Tuesday 12 December 2017

Why we could be right about undoing our belts, not tightening them

In Ireland,we are throwing caution -- and contraception -- to the wind, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Recessions lead to a reduction in the birth rate. So goes the received wisdom. Then again, orthodoxy hasn't exactly served us well these last few years -- it was the same received wisdom which told us the housing market was set for a soft landing, for example -- so it's probably no wonder that this particular theory should turn out to be so much bunkum as well.

Far from reining in our fertility as a response to hardship, latest figures show that the Irish actually have the highest birth rate in Europe, up from 14.4 per 1,000 of population 10 years ago to 17 per 1,000 now. The situation isn't serious enough to man the lifeboats yet, especially since this island managed in pre-Famine days to sustain a large enough number of people to fill two more cities the size of present day Dublin, but it's a curious phenomenon nonetheless. Why are we still having so many children when prudence suggests we should be tightening, not undoing, those belts?

To put it into context, the birth rate in Ireland during the long recession of the Eighties fell sharply, partly as a result of the wider availability of contraception it's true, but surely not unrelated to the difficulty of feeding all those extra mouths. The Washington-based Population Reference Bureau also calculates that America's fertility rate dropped during both the Great Depression and the inflationary spirals of the Seventies, and continues to drop in states most affected by the current downturn, whilst the UK's Office for National Statistics last year reported that the birth rate in England and Wales was on the slide too, with one in 10 women telling website Mumsnet that they were postponing any plans to conceive as a direct result of economic uncertainty. In Ireland, by contrast, we're throwing caution to the wind. Minister of Education Ruairi Quinn must be tearing his hair out at the thought of the cost of all those extra schools which will be needed. No wait, too late. There's nothing left to pull out.

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