Dramatic changes in our rates of births, deaths and marriages


A new jump in our birth rate could ease our immigration needs from 2030 onwards, writes Garret FitzGerald

FOR ALMOST 50 years I have been writing about the twists and turns of Irish demography. Some older readers might (but probably do not) recall my November 1963 prediction in this column that our marriage rate, (measured in terms of the ratio of marriages to total population), was then about to jump by more than 35 per cent. This forecast proved absolutely accurate, although honesty requires that I admit that this took only eight years to happen, rather than the 15 years that I had over-cautiously predicted.

Since that time our demography has taken many complex twists and turns. Both in our marriage rate and in our birth rate there have been two major reversals of direction, first downwards and then up again, and, of course, there has also been a massive 40-year-long increase in the proportion of non-marital births.

We are currently experiencing a sudden new jump in our birth rate, part of which is due to a quite unforeseen surge in fertility that started in early 2006, and took on a new momentum early last year.

On top of all this, and despite a fashionable belief that marriage may be on the way out, we are in fact also experiencing a wedding boom. This has brought the number of marriages solemnized within the area of our State to the highest level ever recorded since marriages as well as births and deaths started to be registered by the State in 1864. Whilst most of this development simply reflects a continuing rise in the number of single women in their 20s and 30s, there has also been a perceptible increase in the marriage rate in the last few years.

Finally we are also now benefiting remarkably from a sharp drop in deaths from cardiac and respiratory diseases that took place during the first half of the present decade. In this column on October 21st, 2006, I drew attention to the remarkable 5 per cent annual decline in our overall death rate that has been taking place since 1999 as a result of these two developments.

Curiously none of these recent developments in our demography - which if they were to continue could have great significance for our society and eventually for our economy - has evoked any interest in our media.

The dramatic changes in our population that have taken place during the past four decades is responsible for the fact that there are today more than twice as many women in their 20s and 30s than there were 40 years ago - 40 per cent more married women and three times as many single women. A recent huge increase in the number of women in their early 30s - now the peak age cohort for childbirth - has almost returned the volume of births to its record 1980 level. In particular, this shift in our population structure has almost exactly offset the halving of fertility that has taken place since the 1960s.

However, it is our marriage and birth rates, rather than the number of women in each age group, that are of special significance for the future of our society - measured preferably in terms of the ratio of these events to the total number of women who at a given time are in a position to get married or to have babies.

So far as marriage is concerned, the proportion of single women aged 20 to 39 marrying each year fell steadily throughout the whole period from 1971 to 2005, but in the past two years this trend has been sharply reversed.

Much of the jump in the number of births has been due to a sudden and quite sharp increase in fertility since 2005. The fact is that after a decade during which a 30-year long decline in the fertility rate, measured in terms of the ratio of births to single women aged 20 to 39, had been followed by stabilisation. But since 2005 this ratio has jumped by just over 10 per cent - a quite surprising increase within such a short time. This reflects in part a very sharp rise in the age-specific fertility rate for the 30-35 age cohort, which in the single year 2007 jumped by 7.5 per cent.

Undoubtedly some, but only a minority, of the fertility surge, particularly in marital births, is accounted for by births to immigrants. In 2006 births to Polish mothers trebled and they doubled again last year, so that one birth in every 30 is now to a Polish mother.

Our fertility level may now be the highest in Europe - higher even than that of France. But to ensure long-term population stability without immigration, the ratio of births to the number of women needs to be higher than 2.15. (Although even after its recent increase it is still only slightly above 2.0).

Of course some immigration by people from other countries is always desirable, both in order to offset any net emigration by our own population and also in order to import skills we may lack here. But during the past decade the inflow of immigrants seeking employment here has been much higher that would be necessary for those purposes, and has reflected lower than optimal fertility since the 1970s.

If this recent rise in fertility were to be sustained in the future, (which I have to say is probably unlikely in a world where almost everywhere else it is in decline), this would ease our immigration needs from 2030 onwards.