’t seem to be enough to solve the problem.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in January told Parliament the country was “standing on the verge” of whether it could “continue to function as a society.”

Shaw’s documentary, “The Birthgap,” paints a bleak picture of closed schools, deserted shops, and lonely elderly people. In one of the Japanese towns he visited, a resident spoke of lone elderly people either “throwing themselves from the roofs” or being found dead “on a weekly basis,” Shaw said.

Japan’s government debt to GDP ratio was also the highest globally.

Population Matters argues that humans have the tools to solve the problems without turning to pronatalism, saying “each extra person on the planet exacerbates the environmental crises we’re facing.”

It proposes measures such as more automation, migration, pension reform, increasing productivity and labour force participation, and encouraging pensioners to “contribute” to communities.

Immigration Not Long-Term Solution

While immigration generally boosts a country’s economy, high levels of immigration can cause their own tensions. However, even if immigration is supported by the electorate, it doesn’t appear to be a sustainable solution either.

Asked if the UK can sustain its size by relying on immigration, Morland said he doesn’t believe it’s moral to “endlessly rely on someone else to do our breeding for us,” and if it is considered moral, with declining fertility across the globe, there won’t be enough immigrants.

According to the United Nations (pdf), two-thirds of the global population now live in a country or area where fertility is below 2.1 births per woman, and migration will be the sole driver of population growth in many high-income countries over the next few decades.

However, net migration is expected to flatline as the global fertility rate keeps dropping. The U.N.’s median projections suggest the UK’s population may begin to decrease from 2056, and the world population may peak in 2086 at around 10.43 billion.

In the shorter term, immigration still won’t do much to slow the population from ageing as their fertility tends to assimilate to the same low levels.

Writing in The Telegraph last month, economist Philip Pilkington said Italy and Japan’s median age moved “in lockstep” between 2000 and 2013, despite the fact that Italy had twice as much net migration.

Population Matters said immigration has been shown to reduce the dependency ratio, but it has also warned that the long-term implications of immigration “must be carefully considered.”

Difficult Puzzle to Solve

The reason for the decline in fertility can be complicated. Shaw’s research led him to believe there’s an epidemic of unplanned childlessness where people who put off having children, or haven’t been with the right partner during their fertile years, are no longer able to have children.

In Japan, he believes the crisis was first triggered by the global oil shock in 1973.

The cost of housing and childcare in the UK have also often been blamed as hurdles for young couples to take the plunge.

But Morland said he’s “dubious that there’s a fundamentally economic calculus going on” as lower income countries have higher fertility rates than higher income countries.

“I think there is an economics … in the sense that people have priorities. And if they have constrained economic situations as most of us have, then they choose to prioritize other things over having children.

“So it’s about values, I think. And it’s partly also about a green agenda.”

In a YouGov poll published in January 2020, nearly a quarter of the 344 childless adults surveyed in Britain said they were too old to raise a child.

Some 14 percent didn’t want to become parents because they either believed children would accelerate climate change or the world is overpopulated. Thirteen percent blamed the high cost of child-rearing or didn’t believe they could provide a good quality of life, 10 percent preferred to maintain their own lifestyle, while 19 percent just didn’t like children or didn’t like having them.

Various governments have attempted to boost fertility with economic or other incentives, but with little or limited success.

In religious Georgia, widely respected Patriarch Ilia II of the Georgian Orthodox Church managed to help create a baby boom by personally baptizing and becoming godfather to any third or further children of Orthodox couples. The country’s fertility has bounced back to the replacement rate since 2015 but has fluctuated after that.

It remains to be seen if people will continue to have an average of more than two children.

Israel is the one outlier in developed countries, which has a total fertility rate of three.

Morland said besides the country’s religiosity, being surrounded by hostile neighbours also seems to have created “a sort of national culture which encourages children.”

Asked which countries the UK should learn from if it wants to encourage fertility, he listed four examples including Israel, traditional Catholics, and some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, which have higher fertility rates, and Indonesia, which had “three decades in the Goldilocks zone,” or between two and three children per woman, although he’s yet to understand what lessons to learn from these cases.

And the silver lining?

“I don’t think we’ll go extinct as a species,” as there will always be people who want to have children, Morland said.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.