Bye bye, baby: the birth-rate debate

Battle of Ideas festival 2022, Saturday 15 October, Church House, London


Governments, environmental campaigners and social planners used to worry about excessive population growth. Even today, some environmentalists insist that having fewer children is the moral thing to do. Yet more and more are changing their tune, and are beginning to worry about the effects of collapsing birth rates.

Shrinking birth rates mean fewer working-age adults who generate the wealth needed to support pensioners – declining populations directly hit the economy. At the extreme end, birth rates below replacement levels suggest the end of humanity itself.

Many insist, at least in the UK, that children are simply unaffordable for a generation facing spiralling housing costs, poor job prospects and expensive childcare. Others note that even in periods of historical poverty, people have found ways and means to support children. Could lifestyle factors, individual choice and widely accessible birth control be behind the baby slump? Some conservative commentators insist that a flight from responsibility (and young couples avoiding growing up) are to blame, while others argue that many women are simply choosing to have children later in life in order to enjoy the freedoms of work and leisure for longer.

Should we care about the birth rate at all? Is a strong birth rate a sign of a society confident about the future? Should anything be done to address it, or should governments steer clear of trying to influence reproductive choices?

Ellie Lee
professor of family and parenting research, University of Kent, Canterbury; director, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies

Dr Paul Morland
demographer; business consultant; author, Tomorrow’s People: the future of humanity in ten numbers

Louise Perry
columnist, New Statesman; features writer, Daily Mail; author, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution; co-founder, The Other Half

Sandy Starr
deputy director, Progress Educational Trust

Jacob Reynolds
partnerships manager, Academy of Ideas