The importance of international migration is not the only way in which Irish demographic experience has departed from international norms. Published comparative data, such as Our World in Data published by the Gapminder Foundation (https://www.gapminder.org/), show Irish fertility to be significantly lower than fertility elsewhere in the British Isles throughout the nineteenth century, and to have been above it ever since. These data, however, may exaggerate the difference. Brendan Walsh and others have suggested that the data showing relatively low nineteenth century infant mortality are probably underestimates, and if the death of an infant was not registered it is likely that its birth was not recorded either. But low fertility also reflected late marriage and the many people who never married at all.
After 1870 the British birth rate started to decline as part of what has become known as the “demographic transition” ‑ the drop in both mortality and fertility from their pre-industrial levels during the process of economic development. In the UK and elsewhere in Europe, and also in North America, the decline was driven by a drop in marital fertility. In Ireland, however, fertility decline appears, if published data are correct, to have reflected more a change in marriage patterns than a fall in marital fertility. The proportion of the 45-54 age group who had never married rose from 11 per cent in 1851 to 35 per cent of men and 25 per cent of women in 1936. In the 1930s fertility fell below replacement (that is women of child-bearing age were not having enough daughters to replace themselves) in most countries of Western Europe, including the UK, and in the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Irish fertility did indeed drop and was lower in the two decades after the First World War than in the twenty years before it, but by international standards the decline was both comparatively slow and limited. Irish fertility remained always above replacement level.
The demographic transition implied a negative relation between national income levels and fertility. There was an internal counterpart in several countries, with wealthier parents being the first to have fewer children than their own parents. This negative relationship is the opposite of what Malthus predicted, and is also not at all what economic theory would lead one to expect. Children are valued positively by parents and since wealthier parents can more easily afford children, they might have been expected to have more. Gary Becker, who was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work on the economics of household behaviour, speculated about this puzzle in 1960. His students then triggered a great deal of empirical research into the underlying economic determinants of fertility decisions.
It became clear that the changing economic role of children was one such determinant ‑ as agricultural societies urbanised and industrialised, children were less able to make a net contribution to family income at an early age. Higher living standards, supplemented by better public health, increased the likelihood that a child would survive to adulthood, and the improved availability of schools and a positive return to education encouraged parents to devote their time and money to improving the prospective lives of their children ‑ “quality” rather than “quantity” was how the followers of Becker described it. Lower fertility and faster development would be mutually reinforcing. National educational goals could be achieved with less public expenditure, freeing resources to finance other investments. A reduction in both the size and number of families meant potentially that less investment would be needed in housing. A growth in the labour force meant that a given investment would go further in equipping new workers. There would be more resources for public health programmes, which would further reduce infant and child mortality.
Malthus’s predictions about the adequacy of food supplies were even less accurate than his theory of fertility. For Malthus this was initially no more than an assertion. But a few years later, David Ricardo provided an economic rationale ‑ the law of diminishing returns ‑ suggesting that progressively increasing the amount of labour to work a given area of land would have a successively smaller marginal effect in raising output. At the time at which Malthus was writing, the British population and grain output were increasing at roughly the same rate. It is impossible to be statistically exact, but one estimate is that grain output grew by 48 per cent between 1770 and 1810, and population by 54 per cent. Later in the nineteenth century, the difference in growth rates widened, but not dramatically. The Irish Famine itself was primarily the result of potato blight rather than the long run failure of food supply to match the growth of population. In the second half of the nineteenth century, a combination of land opened up for grain production overseas, especially in North America, and lower transport costs brought about by new steamships, eased any anxiety about potential food shortages, at least for a successful trading nation like Britain.
Below-replacement fertility in the 1930s caused alarm. It was feared that a declining population could make it even harder for Western economies to reduce the high levels of unemployment associated with the Great Depression. Such anxiety disappeared with the postwar rise in fertility, the “baby boom”, which continued in virtually all industrialised countries until the mid-1960s. In the UK and most of Western Europe annual rates of natural increase (birth rates minus death rates) were about 0.5 per cent. In Ireland it was 0.9 per cent. In North America rates were higher ‑ 1.4 per cent in the US and 1.9 per cent in Canada.
These population growth rates were outstripped by growth rates in the developing world, where reductions in mortality from smallpox, malaria and other communicable diseases led to unprecedented rates of population growth. Much of Latin America and parts of the Middle East experienced rates of natural increase of over 3 per cent. The phrase “population explosion” was on everybody’s lips, just as “climate change” is today. It was not necessary to understand it to be worried about it. When, in the mid-1960s, the monsoon rains in Northern India failed in two successive years, Malthusian gloom re-emerged in such best-sellers as Famine 1975! by William and Paul Paddock (1967) and The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich (1968). Other authors predicted that overpopulation might lead to social and political unrest and encourage revolutionary movements that would threaten global stability.
International, national and non-governmental organisations providing aid to raise rates of economic growth in developing countries shared in this alarm. A Commission set up by Pope John XXIII recommended that the Roman Catholic church should abandon its blanket opposition to the use of artificial contraception, though this was rejected by Paul VI. Assistance to family planning programmes became freely available, especially from the US, supported by some very crude calculations of the social value of “averted births”. The US was at the time deeply unpopular because of the Vietnam War, and many governments were offended by American pressure to accept this assistance, expressed vociferously at the 1974 World Population Conference in Bucharest. Nevertheless, family planning programmes were set up in many countries. The ones to hit Western headlines included the Indian programme, which was long-established but generally unsuccessful until in 1975 local officials were set sterilisation targets that were sometimes met by coercing the poor to “accept sterilisation” and the Chinese one-child policy, adopted in 1980, which involved a much greater degree of personal intrusion and compulsory abortion. But in many countries, especially in East Asia, family planning programmes, mostly linked to maternal and child health programmes, were effective in speeding up the decline in fertility to be expected from changing social and economic conditions.
Worries about food scarcity were eased in the 1970s by the evident success of the Green Revolution ‑ the introduction of new dwarf varieties of wheat and rice, supported by agrochemicals and improved water management – in increasing grain yields in Mexico, the Philippines and India, and elsewhere. But food was not, of course, the only thing that might become dangerously scarce if population grew. It might in principle be any resource that was non-renewable. The Limits to Growth, a study published by a group calling itself the Club of Rome, received great publicity for predictions of catastrophic shortages of oil and various metals. Based on computer projections developed at MIT, it gave the impression of scientific rigour, but there was nothing that an economist would recognise as an adequate model. If relative scarcities change, prices change and economic actors change their behaviour. They search for new resources, make technical substitutions in production, change the pattern of demand and find new ways of meeting this demand. The one area where anxiety persisted into the 1980s was energy, especially after the two “oil-price shocks” of 1973 and 1979 which emphasised how dependent Western countries were on imported oil. But the energy market reacted to very major price increases as textbooks would have predicted ‑ new sources of energy were found and demand dropped. By the time of the next World Population Conference in Mexico City in 1984, the “resource scarcity” version of Malthus had ceased to appear relevant to current problems.
The recovery of food and energy supplies reassured many economists that the best solution to many economic problems was laissez-faire. This was symptomatic of the major change that had taken place in Western political economic thinking in the first half of the 1980s. For about thirty years, in both the USA and the UK, central government economic policy had been essentially “Keynesian” – co-ordination of fiscal and monetary policy, very full employment and only modest rates of inflation, very high marginal rates of income taxation, a variety of regulatory restrictions, including barriers to foreign trade, and until the early 1970s, a regime of normally stable exchange rates. The 1970s saw economic stability begin to erode, especially after the dramatic rise in oil prices in 1973-74, with growing labour unrest, especially in Britain, and accelerating inflation. In 1979, Mrs Thatcher took office in London, and Ronald Reagan won the 1980 presidential election. After some period of adjustment, privatisation of the major nationalised sections of the British economy, and the generally greater reliance on private profit to guide allocation of resources and encourage innovation and improve efficiency, and a loosening of restrictions on financial activity, foreign investment and international trade worked in the way conservative economists expected that they would. The benefits were not confined to already developed countries. Growth in international trade was particularly important in promoting growth throughout the world and poorer countries were increasingly able to take greater advantage of their relatively inexpensive labour. The proportion of the world population described as being in “absolute poverty” fell, as described by Angus Deaton in The Great Escape (2013).
1989-91 saw the end of serious attempts to develop successful non-capitalist economic systems. European socialist economies, particularly Hungary and Poland, had for several years unsuccessfully attempted to achieve the same economic results as EU countries by manipulating pricing rules without a capitalist system of rewards and risks, and their governments fell in 1989. The even more disastrous performance of the Soviet economic system led to break-up of the Soviet Union two years later. Even if it did not seriously mark the “end of history” as Francis Fukyama claimed, it supported the view that the main driver of economic progress was individual behaviour in pursuit of self-interest within the rule of law, rather than collective action, and that wherever practicable market forces and private bargaining should sort out competition among desirable social goals. Even where there was an obvious need for the communal provision of public goods, it might be possible to provide individual incentives to find ways to reduce costs, such as the proposed budget management reforms within the UK national health service. Where regulation was unavoidable, it could seek to nudge rather than coerce. Where collectively agreed action was essential, experience suggested that, sooner or later ‑ usually later ‑ adequate political agreement on how to identify and implement a solution would emerge, even where the problem crossed political boundaries. The 1983 reform of the US social security system required, and received, bipartisan political support. Federal government action solved the problem of acid rain in the US; international agreement shrank the hole in the ozone layer; the Kyoto and later Paris climate accords were signed; whales, elephants and tigers have survived. Periodically, large American corporations, especially in patent-protected high-tech activities, appeared to be exploiting their market power in a particular line of activity to earn unreasonably high profits. Anti-trust suits threatened to break up first IBM, and later Microsoft, resulting in minor constraints on some of their activities, but by the time settlements were agreed competition and technological advances had already reduced their dominance. The clearly irrational dotcom flurry came and went without lasting economic damage. The gloomy economist was replaced by the complacent economist ‑ relax, things will generally work out in the end.
The financial crisis dented this complacency. The refusal of economic agents to pursue what economists perceived as their rational interests could no longer be treated merely as an error term in a demand equation. It was systematic, and large enough to shift markets. It became impossible to defend the large intellectual capacity absorbed by the financial industry in zero-sum trading as necessary to achieve economic efficiency. International monetary mechanisms forced austerity on countries with payments problems rather than providing assistance when it was most needed. More recently, populist governments have resisted carbon taxation designed to reduce emissions, and/or proposed reforms in pension arrangements that would ease the problem of supporting a growing elderly population. Donald Trump has intentionally disrupted international trade, exhibited his total disregard for prior agreements and proclaimed inconsistent policy positions. Boris Johnson has made reckless commitments about Brexit, demonstrating that irrationality at the political level is equally prevalent and even more alarming. President Bolsonaro endorses policies that irreversibly destroy the diminishing stock of tropical forests. Pondering the uncertain impact of artificial intelligence on future work opportunities, even well-qualified economists were known to mutter the phrases “technological unemployment” and “this time it’s different” (though sotto voce lest the tenure committee got to hear).
Laissez-faire with respect to economic policy need not necessarily imply laissez-faire in social policies: the conservatism of Ronald Reagan included a strong social element, and especially opposition to abortion. At the 1984 World Population Conference these views played an important role in softening the position of the US on the urgency of adopting public family planning programmes. The sense of crisis had in any case diminished. Complacent economists could note the success of the population policies of several countries in bringing about declines in fertility. Fertility was already below replacement in Singapore, and close to it in South Korea, Taiwan and Macao and was also falling rapidly elsewhere in Southeast Asia, especially Thailand. It had fallen slightly in the larger countries of Latin America.
But in 1984 complacency about population growth was not yet warranted. Except for Sri Lanka, and the Indian state of Kerala, fertility remained very high throughout South Asia, especially in the predominantly Muslim countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Iran. It remained very high in Africa and the Arab world. In the poorer countries, it could easily be surmised that population pressures, and especially the growth in the labour force, would prevent the achievement of the income levels at which fertility had fallen in developed countries. International assistance to family planning programmes continued but this was normally combined with more general support for public health.
Since 1984, fertility, as measured by total fertility rates (completed family size per woman), has fallen virtually everywhere, although much less in most of Africa than in other parts of the developing world. By 2010-15, estimated fertility was well below replacement in Brazil, Colombia and Chile. In 1984 there was already some evidence that once fertility decline started it tended to be much more rapid than historically it had been in Europe, but nobody anticipated the rate of decline in the Islamic Republic of Iran (from a TFR of 6.5 in the early 1980s to below replacement twenty years later) or almost as rapid a fall in Bangladesh, at a much earlier stage of development.
In 1984, there was a new potential cause for concern about fertility in developed countries, but one that attracted little attention. The baby boom had come to an end in the mid-1960s; and fertility was lower in the second half of the decade than in the first in every non-socialist advanced country except Spain. This was true for Ireland as well, but Irish exceptionalism continued ‑ Irish fertility was significantly the highest of all Western countries. (Fertility in the socialist countries was not very different from fertility in other advanced economies but this does not lend itself to ready generalisation ‑there were for example quite different fertility levels in the different Yugoslav republics.) During the 1970s, fertility had fallen below replacement in all Western countries except in Spain, Portugal, Greece, and very conspicuously, Ireland. In the first half of the 1980s, Ireland became the only country whose average fertility remained above replacement (except Iceland, where fertility was roughly equal to replacement.) This near-universality of the European, North America and Australasian fertility decline, and its long-run implications, went largely unnoticed by non-specialists, because the baby boom generation had reached child-bearing age, so that birth rates (births per thousand population) and consequently population growth rates remained quite high.
It also seemed reasonable to expect fertility to return to replacement, just as the low fertility rates of the 1930s had been followed by the baby boom about two decades later. In his book Birth and Fortune (1980), Richard Easterlin hypothesised that American fertility might be expected to experience generational cycles. Competition among contemporaries, whether for university places, housing, or well-paid starting jobs would reflect birth-cohort size. Members of a relatively large cohort would take longer to reach the economic level that they had experienced growing up, and at which they were prepared to form households and have children, and so would have smaller families than their parents. In turn, their children would face less competition and form families earlier, and fertility would rise. Economic complacency might have therefore seemed as justified with respect to prospective population change as in other areas of economic policy.
It has become increasingly evident, however, that the Easterlin effect, if it exists at all, is insignificant. US fertility has risen above its level of the late 1970s and early 1980s but has never returned to full replacement. More generally, once the fall in fertility has begun it almost always continues until it falls well below replacement level and shows no sign that it will ever return to replacement. In the early years of this century, fertility increases in France and Sweden, countries that had been leaders in the fertility decline, briefly rose. Since both countries have policies designed to encourage childbearing, this suggested that a set of measures to reduce the cost in time and money of having children might reverse fertility decline. But in both countries the rise in fertility stopped below replacement and has since fallen again.
It was pointed out that some of the drop in fertility reflected later family formation and might therefore be temporary. But this highlights another area of Irish demographic exceptionalism. Ireland has always had the highest mean age of childbearing of any country in Europe or North America, at least since 1950. At times the gap between Ireland and other countries has been very wide. In the 1950s and 1960s, for example, the UK’s mean age was about twenty-six and Ireland’s about thirty-one. Since one would expect an inverse correlation between the mean age of childbearing and completed family size, the fact that Irish fertility was also higher than elsewhere is even more remarkable. In the 1950s and 1960s the fertility of Irish women in their thirties was three to four times that of their British contemporaries. In recent years the mean age of childbearing has increased further in Ireland. It is plausible to assume that difficulty in finding housing might have been a factor, but the Celtic Tiger housing boom does not show up in demographic statistics. Demographers are usually more interested in total fertility than generational length because (given mortality) this determines the ultimate size of a population. But the longer the length of each generation, the more time for economic policies to adjust to demographic changes, such as the requirement to build schools or agree political acceptable ways to support the elderly. Although this may be considered a “social plus” it is at least partially offset by a loss of “life satisfaction” resulting from involuntary childlessness, reflecting the decline in female fecundity and male sperm counts with age.
In 2016 Professor William Reville, who writes a regular column on science in The Irish Times, appeared to have noticed non-replacement European fertility for the first time. He put much of the blame on an “ internal assault from postmodern intellectual elites and their acolytes in the mass media, who enthusiastically embrace moral and cultural relativism, multiculturalism and political correctness and attack our values and weaken our will”. In fact political, social and cultural attitudes seem to have played astonishingly little role in fertility determination. Fertility decisions are totally decentralised and completely private. Wide differences in social attitudes, cultural practices and religious teaching about marriage and other sexual partnerships co-exist within national borders, let alone globally. Individual couples are likely also to be influenced by the views and expectations of close relations, which may be quite different from those of the family next door. Nevertheless, outcomes of individual fertility decisions, as reflected in national measures of fertility, have exhibited a remarkably consistent pattern not only geographically but also over time.
This behavioural regularity permits demographers to make fairly precise long-term population projections. The UN Population Division publishes World Population Prospects (https://population.un.org/wpp/) every two years. (This incidentally is the most user-friendly website imaginable and is therefore the principal source of the comparative data I have used.) An attempt is made to select from a huge range of possibilities the single most probable outcome for each country over successive five-year periods. The projection is made until the end of the century. In 2015 the projected global population in 2100 was 11.2 billion. The two most recent estimates in 2017 and 2019 are slightly lower, 11.1 billion and 10.9 billion respectively. Population would still be growing slowly in 2100. A second set of global projections is made by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). In 2018, their “medium scenario” projected that world population would continue to increase until around 2070-2080 when it would reach a maximum level of around 9.8 billion before starting a slow decline, reaching about 9.5 billion by the end of the century. For comparison, the UN projection is 10.7 billion in 2080. IIASA’s own description of its methodology stresses the importance placed on incorporating projected educational expenditures into their model. A high level of expertise would be needed to analyse the difference between the two projections ‑ those who made the IIASA projections reportedly consulted more than 550 experts.
In a recent book, Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, two Canadian journalists, Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson, compare the headline totals of these projections. They criticise the UN projection as “Malthusian” and prefer the IIASA projection, though without providing a reason for this judgement. The book describes for the general reader the current global demographic situation and summarises how homo sapiens has arrived there. Almost devastated some 70,000 years ago by the climate impact of a Sumatran eruption, the subsequent growth in numbers was very slow and irregular, frequently interrupted by war, periodic famine and disease, until a sustained population increase began in the eighteenth century. The book provides a conventional economic explanation of the determinants of recent fertility decline in developing countries. As journalists, the authors have drawn on the work of other journalists rather than original research and make many of their points by illustration rather than analysis. A shrinking family around a Brussels dinner table illustrates aging Europe, discussions with millennials in Korea reveal the persistence of cultural norms which discourage women from combining motherhood and a career and which push them into postponing marriage, and reported conversations in a Delhi slum and in a Brazilian favela are probably helpful in understanding why urbanisation and education have led to a reduction in desired family size. The chapter on Africa is less helpful since it focuses almost solely on Kenya, and understanding the issues for a continent that is projected to have almost 40 per cent of the global population by the end of the century requires more than a conversation in a Kenyan country club.
The descriptive sections of the book are well-written and accurate. Much of it could have been written at any time in the last thirty-five years, but it is possible that the content will be new to most of its intended readership. It has, however, very serious shortcomings. The first is its view that the acknowledgment of an eventual population decline somehow makes concerns about food security irrelevant. In its preface, the book claims to refute what it portrays as a surfeit of pessimism about solving the problems of world poverty, hunger and environmental degradation. The authors quote from the work of a “modern Malthus” whom they consider to be “completely, utterly wrong”. That book, The End of Plenty, by Joel K Bourne Jr, is by a journalist whose training was as an agronomist. Balanced rather than alarmist, it is by no means a successor to Famine 1975! and has made me aware that I may personally have been too complacent in assuming that a combination of the Green Revolution, prospective improvements in agricultural technologies and GM foods would be enough to guarantee global food security for the foreseeable future. It may be easier to feed 10 billion than 12 billion but that doesn’t mean it will be easy. And if you are not worried about food security, what about climate change or biodiversity?
The authors make some elementary demographic mistakes. They confuse crude birth rates and fertility (as does Professor Reville), and they use the phrase “life expectancy” without making it clear whether it is “period life expectancy” ‑ a snapshot of mortality at a point of time, which is how demographers normally use the term – or “cohort life expectancy”, the average expected length of life of a newborn baby, which requires forecasting future changes in mortality. These mistakes do not affect the general thrust of the book. With the first it is obvious what is meant. The second is not obvious, and in one place I cannot work out what the authors intend to say but the book contains so little about mortality that the confusion doesn’t matter.
A much more fundamental flaw is that, notwithstanding its title, the book focuses on fertility decline rather than population decline. The final chapter, entitled “What Lies Ahead”, is particularly disappointing. In some ways its refusal to speculate is to its credit in a publishing world fascinated by unknowables such as the future effect of artificial intelligence on the world of work or the possibilities of using of implants to increase cognitive capacity and/or replace body components as they wear out and so permit us to live for ever. This book merely forecasts that declining populations will increasingly abandon rural areas for high-rise city living, which would bring environmental advantages; carbon emissions would be reduced, freed agricultural land could be reforested, and fish stocks and coral reefs be given time to recover. This may well be true, but it is discussed only in the vaguest of terms, and there is remarkably little about the consequences of the changing age structure that will result from slower population growth.
Discussion of population decline, as opposed to fertility decline, is confined to several pages on Japan. Slower growth in the labour force makes it more difficult to respond to new opportunities or to adapt to changing technologies. The book links the shrinking Japanese population with its economic stagnation and especially with its failure to compete seriously with the Americans, Chinese and even the Koreans in developing the innovations which are driving today’s digital revolution. Less is said about the social and political strains that an increasingly elderly population will inevitably place on medical and pension arrangements.
Another major question poorly treated in the book is the politics of immigration. The population of Europe is projected to be already smaller in 2030 than it is today and it will continue to decline for the rest of the century. By 2090, Europe is expected to have a smaller population than Nigeria. No conceivable economic scenario is likely to eliminate, perhaps not even reduce significantly, the per capita income gaps between the Western developed world and Subsaharan Africa, so the African desire to migrate to Europe is unlikely to diminish. The amount of international migration depends on the policy decisions of Western governments, and this is likely to remain highly divisive both within Western countries and within the European Union. The authors are sceptical that immigration can do much to solve problems of population aging and decline, although they overpraise the immigration policies of their own country, Canada. Its points system emphasises education and skills, so that the costs of training of many Canadian doctors and engineers have been borne by taxpayers in developing countries. The USA and the UK are moving to similar policies. While beneficial for the receiving countries, and of course for the migrants themselves, these policies worsen world inequality. One can certainly agree with the authors that a relocation of a significant part of the global population in response to differential fertility rates is unlikely.
A more probable European response will be to offer much larger incentives for childbearing. The fact that both France and Sweden, whose incentives are relatively generous, had some success in raising fertility, suggests that even more generous incentives might work to restore replacement fertility. A more direct alternative involving IVF, surrogacy and subsequent adoption is theoretically feasible but probably would be regarded as morally unacceptable in Europe. Judging by its past willingness to implement a one-child policy through workplace checking of menstrual cycles and compulsory abortions, the Chinese government might be less reluctant to use such direct methods if it becomes alarmed when its population starts to fall around 2030. Advances in understanding the human genome will increase the temptation to attempt selective genetic engineering and it is not hard to imagine that a century after Aldous Huxley’s 1931 book, China would actually enter the Brave New World.
Will Ireland converge to the European norm, with its fertility falling further below replacement and continuing there for the foreseeable future? Population projections are also made by national statistical offices and by international agencies for groupings of their members. One of the difficulties in any projection of anything other than the global total is how to estimate migration, which requires guessing how many immigrants each country is willing to accept, which could change abruptly from year to year. In addition to projections of total population, Eurostat also publishes a “no-migration” projection up 2100. In this projection Ireland again stands out with a population in 2080 that is 16 per cent more than its population in 2015. The only other countries with a projected population larger in 2080 than 2015 are France, with a 4 per cent increase, and tiny and atypical Iceland (21 per cent). Although this implies that Irish demographic exceptionalism will continue, one suspects that it is an extrapolation of recent fertility levels rather than something carefully thought out. But an OECD survey in 2011 of what populations aged 15-64 regard as the ideal family size showed that Irish ideals were, together with those in Cyprus, the highest in Europe. A continuation of Irish demographic exceptionalism cannot be ruled out.
Timothy King was formerly Fellow and Director of Studies in Economics at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and subsequently a Senior Economist with the World Bank in Washington DC. Now retired, he lives in Dublin.