Monday briefing: From the UK to South Korea, why people are having fewer babies

Date:

Good morning.

Governments across the world have been voicing concerns about declining birthrates. There are a number of unifying causes from place to place – the rocketing cost of childcare and housing, anxiety about the climate crisis and increasing gender equality – but many countries have specific factors that make addressing the issue all the more difficult.

As the trend compounds, experts have expressed concern about the impact of ageing populations on the economy and the kind of reactionary politics that these declining birthrates generate. Far-right populist politicians have been pushing the racist and antisemitic “great replacement” theory to explain why (white) women are having fewer babies, warning that falling birthrates will lead to white populations becoming replaced by other ethnic and racial groups.

For today’s newsletter I have looked at five countries with declining fertility rates to find out what’s behind the slump. That’s right after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Middle East | At least 37 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli strikes on the southern city of Rafah, according to Gaza health officials, as the Israeli military said it had freed two hostages there during a raid by special forces.

  2. Nato | The head of the military alliance has said any attack on a member would be met with a “united and forceful response”, after Donald Trump invited Russia to attack member countries that he perceived as not meeting their financial obligations.

  3. Finland | Finland’s centre-right former prime minister Alexander Stubb will become the next president after winning an election runoff with rival Pekka Haavisto in the country’s most high-stakes presidential election in a generation.

  4. Health | One in five NHS staff in England are non-UK nationals, a record high. The figures show the pivotal role foreign workers play in keeping the health service afloat.

  5. Immigration and asylum | The UK government’s controversial Rwanda legislation that deems the African country a safe place to deport people to is fundamentally incompatible with Britain’s human rights obligations and places it in breach of international law, according to a damning parliamentary report.

In depth: Five countries with falling birthrates and their plans to boost births

The French president, Emmanuel Macron. Photograph: Reuters

UK

Britain’s birthrate is the lowest it has been in two decades. In 2022, there were 605,479 live births – a 3.1% decline from the previous year and the lowest number since 2002, according to the ONS. The topic has caused significant alarm, particularly among rightwing politicians, who have blamed the fall on everything from “cultural Marxism” to the millennial narcissism of younger generations. Though these are fringe views, they represent a loud faction of the governing Conservative party.

The picture is a lot more complex than a bunch of millennials and gen Z-ers picking to-go coffee and progressive politics over having a family. In reality, there are a plethora of economic and social barriers that stop people from having children. The cost of childcare, for instance, has jumped: parents are paying £2,000 a year more annually on childcare costs than they were in 2010, and one study found that parents have seen costs rise by as much as £600 a month. The UK is the third-most expensive country for childcare in the world, according to the OECD. At the same time, housing has become more scarce and more expensive, while wages have stagnated. Young people are also citing the climate crisis as a reason they have reconsidered having children.

An ageing population will only put further pressure on social care and health services that have been slashed significantly over the last 13 years. The decline will also lead to further dwindling of an already shrinking working population, resulting in declining tax receipts.


France

Emmanuel Macron (above) has made France’s declining birthrate a significant part of his platform. The fervour around the discussion became heightened after the latest figures revealed that the country’s birthrate was down 7% in 2023, the lowest it has been since the second world war, leading the president to call for “demographic rearmament”.

To reverse the trend, Macron has floated natalist policies like fertility testing for those aged 25 and enhanced parental childbirth leave. The language that Macron has used has been described as reactionary, mirroring the rhetoric of populist leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin, who said that Russian women should have eight or more children. French newspaper Le Monde wrote that Macron is flirting with nostalgia for a France of “yesteryear” after he said that he would “ensure that France stays France”, a catchphrase used by Eric Zemmour’s far-right Reconquete party, indicating that he does not want to use immigration to deal with France’s population issues.

Like the UK and many other countries, people have cited similar economic, social and political reasons for not wanting children. Others have noted that unlike other European countries like Italy and Spain, France has less to worry about as it has experienced these kinds of declines in the past and bounced back from them.


South Korea

A quiet street in Seoul. Photograph: Heo Ran/Reuters

Perhaps the most striking case study of the decline in birthrates around the world is South Korea, a country with the lowest fertility rate in the world. In 2020, the number of deaths exceeded the number of births, nearly a decade earlier than expected. The situation has been described as a national emergency. In 2022 the birthrate was 0.78 per woman, which is far below the 2.1 births per woman needed to keep a population stable. It is predicted to decline even further to 0.65 in 2025. To get a sense of how sharp this reduction is, in 1960 the average Korean woman had six children.

Unlike other countries that have offset some of the impact of this decline through immigration, South Korea has low migration levels. On top of sluggish wage growth, rising costs of living and an extremely demanding work culture there is also an underlying cultural shift on issues surrounding gender equality that has likely affected the fertility rate. Only one-third of young South Koreans feel positive about marriage. Though marriage is not a prerequisite to start a family, only 2.5% of children were born to parents who were not married compared with the OECD average of 40%.

This sentiment has only been exacerbated by a “gender war” that has been bubbling in the country, where anti-feminist sentiment has festered among young men while young women have become more progressive or liberal. The problem is exemplified in the relationship boycott movement where tens of thousands of women vow to stay single for ever. Despite spending $200bn in just 16 years to try to reverse this trend, the South Korean government has had almost no luck.


China

Famous for its one child policy, abandoned in 2016, China has historically been known for population control. It seems now that the policy has been a bit too effective – for the first time in 60 years, China’s population shrank by nearly one million people in 2022.

Faced with the reality of a rapidly ageing population and shrinking work force, the government has implemented policies in an attempt to reverse this trend. People are now allowed to have up to three children and in some provinces the rules are even looser, though there has not been much of an impact on birthrates. The impact of the one child policy is proving difficult to shake, as China is now left with a massive gender-imbalance: in 2020 there were 1,123 male births for every 1,000 female births.


Puerto Rico

Many poorer countries tend to have higher birthrates but in Puerto Rico where poverty rates hover about 40%, fertility rates have been declining. The US territory registered 17,772 childbirths in 2023, which is its lowest number since records began in 1888. Its population has been compounded by migration: the island lost approximately 100,000 people each year from 2014 to 2018. After Puerto Rico was devastated by a series of natural disasters and financial crises, limiting job prospects and pushing many young people to leave, statistically speaking women are having less than one child each, making the birthrate lower than the death rate, raising the median age on the island from 36 in 2008 to 43 in 2018.

Experts say there is no magic bullet that will alter this trend. Neither jingoistic calls to dutifully bear children for the sake of the nation nor cash handouts seem to be doing the trick. It is also important to acknowledge that despite all of the alarmist language around declining birthrates, in many countries they go hand in hand with better reproductive rights, gender equality, and an abundance of options for the way young people can build their lives.

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What else we’ve been reading

Martin Scorsese. Photograph: Courtesy of Apple
  • The Labour party’s policy U-turns could be fatal for its political future, writes George Monbiot. “I suspect this might be Labour’s last chance: if it cannot significantly change our lives for the better, in subsequent elections it will shrivel to a dot, as centre-left parties have done elsewhere in Europe”. Nimo

  • I wore heels for most of my 20s and am still partial to them on a night out … but do I finally need to hang them up in favour of solid broad-soled trainers? Ammar Kalia speaks to experts about their simple tips for healthier joints. Nazia Parveen, acting deputy editor, newsletters

  • From three and a half hour blockbusters to 30-second sketches that have made him a social media darling, Martin Scorsese, pictured above, can do just about anything with the medium of film. His interview with Steve Rose reflects just how much verve and energy the 81-year-old still has for film-making: “I think I want to get back to making something as soon as possible. Like now. Right now. Today.” Nimo

  • “I find racism quite funny”: Daisy Jones speaks to Daniel Lawrence Taylor, the creator of the new BBC sitcom Boarders, and finds it’s about plucking the uncomfortable elements from real experience, but doing so with a sense of fun and mischief. Nazia

  • ICYMI: Yohann Koshy’s insightful long read on the tensions behind the chaos that erupted on the streets of Leicester between Hindus and Muslims a year and a half ago is well worth your time. Nimo

Sport

Patrick Mahomes has now won three Super Bowl titles. Photograph: Mark J Rebilas/USA Today Sports

American football | Patrick Mahomes led the Kansas City Chiefs to their third Super Bowl title in five years with a thrilling 25-22 overtime victory over the San Francisco 49ers. “It means a ton,” Mahomes told CBS when asked what his third championship meant to him. “I’m proud of my guys, man, this is awesome. It’s legendary.”

Football | Arsenal hammered West Ham 6-0 for its biggest ever Premier League away victory before Manchester United beat Aston Villa 2-1 in a huge result in the race for Champions League qualification. Arsenal joined second-place Manchester City just two points behind Liverpool.

Cricket | Glenn Maxwell has clubbed the fastest Twenty20 international century on Australian soil to propel his country to a series win against the West Indies. Maxwell blasted an unbeaten 120 from 55 balls at Adelaide Oval.

The front pages

“Overseas students in push to clear names over English test ‘cheating’” says our Guardian print edition’s Monday splash headline. “Shapps – Woke extremists are rife in army” reports the Daily Telegraph, and the Daily Express pounces as well on that complaint from the defence secretary: “Shapps – woke culture is poisoning common sense”. The i says “Hunt braced for double Budget blow this week”. “So, has Labour REALLY changed?” – the Daily Mail is suggesting the party might have antisemitism issues. The Metro has “‘Unhinged’” under a banner that says “Biden and v Trump in war of words” – that’s after Donald Trump said he would encourage Russia to attack Nato allies who are behind on the alliance’s bills. Top story in the Financial Times is “Trump opens 11-point poll lead over Biden on stewardship of US economy”. A great interview in the Daily Mirror with Alex Batty, about to turn 18 – who was taken on the run and Europe for six years and kept out of school by his grandfather and his mother, who did not have custody. The headline is “My new life”.

Today in Focus

Medical staff working in a hospital ward. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

Why does the UK lag behind on cancer care?

Britain’s cancer survival rates are improving but still lag behind comparable countries. The Guardian’s health editor, Andrew Gregory, reports

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The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Kate Jackson. Photograph: Anna Jackson

Most influencers sit comfortably in gen Z or gen alpha, posting carefully curated content to promote any number of brands to their legions of followers.

So when Kate Jackson – in her 60s – started to post about her homely lifestyle in rural Northumberland she had no idea she was about to become an accidental influencer and global phenomenon. Her cosy, creative existence has spawned a YouTube channel, two websites, an online shop – and most importantly for her, financial independence.

In 2017, Jackson, then 61, took a wooden wool-spinning wheel into her garden. She propped her iPad against a brick, pressed record and started talking as she spun – about crafts, the countryside, her menagerie of animals (cats, chickens, bees and Eileen the goose).

She called her channel The Last Homely House, “which is a place to feel comfortable, secure and welcomed. That’s what I wanted my channel to be.” Now it has 123,000 subscribers. Last May, Jackson set up a sister channel, called The Last Homely Garden. She has an online shop, nearly 40,000 Instagram followers, and even a fan-run Facebook group, and has become the linchpin of a thriving online community.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.

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