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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 June 2006, 16:26 GMT 17:26 UK
Right time for a baby: Interview with the expert
Jonathan Grant
Jonathan Grant has led research into falling fertility rates in Europe for RAND

Q: Are we facing a population time bomb?

JONATHAN: We are facing an ageing population and the statistics are stark. Between now and 2050 the proportion of the population that is over sixty-five will double. It's around 12% today, it's going to double to 25% in the future. At the same time you're seeing fertility rates declining. Even if they recovered today, to replacement level, we're going to have a smaller workforce supporting that larger ageing population. The consequences of that are challenging and in certain countries in Europe you could probably term it a crisis. In the UK I wouldn't term it a crisis at this time but if you're in Italy and Spain you would term it a crisis.

Q: Can any crises be reversed?

JONATHAN: Yes. Governments have pursued a number of policies to increase fertility rates. They range from the bizarre - the Japanese government started sponsoring speed dating to encourage couples getting together, getting married and having more children - to the more sophisticated Portugal last month for example announced a policy where pension contributions were lower for the more children you had.

In South Korea, another interesting policy has started reimbursing IVF treatment with the aim of increasing, specifically increasing fertility rates. More mainstream policies are sort of for examples, there's cash benefits for families and children, child benefit in the UK. There are broadly family-friendly policies around parental leave, paternity leave, maternity leave, tax incentives. Family tax credit is a good example of that.

And there's the provision of child care through nursery vouchers and allowing children at increasingly younger ages to have access to free child care.

Q: The British government says it is pursuing more family friendly policies and we are already reaping the rewards of that with the increase in birth rate. Is that enough?

JONATHAN: Probably not. I think the first issue is that the government has never explicitly said that it wanted to increase fertility rates. It's always pursued what you might call an indirect population policy so the family friendly policies which it's been pursuing have a consequence of increasing fertility rates or may have the consequence of increasing fertility rates but their aim is around work and life balance and gender equality.

Q: Some recent statistics found that women who have a baby at twenty four rather than twenty eight stand to lose 400,000 if you look at projected earnings. Isn't it difficult to increase the population when women especially stand to lose so much financially?

JONATHAN: Yes, and that's the role of government is to come in and try to make those disincentives from having fertility or having children reduced through child care provision, through tax breaks, through cash benefits.

Q: What trends are you seeing in terms of family size?

JONATHAN: Family size is getting smaller, partly as a consequence of the low fertility. There's an increase of sort of the one child family and there's also an increase of the no child family. There are more and more people are being childless by the age of forty-five and in some countries like Germany this is quite high, pushing 25-30%.

Q: You have said that in France it's deemed to be a person's duty to have children. Do you think this is also true in the UK?

JONATHAN: No. Historically Britain has taken a very much laissez-faire route to population policy and there's nothing wrong with that.

Q: So will many British women continue to postpone having children?

JONATHAN: As a society we've got some stiff options to face. Do we really want to maintain our current welfare state? Or are we going to ration it, or are we going to pay more taxes? Because if we pay more taxes then we can address some of the issues of population ageing.

Or do we want to maintain our current living standards, and if we do then we're going to have to think about trying to increase our fertility rates.

Q: Some of the mums that we've spoken to certainly said that current government family policy just isn't friendly enough and does not encourage them to stay at home.

JONATHAN: Yes and you can understand that when you compare the family friendly policies of the UK to Scandinavian countries. There's a big difference in benefits. In the UK for example maternity benefit lasts for twenty-six weeks. The first six weeks is at 90% of full pay and subsequently at 108 a week. If you go to Norway, maternity benefit is 90% of full pay for twelve months after birth.

Q: So is there a need for our family policy to be friendlier?

JONATHAN: You could argue that we've seen an increase in fertility rates over the last four years and it's too early to tell whether that's a consequence of our family friendly policies. If it is then maybe it's very effective policy and we've got that correct and maybe the Scandinavian model is too generous. But at this time we really don't know.

Q: What are the trends in terms of what postponers are actually doing?

JONATHAN: What we're seeing is that postponers are starting to have children. We're seeing fertility rates in cohorts of thirty-five and above are actually increasing. The interesting question which we don't really know yet is are those cohorts going to have one child or two child, two children and there could be an issue that they're postponing it so late that they can only actually have one child before infertility sets in.

And that means we will have more families only with one children families and the consequences of that on fertility would be a further decline of fertility rates.

Q: In terms of the women who end up involuntarily childless, what are the numbers that you're seeing?

JONATHAN: We don't know whether it's voluntary or involuntary. What we do know is that there is an increasing proportion of women aged forty-five and above who don't have children and that's increased from around 16% to 20% over the last few years.

Q: What would you like to see done about the issue of low fertility in Europe?

JONATHAN: I think the first thing is for governments in Europe to acknowledge the issue of population ageing, of low fertility and that goes for the UK government as well as the French government and the Italian and Spanish governments. By mainstreaming demographics into policy making, we can start to really think through some of the consequences of population, some of the effectiveness of different policies on increasing fertility rates and some of the consequences of trying to do that.

Q: Why have they been reticent so far?

JONATHAN: I think the British psyche is quite reserved. It's not one which wants to interfere in quite personal decisions of individuals and families and that's quite legitimate.

Across Europe you're starting to see politicians in Italy, France and Sweden acknowledging the problem with low fertility rates and realising there is legitimacy in intervening to try and increase those fertility rates.

I think it is well documented that mothers on the whole who have teenage, have babies in their teenage years on the whole have a harder start in life and find it harder to enter the workforce.



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