Friday, July 29, 2011

Right in the Baby-Maker

Looking at economist Stefan Karlsson's blog yesterday I noticed this look at changing populations in the EU27.

First, the EU population is growing, both naturally (500,000 more births than deaths) and through immigration (900,000 more immigrants than emigrants).

Ireland is an unusual case right now, because it has net emigration due to the economic problems, but still a rising population. This is because Ireland has a uniquely high birth rate, 16.5 births per 1,000 population, far ahead of the UK in second place at 13 per 1,000. Germany, at the bottom end, had only 8.3 births per 1,000.

Ireland's death rate is also extremely low, 6.2 deaths per 1,000 compared with 9 per 1,000 in UK, 10,5 per 1,000 in Germany and 14.6 in Bulgaria. Ireland's is the lowest in the EU, probably because Ireland's population is much younger (11% of Ireland's population are above 65, compared with 20% in Germany) and because standards of health are relatively good.

The result is that even while Ireland experiences some of the highest emigration rates in the EU, second only to Lithuania, its population grows comfortably, though at a much slower pace than it did in the recent past.

This all interests me because until now I had tended to think mainly about fertility rates instead of birth rates.

The total fertility rate:

...estimates the number of children a hypothetical cohort of 1,000 females in the specified population would bear if they all went through their childbearing years experiencing the same age-specific birth rates for a specified time period.

The magic number here is 2.1 children per woman, that being the figure at which a population will remain exactly stable. (In a perfect world it would be simply two children per woman. The extra 0.1 is to compensate for mortality as some children will never make adulthood. In poorer countries with higher mortality rates the replacement rate is higher, as many as 3.3 children per woman needed to simply sustain a population. This is why moderately high fertility rates in developing countries need not always imply a population explosion.)

Total fertility rate does give us some idea of whether a population will grow or shrink. However it does not take into account the present nature of a population. A high fertility rate in a country with a very old population will still mean only modest growth because there are not many women of fertile age to give birth.

This is what makes Ireland interesting. Because of relatively high fertility rates in the past, and because women of fertile age migrated here during the boom years, our population is unusually young and our birth rate exceptionally high.

World Bank estimates for 2009 put Ireland's birth rate at 17, lower in Europe only than a few poor eastern countries like Kosovo. Ireland's birth rate is higher than that of many developing countries around the world, like Lebanon (16), Puerto Rico (12) and Costa Rica (16).

The US is sometimes compared favourably with Europe for having a more sustainably high fertility rate. In birth rates this is also true, though Ireland and Iceland (16) are higher than the US (14).

So it seems likely that Ireland will continue to experience reasonable natural growth. The fertility rate is around 2.1, mortality rates are low. To the best of my knowledge this is good economic news. While Germany will struggle with an ever-increasing retired population being funded by an ever-decreasing labour population, Ireland will have fewer dependents and less strain on social services.

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