New arrivals powering Britain's baby boom
Special to The Regina Leader-Post
Published: Saturday, January 05, 2008
Britain is in the midst of a population boom that may be solving one pressing social and economic problem, but is creating several new ones, including a significant cultural issue.
Since the baby boom of the 1960s, British women had been giving birth to fewer and fewer babies so the country's birth rate had fallen well below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per mother. This decline, coupled with longer life expectancies, had the United Kingdom entering the new millennium worried about dwindling numbers of workers available to support rising numbers of pensioners.
There were fears that pension plans would not have enough money and there wouldn't be enough taxpayers to pay the government's unfunded pension commitments. To reduce this feared demand, changes were made to retirement legislation to encourage people to stay at work instead of enjoying the retirements they had saved for.
Now, however, the surge in the birth rate, coupled with a related rise in immigration, has the country worried less about whether there will be enough workers to support its pensioners. Instead, the British are more concerned about who these workers will be and whether the country will have enough schools, hospitals and other public services to look after them and their children.
The concerns have been simmering for several years as the number of immigrants rose annually. In the last five years alone, more than a million immigrants settled in the U.K., mostly from south Asia and eastern Europe. Now, just over 10 per cent of British residents were born somewhere else, nearly twice as many as two decades ago. The phrase “asylum seeker” rapidly became the new slur as immigrants took jobs, filled school desks and hospital beds and piled further pressure onto services already straining to cope.
The concerns were further spurred on in December when the Office of National Statistics (ONS) revealed that more than 20 per cent of babies born in Britain last year were born to immigrant mothers. This is nearly double the percentage of a decade ago, a third more than five years ago, and the number looks like it will rise even more.
Mothers from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India gave birth to five per cent of all babies born in the U.K. in 2006. Mothers from other European Union countries outside the British Isles, especially Poland, produced another four per cent of the new British babies.
Mothers from Pakistan give birth to an average of nearly five babies, while Bangladeshi mothers are producing four. These figures are triple the birth rate for mothers born and raised in the U.K. Looking a quarter of a century ahead, the ONS predicted that Britain's current population of about 60 million will rise by 10 million, and seven million of that increase will be people from somewhere else.
The influx of newcomers is raising emotional questions about what it means to be British, as “locals” become minorities in some parts of the country and British customs, attitudes and traditions run afoul of imported practices and beliefs. The standard British school uniform doesn't conform to Muslim dress requirements for girls. Polish immigrants expect Catholic churches to dispense far more than religious services. Traditional school nativity plays are now banned in many places and the politics, and political hostilities, of half a world away are now played out in British streets.
Published: Saturday, January 05, 2008
Ironically, the ONS statistics give some encouragement to those intent on preserving the traditional British way of life. The rising tide of immigration is seen as one possible factor in promoting a recent rise in the birth rate among British-born mothers.
Having fallen to a rate of 1.6 babies per mother in 2001, the rate has now started to edge up again to 1.7 babies. Statisticians have noted such factors as improved maternity leave would contribute to this; but they also highlight the effect of immigration in encouraging more British-born people to have more children.
Larger families were, in fact, a British tradition for most of the 19th and 20th centuries when British mothers would on average have five children. The country's homebred mothers are still a long way from that, but for the first time in many years, the rate is rising.
There is, of course, a down-side to the rising population. The nation may be welcoming in more taxpayers to shore up the tax and earning power of its ageing population, but it has to start planning now to house, educate and provide countless other forms of care and services for a growing population in a country that already considered itself a crowded little island.
Local councils, which provide the bulk of these services, have begun pressing the British government to start planning now for a future that is not far off. Planning ahead is, however, a characteristic that immigrants will have to bring with them as they seek to adapt to the British way of life.
– Imlach is a freelance writer based in London, England.