The export of our children makes a return


ANALYSIS: THE TERRITORY of the State has been emptying for most of the time since the famine of the 1840s. This depopulation has taken place while the world has been undergoing the most spectacular population explosion in human history, writes DAN O'BRIEN 

In 2010, the number of people alive on the planet was six times greater than in 1840; in the 26 counties it was one-third lower. After two decades of population growth, Ireland’s long-term pattern of decline looks set to resume.

Ireland is demographically unusual in three distinct ways: in its mobility, its mortality and its fertility. Last year, among the 27 EU member countries, Ireland had the highest rate of outward migration, the lowest death rate and the highest birth rate. In the year to April, according to figures released yesterday, a surge in net emigration came close to overwhelming the other two factors.

Last year, after many years of new arrivals exceeding departures, net human flows to and from this country went sharply into reverse. According to the EU’s statistical agency, nine in every 1,000 people left. This was double the rate of the country with the second highest emigration rate – recession-ravaged Lithuania. Of the 15 rich, long-term members of the EU, Ireland was one of only two to experience net emigration.

New figures released yesterday show that more than 65,000 people left the country in the year to April. Although this was only slightly more than in the previous year, the breakdown by nationality was very different. Most notable was a 50 per cent surge in the number of Irish people departing. This is in contrast to the earlier phase of the recession, when most of those relocating were immigrants from the new EU member countries returning home.

If news on the numbers departing causes despair, news on the numbers dying should bring some consolation. The “crude” death rate counts the number shuffling off per 1,000 people in a given year. Last year, it was just 6.6, the lowest among the EU 27 and well below the average of 10 per 1,000, according to the EU’s statisticians. Figures released yesterday suggest it has declined again this year.

Falling death rates reflect, among other things, lengthening life spans. In fact, longevity in Ireland increased faster than any other EU country in the years up to 2006, by which time we lived as long as our European cousins on average. Given the trends, we are almost certainly out-living them now.

There are many factors which influence the numbers dying at any given time. The rate of “catastrophic” death – by murder, accident or suicide – is one. This has long been unusually low in Ireland, even by developed world standards. Other factors have squeezed the death rate more recently. People have been kicking the smoking habit in accelerating numbers; and many are becoming more health conscious, as evidenced by the ever more visible exertions taking place on the nation’s footpaths and in its gyms.

But other factors have been offsetting these gains. While diet has certainly improved, many of us eat too much. The World Resources Institute finds that average daily calorie intake in Ireland is among the highest in the world. And we don’t eat enough of the right kinds of food. Fish consumption, for instance, is still among the lowest in the developed world according to the same source – the historical phenomenon of an island-living people turning up its nose at the sea’s bounty is seemingly unalterable.

Bad diet is one reason why Ireland has risen up the European obesity league table in recent years. According to a Department of Health survey, the number of people describing themselves as obese rose by 30 per cent between 1998 and 2007. Another is alcohol – we out-booze almost everyone else in Europe.

If the picture on healthy living is mixed, what accounts for the stretching of life spans?

Although the vast sums poured into the health system over more than a decade may not have been spent as effectively as they could have been, there have been major improvements in many indicators. It would seem that better healthcare, rather than healthier lifestyle choices, is the main reason we live longer.

Along with migration and dying, the third part of the population equation is the number of babies being born. As this newspaper recently explored in a series on having children, Ireland’s baby boom continues. In 2009 there were 17 babies born for every 1,000 people. This was by a distance the highest in Europe, where the average was less than 11, and almost double that of Germany, where women have fewer children than anywhere else.

That people everywhere have fewer kids as incomes rise is the closest thing demography has to a universal law. There are many explanations as to why this is so. One is that lower infant mortality rates mean people don’t have extra kids as an insurance policy against losing children.

Maybe one of the reasons we have more children than almost any other rich country is because we know the chance of losing them – not because they will die, but because they will leave – is much higher than elsewhere.

Dan O’Brien is Economics Editor

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