Insight: How worried should we be about Scotland's falling birth rates and ageing population?

How do you feel about having children? What about childlessness? Ideal family size? And how might Covid and the climate crisis affect these?

It might sound intrusive, but the Scottish Government is taking an active interest, and with good reason. Ministers are hoping to finally cure an enduring and deep-rooted demographic headache.

Analysis indicates that by 2045, there will be 200,000 fewer children and 300,000 more people over the age of 65 in Scotland.

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The National Records of Scotland projects the country’s population will hit a peak of 5.48 million in 2028 before falling to 5.39 million by 2045.

Scotland's birth rate hit a record low in 2020. Picture: Didier Pallages/AFP via Getty ImagesScotland's birth rate hit a record low in 2020. Picture: Didier Pallages/AFP via Getty Images
Scotland's birth rate hit a record low in 2020. Picture: Didier Pallages/AFP via Getty Images

This would see Scotland’s population decline by 1.5 per cent over the next 25 years, while the UK population grows by 5.8 per cent.

Birth rates have been falling for years, but in 2020, the number of children born in Scotland dropped to its lowest level since records began in 1855.

It is a stark illustration of a long-term problem. And with concerns over public services and social care, ministers are attempting to do something about it.

A population taskforce was established in June 2019 and the Government is now commissioning research to gain an "in-depth understanding of views on having children, childlessness, attitudes to ideal family size, and barriers and enablers to achieving ideal family size".

An official strategy paper published last year identified three challenges: maintaining the population size in Scotland, ensuring age structures are sustainable and striking a balance between urban, rural and remote areas.

It outlined Scotland's unique and troublesome demographic history, one "intertwined" with emigration. During the second half of the 20th century, the document said, population growth in Scotland was slower than in any other part of Western Europe. Our population has risen to a record high since 2000, but this is thanks to inward migration, not births.

But what does the future hold, and how worried should we be?

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"The fact that we have a declining birth rate is a cause for concern and I think it's an issue that we'll be hearing about over the next few years,” said Dr Sarah Christison, an academic at the University of St Andrews who studies population change.

She indicated the trend is likely to continue in the wake of Covid and the cost of living crisis, while it will also become a "bigger issue in Scotland in particular off the back of Brexit".

"In the future after Brexit, we don't know what migration policy will look like,” she said. "So if we have a decline in migration, along with continuous falling birth rates, we could have slower population growth or possibly some population decline depending on how far birth rates fall and how migration falls. And that leads to a speeding up of an ageing population, which obviously shrinks the working age population and can have impacts on the economy."

Christison said the main way to boost fertility rates “is to bring in policies that basically bring up living standards for everyone”.

Professor Graeme Roy, of Glasgow University, called demographic change one of the "grand challenges".

He said: "We can sometimes get caught up too much in the short-term, like are interest rates going up? What is inflation in the UK at the moment? What might the Scottish Government do about council tax, or what might the Chancellor do in his next budget?

"We focus very much on the short term. But if you take a step back, there are these very big, long-term structural changes in our economy, from climate change, from demographic change, from inequalities - all these things that are going to be around for a long time. They will all have a much bigger impact on our economy over time than any short-term things that we're talking about just now."

He said Scotland's birth rate is not "radically different" from other high income countries. The issue is our older population.

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"It is a big concern, in the sense that it matters for a whole variety of different things," the economist said. "It matters obviously just for economic growth. If you've got fewer people working in the economy, that has an impact on economic performance and the rate of growth in your economy."

Public services will be squeezed. "You've got more people demanding, but fewer people paying for them, and that's a challenge for countries because you're going to have a greater fiscal squeeze from that."

The dynamics at play have been around for a long time. Former first minister Jack McConnell's Fresh Talent initiative, launched in 2005, sought to encourage graduates from overseas to stay and work in Scotland.

"We kind of got away with it for a wee while because of the EU migration coming in, but if that's going to be more difficult then it becomes even more challenging from that," Roy said.

While Scotland's older population might be a key issue, ministers and officials are still puzzling over how to boost birth rates.

As part of a wide programme of work being carried out by the Scottish Government's population taskforce, a £25,000 contract has now been posted for research involving focus groups and interviews.

This will investigate general attitudes towards having children in Scotland, explore views on possible barriers and ideal family size, and look at how attitudes towards climate change, delayed parenthood and Covid relate to these. It will also explore attitudes to and reasons for childlessness.

"The Scottish Government is clear that deciding to have a child or not is an important decision and it is a decision for individuals and couples," the contract document insists.

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"It is not for government to seek to dictate whether an individual should have a child or how many children they should choose to have. However, the strategy was clear there is a role for government in addressing the barriers that may prevent individuals and couples from having the family that they may wish to."

Michael Anderson, a professor emeritus at Edinburgh University and an expert on Scottish demographic changes, said new research "is certainly very much needed".

He said births have been falling since the financial crash, but there are "huge differences" within Scotland. Edinburgh, for example, is experiencing some of the fastest growth in the country, but its birth rate is among the lowest once the age of its residents is taken into account. More rural areas, such as Argyll and Bute, have much older populations.

"We are pretty clear that a degree of certainty and security and a feeling of confidence is one of the things that in general terms appears to be very important in couples having children," Anderson said.

Research suggests the post-war baby boom was the result of people feeling more secure following changes such as the welfare state and council housing.

Anderson said past events such as the Great Depression in the 1930s and the financial crash pushed down the birth rate. He even suggested researchers might want to look into the impact of uncertainties around an independent Scotland.

"A general financial uncertainty, and uncertainty among people recently as to whether or not they would still have a job after Covid - all those sorts of issues I don't think help to encourage higher fertility," he said.

"Past history is very clear, and anything that increases people's sense of anxiety and uncertainty about the future tends to depress fertility. People have babies when they feel confident about doing so."

Is it worth incentivising people to start families?

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"There has been a long history, going right back to the 1930s, of countries attempting to develop policies to actually encourage people to have more children," Anderson said. "Very few of those policies, even though they sometimes cost quite a lot of money, have actually worked very effectively.”

He said encouraging people to have more babies "is not a particularly effective way of actually doing anything about the size of the working population" because it “takes an awful long time before it can have much effect”.

For Anderson, the best way of dealing with an ageing population is to encourage older people to work for longer.

The 79-year-old added: "You can do it by raising the pensionable age. You can also do it by creating the circumstances and the kind of situations in which people feel that they want to work or will benefit from working."

Anderson is not very worried about the falling birth rate, arguing a lot of people will continue to want children and migration can help boost numbers.

But there is no doubt an ageing population throws up all sorts of serious issues.

Brian Sloan, chief executive of Age Scotland, raised concerns around long-term health conditions, increasing numbers of people with dementia, loneliness and isolation and unsuitable housing.

He highlighted the importance of older people staying active. Age Scotland has been involved in walking football, which boasted thousands of players, generally men, before the pandemic.

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"Why can't we create older people's sports and social clubs, and get walking versions of all the sports that lend themselves to that?" Sloan said.

He argued many sports facilities are underutilised. "Rugby clubs are probably quite a good example," he added. "Some rugby clubs have fantastic facilities and good community areas. But I drive past them and during the week, during the day, they're empty. There will be other facilities like that, with good green space, and they're lying empty."

Donald Macaskill, chief executive of Scottish Care, which represents the independent care sector, argued an ageing population should be seen as a "real positive".

However, he said it was "critical" to ensure there is an immigration process that enables people to come to Scotland, "because we're still losing more people than we are gaining people, and that's got worse since January 2021 [Brexit]."

Asked how concerned he is about the future of the sector, he said: "We're always concerned about the future of the sector, because a lot of the responses are very short-term and reactive, rather than long-term and progressive.

"Now the Scottish Government will say, but we've got the National Care Service coming down the tracks, which is true - but in five years' time. The bus will have left the station by then.

"Our argument has been, we've got to flip this around and instead of thinking of social care as a cost, as an economic demerit, we need to start seeing social care delivery as something which is of fiscal benefit to the country."

Macaskill said a consultation on the SNP's planned National Care Service, which is due to be up and running by 2026, failed to spell out how it will be paid for.

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"The National Health Service took years of work to establish, but it took a decade before it was properly bedded in," he said. "And you were dealing there with a much smaller set of service delivery compared to the National Care Service.

"You were dealing there with a defined number of units in each population base, plus general practitioners, and that was it.

"We're talking about thousands of individual social care providers and the provision to a much broader range of population. More people use social care than use the NHS."

He added: "Is creating a National Care Service more complicated than creating the NHS? I would say so, by a degree. Especially if you don't actually identify the resource available to you."

Macaskill said the social care sector needs "urgent decisions about substantial fiscal investment to keep going in the next 18 months".

Local government sources say councils are struggling to fill roles in social care, with around 900 vacancies across Scotland.

"If we're looking at an aging population, more people needing care, then clearly that's an issue, and an issue that we need to address now," one said.

Councillor Stuart Currie, the health and social care spokesman for Cosla, the council umbrella body, said: "There is no doubt that the system is nearing crisis point with high levels of unmet need and we need to take action now.

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"We cannot wait the four or five years until a National Care Service is in place, however that may be structured."

Roy said demographic change "is a concern for the Scottish economy, and it's got to be a priority for policymakers, but it's one of many challenges we need to get ahead of and get our head around and solve".

He added: "And we do that by focusing on the long-term and focusing on proper solutions, rather than short-term ding-dong political battles."

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The Scottish Government is well aware of the demographic challenges facing the nation, which is why a population taskforce was established in June 2019 to consider Scotland’s future population challenges, and has produced Scotland’s first national population strategy.

“One demographic trend framed in the strategy is that of falling birth rates in Scotland. The Scottish Government celebrates families of all kinds and is clear that deciding to have a child is a deeply personal decision for individuals and couples, and it is not for government to make intrusive value judgements about these decisions. Boosting Scotland’s working age population is a priority and we believe Scotland should have control of immigration policy.”