Britain’s baby bust laid bare: Fertility rate plunges to all-time low as expert warns ‘slow-burn’ crisis could cripple the economy… so how many children does the average woman have in YOUR area?

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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  • Fertility rate in England and Wales slumped to 1.49 in 2022, ONS report shows

Women are having fewer children than ever before, official figures revealed today. 

Office for National Statistics data shows the fertility rate — the average number of children a woman has — in England and Wales slumped to 1.49 in 2022. 

It marks the lowest figure since records began in 1938, laying bare the reality of the ongoing baby bust that threatens to cripple the economy. 

Not a single one of the 330-plus authorities in both countries has a fertility rate that is above ‘replacement level’, according to MailOnline analysis. 

The looming threat of underpopulation has spooked experts across the world.

Demographists warn the ever-declining birth rate could leave the UK with an ageing population, pile extra pressure on the NHS and social care and hamper economic growth.

Professor Christiaan Monden, who specialises in sociology and demography at the University of Oxford, said: ‘It is a slow-burn build. 

‘It is something to be concerned about if this continues for a long time.’

He told The Telegraph: ‘It will bring problems with our ageing population.’

The ONS data shows that there were 605,479 live births between the two nations in 2022 — 577,046 in England and 28,296 in Wales. 

This marked the lowest number since 2002 and was 20,000 fewer than 2021. 

Meanwhile the fertility rate — which reflects another measure of births — dropped from 1.55 in 2021.

It means rates have almost halved since peaking at just shy of 3 in the mid-60s baby boom. 

The ONS said fertility rates decreased overall and in each age group, except for women under 20.

The falling fertility rate has been in freefall for a decade, apart from a blip during 2021 put down to a mini baby ‘bounce’ by couples who put their family plans on hold at the start of the Covid pandemic.

Experts believe the trend is partly down to women focusing on their education and careers and couples waiting to have children until later in life.

The UK’s fragile economy and cost-of-living crisis is also putting people off having children, some believe, evidenced by abortion rates simultaneously spiking.

Others cite the environment, with people fearing that they will worsen their carbon footprint by having a child or that their child will have a bleak future due to climate change.

The ONS said fertility rates decreased overall and in each age group, except for women under 20

There is no evidence that Covid vaccines are to blame, with scientists insisting there is no proof they harm fertility.

The threat of ‘underpopulation’ is a pet topic of eccentric Tesla billionaire Elon Musk, who has preached about it for years.

In 2017, he said that the number of people on Earth is ‘accelerating towards collapse but few seem to notice or care’.

For a population to stay the same size, countries must achieve a ‘replacement’ level fertility rate of 2.1.

However, in the developed world, fertility rates have been falling far below this over the past century.

For example, the UK hasn’t had an average fertility rate above 2.1 since the early 70s.

Not one single authority in England or Wales has a rate above 2. 

The highest is Barking and Dagenham, at 1.98.

Fertility replacement doesn’t account for the impact of migration, meaning overall population levels can still increase in a country despite a drop in fertility rates.

Figures show that more older women than ever are becoming mothers. Some 31,228 over-40s gave birth in 2022 — up from 30,542 in 2021 and 17,336 in 2002.

But despite the number of older mothers soaring in recent decades, doctors tend to warn women not to leave it too late to have children.

Fertility drops with age and the risk of complications, including stillbirths, increases.

Women in their late forties are estimated to have as little as a one in 20 chance of becoming pregnant naturally because they have fewer eggs, which are less capable of being fertilised.

So what is behind the West’s baby bust? 

Women worldwide, on average, are having fewer children now than previous generations.

The trend, down to increased access to education and contraception, more women taking up jobs and changing attitudes towards having children, is expected to see dozens of countries’ population shrink by 2100.

Dr Jennifer Sciubba, author of 8 Billion and Counting: How Sex, Death, and Migration Shape Our World, told MailOnline that people are choosing to have smaller families and the change ‘is permanent’.

‘So it’s wise to focus on working within this new reality rather than trying to change it,’ she said.

Sex education and contraception

A rise in education and access to contraception is one reason behind the drop off in the global fertility rate.

Education around pregnancy and contraception has increased, with sex education classes beginning in the US in the 1970s and becoming compulsory in the UK in the 1990s.

‘There is an old adage that “education is the best contraception” and I think that is relevant’ for explaining the decline in birth rates, said Professor Allan Pacey, an andrologist at the University of Sheffield and former chair of the British Fertility Society.

Elina Pradhan, a senior health specialist at the World Bank, suggests that more educated women choose to have fewer children due to concerns about earning less when taking time off before and after giving birth.

In the UK, three in 10 mothers and one in 20 fathers report having to cut back on their working hours due to childcare, according to ONS data.

They may also have more exposure to different ideas on family sizes through school and connections they make during their education, encouraging them to think more critically about the number of children they want, she said.

And more educated women may know more about prenatal care and child health and may have more access to healthcare, Ms Pradhan added.

Professor Jonathan Portes, an economist at King’s College London, said that women’s greater control over their own fertility means ‘households, and women in particular, both want fewer children and are able to do so’.

More women entering the workplace

More women are in the workplace now than they were 50 years ago — 72 vs 52 per cent — which has contributed to the global fertility rate halving over the same time period.

Professor Portes also noted that the drop-off in the birth rate may also be down to the structure of labour and housing markets, expensive childcare and gender roles making it difficult for many women to combine career aspirations with having a family.

The UK Government has ‘implemented the most anti-family policies of any Government in living memory’ by cutting services that support families, along with benefit cuts that ‘deliberately punish low-income families with children’, he added.

As more women have entered the workplace, the age they are starting a family has been pushed back. Data from the ONS shows that the most common age for a women who were born in 1949 to give birth was 22. But women born in 1975, were most likely to have children when they were 31-years-old.

In another sign that late motherhood is on the rise, half of women born in 1990, the most recent cohort to reach 30-years-old, remained childless at 30 — the highest rate recorded.

Women repeatedly point to work-related reasons for putting off having children, with surveys finding that most women want to make their way further up the career ladder before conceiving.

However, the move could be leading to women having fewer children than they planned. In the 1990s, just 6,700 cycles of IVF — a technique to help people with fertility problems to have a baby — took place in the UK annually. But this skyrocketed to more than 69,000 by 2019, suggesting more women are struggling to conceive naturally.

Declining sperm counts

Reproductive experts have also raised the alarm that biological factors, such as falling sperm counts and changes to sexual development, could ‘threaten human survival’.

Dr Shanna Swan, an epidemiologist at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, authored a ground-breaking 2017 study that revealed that global sperm counts have dropped by more than half over the past four decades.

She warned that ‘everywhere chemicals’, such as phthalates found in toiletries, food packaging and children’s toys, are to blame. The chemicals cause hormonal imbalance which can trigger ‘reproductive havoc’, she said.

Factors including smoking tobacco and marijuana and rising obesity rates may also play a role, Dr Swan said.

Studies have also pointed to air pollution for dropping fertility rates, suggesting it triggers inflammation which can damage egg and sperm production.

However, Professor Pacey, a sperm quality and fertility expert, said: ‘I really don’t think that any changes in sperm quality are responsible for the decline in birth rates.

‘In fact, I do not believe the current evidence that sperm quality has declined.’

He said: ‘I think a much bigger issue for falling birth rates is the fact that: (a) people are choosing to have fewer children; and (b) they are waiting until they are older to have them.’

Fears about bringing children into the world

Choosing not to have children is cited by some scientists as the best thing a person can do for the planet, compared to cutting energy use, travel and making food choices based on their carbon footprint.

Scientists at Oregon State University calculated that the each child adds about 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the ‘carbon legacy’ of a woman. Each metric ton is equivalent to driving around the world’s circumference.

Experts say the data is discouraging the climate conscious from having babies, while others are opting-out of children due to fears around the world they will grow up in.

Dr Britt Wray, a human and planetary health fellow at Stanford University, said the drop-off in fertility rates was due to a ‘fear of a degraded future due to climate change’.

She was one of the authors behind a Lancet study of 10,000 volunteers, which revealed four in ten young people fear bringing children into the world because of climate concerns.

Professor David Coleman, emeritus professor of demography at Oxford University, told MailOnline that peoples’ decision not to have children is ‘understandable’ due to poor conditions, such as climate change.

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