The rich world can produce more of everything it needs with greater and greater ease: except people. For a population to remain stable, the average family needs to have 2.1 children: two to replace them, with the rather surreal sounding “0.1” on top to make up for the people who won’t, for reasons of infertility, preference or bad luck, be able to have children themselves.
Overpopulation has its own problems, but we have a much better idea of how to bring birth rates down than to bring them back up again. Greater reproductive rights, easy access to contraception and better education all mean women have fewer children: across the world, the fertility rate has fallen drastically. In 1950, the average woman had more than five children; now she has fewer than 2.5.
Part of the problem is that parenthood in general and motherhood in particular is often not a great deal for those involved. Maternity care before, during and after pregnancy can lag behind other parts of healthcare provision. Most, but not all, of the remaining gender pay gap is actually a “motherhood gap”. And while parents are, on average, happier than childless adults in old age, they are, on average, unhappier while raising children than their childless friends are when watching art house movies, eating in classy restaurants and living in blissful ignorance about who Peppa Pig is.
It remains to be seen whether the growing trend for governments to try to increase the fertility rate will work. In France, one of the earliest adopters of policies to encourage people to have larger families, the fertility rate dropped below replacement level in 2010. In the rich world, only Israel has consistently managed to keep fertility above the replacement rate, in part thanks to generous state funding of egg freezing and IVF, but perhaps also due to cultural norms around the importance of a high birth rate.
Then, some countries seem to want to aggravate the problem: the UK caps child benefit after two children, has tight planning laws that make home ownership a distant dream for many families and has the second highest net childcare costs in the OECD.
The fertility problem does have another solution available if wealthy states cannot (or, like the UK, will not) increase their own birth rate: they can attract people from other countries. This need not be a negative factor for their countries of origin — as Bangladesh’s economic and social progress, helped by large amounts of money sent back “home” in remittances, shows. But it will mean a change in how rich countries, used to making a great song and dance about how stringent their border-control regimes are, talk about and to prospective migrants.
Because the UK government is making so little effort to increase domestic birth rates, and because the loss of its EU single market membership means it needs to increase immigration from outside Europe to fill job vacancies and keep its economy ticking over, Britain is a good guide to what the future of other rich nations might look like, and what challenges they might face.
Thus far, the UK has tried to have it both ways: ostentatious displays of authoritarianism and tight control over who can enter the country on the one hand, high and growing levels of immigration on the other. But immigration has not been high enough to prevent the highest post-pandemic drop in employment in the G7. Part of the problem is Brexit, but it is also due to how the UK government constructs and markets its immigration policy.
Take the country’s new high potential visa, which gives recent graduates of what the UK government believes to be the world’s top universities a new visa route for two years. Sensibly, the policy also makes it easier for people to bring their partners and dependants with them. The idea is good, but it sits uneasily alongside the UK’s general approach to immigration policy.
“High potential” applicants will be able to bring their partners with them — but must go through the same rigmarole of proving the relationship is enduring and clearing the same salary threshold as anyone else. Added to that, they will have to pay the UK’s healthcare surcharge and will not be able to apply for indefinite leave to remain in the UK without first applying for a new visa scheme.
It is a welcome update on the visa route for students at top UK universities, whose right to remain was curbed pre-Brexit in a doomed attempt to manage voter anxiety about immigration, but it has the same basic problem: it is hard to attract people to a country while at the same time asking them to leave. Nations inclined to be hostile to children will rapidly be forced to concede they no longer have the luxury of imposing bureaucratic hurdles to adults from elsewhere.