The Irish Times view on falling birth rates: a case to rethink immigration policy and support for families

Fertility rates across the industrialised world have halved since 1960 and this is starting to lead to a fall in the working age population

Falling birth dates across the industrialised world raise fundamental questions about immigration and policies towards families with children

From 1994 to 2022 the number of children the average Irish woman will bear in her lifetime plummeted from 4.06 to 1.85, well below the replacement rate of 2.1 to maintain the population at a stable level without immigration. It is a trend which gives the lie to the all-too-prevailing trope that “Ireland is full”.

A comparative study from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) of birth/fertility rates in the 38 richest industrialised countries also shows fertility rates overall more than halving since 1960. Across the EU, the rise in overall labour force participation will soon not be enough to compensate for the falling working-age population, the report warns.

A Lancet study of 204 countries and territories forecasts that more than three quarters of them will dip below population replacement rates by 2050, and 97 per cent by 2100.

Part of the story in the wealthy world is the rising average age of nearly 30 at which women have their first child, up from 26.5 in the early 2000s. More are opting to remain childless as, the report’s author observes, “both young men and women increasingly find meaning in life outside of parenthood”. Economic and housing pressures are also forcing young people to defer building families and stay for longer in the family home.


Rethinking attitudes to immigration is vital – as the population share of the elderly rises inexorably an infusion of younger workers to help support them is vital. The number of individuals aged 65 and over for every 100 of working age is projected to double from 30 in 2020 to 59 in 2060 across the OECD.

Encouraging women to have more children through family-friendly policies and supports will not come near to filling the vacuum, the report warns. The best approach for countries concerned about fertility, the report argues, remains to promote more gender equality and fairer sharing of work and child rearing, paid parental leave, childcare and financial supports and a greater focus on the costs of children , especially housing.