The demographic doom coming Ireland’s way?

Taiwan is currently struggling with a wave of school closures that is only set to worsen in the coming years. The reason? After decades of falling births, there are no longer enough children to fill the classrooms.

In this, it is not unlike the rest of east Asia, China being the most obvious example, and consequential example. Taiwan has been struggling without success since the 1980s to achieve the ‘replacement rate’ of 2.1 babies per woman that is required to maintain a stable population. In 2023, its rate was just 0.86 babies per woman.

And so schools are closing. Does a demographic crash manifest itself so obviously – so morbidly, in a sense – everywhere? Apparently, yes. During my time reporting with The Irish Catholic, I spoke with a Columban priest based outside of the South Korean capital, Seoul, for over 40 years. Musing about the various geopolitical challenges the country faced, ranging from its belligerent northern neighbour to its titanic western neighbour, he confessed that possibly the most pressing issue the country was facing was internal.

When he arrived, he said, children were everywhere. Now they’re nowhere. Schools and universities are closing. Shops are slowly seeing their childcare sections replaced by ‘petcare’ sections. Meanwhile in Japan, in one of the saddest signs of the times this writer can remember, a nappy maker announced earlier this year that it will stop producing diapers for babies in the country in favour of supplying the market for adults.

The writing is clearly on the wall for many east Asian nations, but what about us? Unfortunately, it’s the same story.

Eurostat gave Ireland’s ‘Total Fertility Rate’ (TFR) as 1.54 births per woman in 2022, well below that same replacement level that Taiwan has been struggling to reach and fast heading downwards. Ireland is not alone in Europe when it comes to having difficulty with having children (not a single country in Europe meets the 2.1 level), but obviously it’s the scenario we have most to be worried about.

Worry about? So some people ask when they hear these concerns expressed. Yes, definitely. In fact, we should be worrying about this an awful lot more than we currently are, which is not at all.

The ‘dependency ratio’ is just one reason why. This is an age-population ratio of those typically not in the labour force (the dependent part being from ages 0-14 and 65+) and those typically in the labour force (between the ages mentioned above, so 15 to 64). It is used to measure the pressure on the productive population, and it is very important for a country to have a low one if it wants to maintain a high standard of living.

What a low dependency ratio means is that there are enough people working to sustain the dependent population – which is what we’ve enjoyed in recent decades – enabling reasonable pensions and healthcare, among other things.

A high ratio, on the other hand, indicates a less sustainable relationship between the number of people working and the number of dependents in the population. Moving into an age of increased social unrest as we are, I personally find it hard to believe that the financial stresses and strains this will impose on the ‘productive’ population will be received peacefully. More likely, there will be significant protests and backlash.

The trouble is, we’ve already moved so far that these warnings from around the world are coming too late. The coming catastrophe can’t be altered, only mitigated, but even doing that is unpopular.  The Oireachtas Social Protection Committee late last year proposed raising the retirement age to 75, a suggestion that has been left untouched to date. And no wonder, when potential pension reforms sparked serious riots France earlier that year. That legislation was nothing so controversial as the Oireachtas committee suggested, a mere raising of the retirement age from 62 to 64 years, with the condition that the retiree has worked at least 43 years.

Efforts to boost birthrates aren’t proving overly effective, either. Hungary, which over the past decade was much lauded for its policy efforts to boost its birthrate, initially showed promise but quickly appears to have run out of steam. Reports indicate that 2023 was a number of particularly low births, after years of hard work on the part of the Hungarian government to incentivise having children. Similarly in Poland, initiatives like tax breaks and increased child benefit have done nothing to spare the country one of the lowest TFRs in Europe: 1.29 in 2022.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t incentivise having children, because it’s a waste of time with regards to turning the birthrate around? Of course not – indeed, it’s a great place to start. But it can’t end there. Cultural change is required, that not only enables but effectively encourages family formation and the sense that having children is a sufficiently good thing to suffer for, a sense that clearly hasn’t been inculcated yet in Hungary.

Meanwhile, we continue to neither incentivise childbirth nor facilitate the necessary cultural change. The age limit to avail of free contraception keeps rising (Minister Stephen Donnelly ensuring the scheme expanded to include women aged 32-35 in recent months), while Child Benefit hasn’t been increased in 13 years, to name but two facets of the issue.

This is a problem we can ignore for now, but not forever. When our schools start closing, we’ll start noticing. By then, it’ll be too late for an easy fix, if, as I say, it isn’t already.

Jason Osborne


This article was first printed on gript and is printed here with permission


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