The exhortation evokes images of social engineering akin to Huxley’s Brave New
World. But the message has been heard of late from mainstream politicians
across the political divide, including DTI boss Patricia Hewitt, and Tory spokesman
David Willetts. And much
the same is being said in other European countries. The reason? Europe’s
ageing population, and what
it means for future economic growth and the tax burden on people of working age.
2020, there will be more than 50 Europeans aged over 60 for every 100 aged between 16 to 60. A decade ago, it
was less than 40. The fact that people are living longer is, of course, a good
thing. But the age shift raises tricky questions on pension and medical
provision, not to mention issues related to the size of the workforce.
financial responses include raising the state pension age and encouraging or
compelling, people to save more money while they are young to adequately
support themselves in their twilight years. Labour market remedies range from
higher immigration to boost the working population, to measures that address
the various factors that cause many people – predominantly men – to cease
working well before state pension age.
These solutions focus primarily on addressing the
consequences of longevity. But policy makers have gradually come to appreciate
that fertility matters, too. The UK’s
birth rate is now lower than at any time since comparable statistics were first
published 80 years ago. The family of ‘2.4 children’, once the
average size, is now large. And some EU countries are becoming even less
fertile. Yet politicians have been reluctant to raise the issue for fear of
being accused of turning back the clock on gender equality, or interfering in
of increasing fertility is sometimes viewed as either social conservatism –
implying that women must put motherhood before careers – or an extension of the
‘nanny state’, the accusation directed at Hewitt when she strayed onto the
subject. However, there is no necessary adverse trade-off between women’s
economic freedom and fertility. EU member states with the highest fertility
rates, notably the Scandinavian countries, are among those where women are most
likely to be active in the job market. They are also countries where parental
rights, quality childcare and tax breaks make it easier for women to combine
their careers with family life.
Scandinavian experience suggests that an appropriate framework of public policy
within which men and women can make their own private decisions on family size
offers a route to higher fertility without reversing female emancipation.
discussion of how such a framework might be constructed in the UK
opens up fertile ground on which to help counter the consequences of a greying
By John Philpott, chief economist, Chartered Institute of
Personnel and Development