Wednesday 26 June 2019

Ireland's demographic oddities are starting to return to normality

A long-term demographic difference between Ireland and most of the rest of Europe is the number of babies we have
A long-term demographic difference between Ireland and most of the rest of Europe is the number of babies we have
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

Ireland has the highest birth rate in Europe, the second-lowest death rate and fifth-highest rate of net outward migration.

The country's extraordinary population dynamics - in fertility, mortality and mobility - have long marked it out as an unusual case among its peers.

That continues to this day.

Last Friday's publication of demographic data on the 28 countries of the EU (and a handful of non-members) highlighted lots of interesting things about how Ireland is changing, and particularly how it is changing compared with other countries across the Continent.

Let's start with the 'death rate'. This sometimes causes folk to scratch their heads.

Surely, your columnist has heard people say, the death rate is 100pc? After all, the grim reaper catches up with us all in the end.

It is, of course, true that we will all shuffle off our mortal coils eventually, but the death rate that statisticians measure is the number of deaths in a country in a given year relative to the population. How it changes from year to year is influenced by many things, and can tell a lot about the state of a country.

For instance, a rise in the death rate usually suggests something bad has happened - a very virulent flu, a famine, a major natural disaster or a war.

Conversely, a fall in the death rate signals something more positive. And that is true of Ireland.

For all the talk about our woeful health service and our unhealthy relationship with the demon drink, we Irish actually live longer than the average in Europe, and the increase in these additional years of life continues.

That, and a younger than average population, explains our low death rate in recent times.

Another, much longer-term demographic difference between Ireland and most of the rest of Europe is the number of babies we have.

Although Irish women have followed their sisters in most other European countries in having fewer children over the decades - as a result of social change and the availability of contraception - they continue to be the most fertile in Europe.

Two topical and controversial issues rear their heads in the discussion of birth rates: abortion and childcare.

As is frequently observed, Ireland spends little compared to peer countries on subsidising pre-school childcare.

This almost certainly has some dampening effect on birth rates in Ireland.

However, it is less frequently mentioned that the State's direct cash payments for children in Ireland are among the highest in the world. That is likely to offset the effect of scarce cheap childcare.

More controversial still is abortion. It has been mooted that Irish women are more fertile than their counterparts in Europe, on average, because they don't have the option to terminate pregnancies at home.

Whether it is because of non-availability or because many women wouldn't make that choice even if they had it, the low termination rate appears to explain, in part at least, Ireland's high birth rate.

In western European countries, there is on average around one abortion for every five babies born (though it varies a lot).

Last year just under 3,800 women giving addresses in Ireland had abortions in Britain, or one for every 18 babies born here.

Even if the British figure hugely understates the number of Irish residents having terminations, the rate would still be much lower than other countries in Europe where abortion is legal.

After deaths and births, the third big factor affecting the population is people moving in and out of a country.

Here, Ireland is even more unusual than its peers, and it has been unusual over a much longer period of time.

No other country has had such a large and long tradition of outward migration, as illustrated by the fact that Ireland is the only country in the world whose population is smaller now than in the early 1800s.

Given that tradition, it was hardly surprising that once the economy crashed, people began to leave again - and fewer arrived or returned home.

Between 2006 and 2009, Ireland went from having the highest rate of net inward migration among 28 countries to recording one of the highest rates of outward migration. In the years since, the numbers leaving have dwarfed the numbers arriving, as the old instinct to seek out greener pastures elsewhere kicked in.

Even though Greece's depression has been much deeper and longer-lasting than Ireland's, the proportionate impact of migration has actually been greater here. It has been many times greater than in fellow bailout countries Portugal and Spain.

In only Latvia and Lithuania, two countries which suffered brutal economic collapses in 2008-09, has the impact of emigration been relatively bigger.

However, it is worth highlighting that the effects of these economic slumps on outward migration appear to be waning over the very long term.

In the 1950s, when Ireland had an utterly dysfunctional economy, so great were the outflows of people that the overall population fell sharply (and that happened despite a very high birth rate).

In the 1980s the rate of net outward migration was 1.2pc of the population at its worst in 1988. However, in the latest catastrophe to befall the economy, the rate peaked at a little over half of that in 2012.

This just might be a sign that Ireland's weird demographics are slowly becoming more normal.

Irish Independent

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