Inghilterra, boom di nascite. E l’Italia?

domenica, 2 Maggio, 2010

Il Times si interroga in Inghilterra sulla nuova esplosione delle nascite.Il tasso in Inghilterra è dello 0,7% annuo, più del doppio che negli anni ’90, più del triplo rispetto agli ’80. Naturalmente l’editorialista del Times, piuttosto conservatore, si chiede se tutto ciò non sia una minaccia. Purtroppo non si affronta il paragone con paesi come l’Italia: perché da noi questo trend non esiste affatto? Che cosa spaventa i giovani italiani sul fronte del fare figli? Le risposte vengono subito in mente, certo, ma perché l’Inghilterra invece sembra andare in tutt’altra difrezione

Dal Times online del 3.5.2010:

The new baby boomers: a menace?
Britain is in the grip of the biggest baby explosion for 40 years. Our writer, who has two boomers of her own, asks why no one saw it coming
Helen Rumbelow

The decision to conceive a child was, I thought, one of the few in my life that has been uniquely private. Pregnant with my special little snowflake, I laboured under this delusion when waiting for a room in the small maternity reception area of St Thomas’ Hospital, London, behind three other groaning and writhing women in the queue.

I was still oblivious when our local nursery places were snapped up and neighbours started gazumping each other’s childminders. But when I casually inquired about primary school places and was told “You’ll be lucky”, the truth finally dawned with something of a shock. My unique little snowflake was part of the biggest baby boom in four decades.

Women in Britain started to breed like rabbits from 2001 and only last year did they begin to control themselves a little. As if responding to some silent, science-fiction-style signal I, along with millions of women, got knocked up on cue. It is only when you get a sense of the resulting population-quake, that you see what an effect my daughter — born 2006 — and her mighty cohorts will have on us all and on each other. We’re still talking about the postwar baby-boomers half a century on. The Noughties equivalent is already wreaking havoc and they’re barely out of playschool. What will it be like for her to grow up a boomer and how do the rest of us cope?

First, the figures explain a lot of modern mysteries. As David Foot, demographic professor and author of Boom, Bust & Echo 2000, says: “If you get the booms and busts, you can explain two thirds of what is going on in economics. We — governments, businessmen — don’t pay nearly enough attention to demographics.”

Were you, like me, vaguely aware that ever-larger flotillas of buggies were blocking the streets? Were you strangely puzzled when you heard that Mothercare’s profits soared tenfold in a year, or that politicians were wooing Mumsnet? Were you wondering why the NHS couldn’t get a grip on overstretched maternity wards — just last week official figures showed that 750 mothers in labour were turned away by full hospitals, up 25 per cent on 2007?

Well, here’s a hint as to why. The fertility rate in the UK is the highest since 1973. Half of that is children of foreign-born mothers, but British-born women are popping ever more out too. In 2008 there were 708,711 babies born in England and Wales, compared with 594,634 in 2001. Some 33,000 extra babies are being born year on year. The population is now growing at 0.7 per cent a year, more than double the rate in the 1990s, and three times that of the 1980s. And for the first time in a decade, it is births, rather than immigration, that is the biggest driver of population change.

And, even worse — I feel personally apologetic — when the boom came, it came with an unexpected, er, bang. Britain’s birth rate in 2001 was one of the lowest on record. That was the national story: ageing population, career women shrivelling their ovaries, shrinking primary schools, the end. Then suddenly the doors of the emptying maternity units started to swing. Midwives were the first to notice something funny was going on. “It was never this busy,” I remember mine saying to me as she sprinted through the night. Even when I was in dire need, she had to — literally — run off because a “baby was turning blue”.

When I looked up the statistics, I discovered that an extra 754 babies were born in my borough in 2006 compared with 2001 — my daughter was extra number 755. They require a further two labour rooms a day, physically impossible for our local hospital to build in the short term. No wonder that a Royal College of Midwives survey found that 38 per cent of midwives said that the baby boom caused substandard care.

Population swings of this kind cause logistical nightmares for anyone providing housing, education or hospitals, as I would find out. David Coleman, professor of demography at the University of Oxford, says: “Booms crash through maternity services, then schools, then the job market, wreaking destruction.”

The late 1990s rise in immigration is the easy part of the story, as immigrants usually have bigger familiesthan Brits. But, says Coleman, the sharpness of the rise is still a mystery — some of the highest birth rates are in rural Britain where there are few immigrants.

Why, I ask myself a little late, did I have a baby?

If the mid-20th-century baby boom was “postwar”, the early 21st-century baby boom could be described as “post-feminist”. When the daughters of the postwar baby boomers moved into the workforce in the 1990s “initially that was a great disincentive to childbearing”, Coleman says.

Births dropped — because the twenty and thirtysomethings such as me were putting them off. Then we — I speak for an entire generation of mothers — thought, whoops, better not forget to have kids!

Since 2001, the largest relative increases in the number of births in the UK are in women over 40 (up 55 per cent), and between 35 and 39 (up 33 per cent). It turns out that all those working women were going to have children after all — just 15 years later than their own mothers.

“The birth rate had been artificially depressed by the rise of educated women in the workforce — but when they stop postponing children, the eventual family size may remain the same,” Coleman says.

That’s not the whole explanation. British-born twentysomethings are having more children too. Family-friendly policies of the Labour Government may play a part. But, in a broader sense, there may be a new relationship between wealth and fecundity. In the past, when a country moved from poverty (with high death and birth rates) to wealth, family size naturally dropped. Contraception, education, progress, all go hand in hand. Now, in wealthy countries, Coleman says: “There is some evidence to suggest that better-off people are having more children — that’s starting to happen in some Nordic countries.” Some believe that the recession is the reason this baby boom has finally tailed off.

It has led, though, to intense bickering about who failed to predict and plan for the boom. Maternity units are pretty stuffed — they only have months to brace themselves for newborn tidal waves. But schools — they have five years. So how come in boroughs across the country portable buildings are going up in playgrounds, and parents are mounting desperate 11th-hour campaigns for new schools?

The Department for Children, Schools and Families predicts that by 2018 there will be an extra 549,000 children in primary schools from the levels now. It will be the biggest number of pupils in the system since the late 1970s, and the equivalent to 2,300 new primary schools. But do you see the school building programme in full swing? Debatable.

Schools, in fact, are bursting at the seams — the number of primary school children taught in classes of more than 30 pupils, the legal maximum, more than doubled in the past two years, to 10,010. Southwark, in s
outheast London, where my daughter was born, is one of the worst hit. It has the fourth highest increase in births of inner-London boroughs: those extra births my daughter contributed to in 2006, amount to an extra 25 classrooms of children on the 2001 figure. And that’s in a neighbourhood that is exceptionally short of space.

John Hollis is the demographic consultant for the Greater London Authority, in charge of advising councils on the birth bomb.

“Many London boroughs are facing a triple whammy: increasing births, probably fewer people choosing private school and a real drop in people leaving London when they have children,” he says. “We can make predictions, but it’s only at application time when you can see what is actually happening, and then you’ve got a mere six months to rejig the system.”

Sounds like a nightmare? “I would not like to be in the job of planning education places,” he says Last year the crisis in Southwark really gathered pace. A local MP ran a campaign, internet sites were launched and my former nursery gates (I have recently moved) were a-twitter with “will we get a place?”

Southwark, for its part, had no extra money for all the additional mouths to feed. All council funding is based on the 2001 Census, just before the boom exploded. Southwark has more council housing than any other borough — and three quarters on the waiting list were for family homes. Now, they had to work out a way to teach hundreds of extra five-year-olds.

Three of my local primary schools opened one-off classes last year — only possible because of empty places in older years. Two others agreed to permanently enlarge by an extra class. But we have another five years of rising rolls to cope with. The council convened an emergency review, acknowledging in it “an unprecedented degree of concern about reception classes . . . this problem had not been predicted”.

What is the future for my little baby-boomers? Not all doom and gloom, David Foot says. First, smart investors take note — do all you can to capture this huge market.

“This has huge implications for sales of children’s toys now, and so on throughout their lives,” Foot says.

Second, although boomers have to compete more — “worse pupil-teacher ratios, more graduates competing for jobs”, says Foot — there is strength in numbers.

“The front half of a boom does very well, it gets all the jobs, pushes up house prices. If you’re part of a boom, society pays attention to you. You are more likely to get what you want, politically and in the marketplace.”

So happy birthday, kiddo. And your four million primary school friends. Just don’t invite them all over to tea.

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