The number of births recorded in Ireland reached a twentieth century peak of 74.0 thousand in 1980 and fell to an all-time low of 48.2 thousand in 1994.
Births began to increase in the second half of the 1990s and the rate of increase has been rapid over the past five years. The latest figures released by the CSO (Vital Statistics Third Quarter 2008) raise the possibility that the 1980 peak may soon be surpassed, although of course this would still imply a significantly lower birth rate as the population is now some 30 per cent above its 1980 level. The TPFR (total period fertility rate – roughly the number of births per woman over her child-bearing life span) declined from 3.23 in 1980 to a low of 1.85 in 1994 but was back up to 2.03 in 2007.
These huge swings in the birth rate have serious implications for resource allocation, especially in the health and education sectors. The Dublin maternity hospitals are now bursting at the seams, while the educational system will continue to feel the impact of growing numbers of school-age children for years to come.
Will the number of births continue to grow? Population projections are notoriously uncertain, at best serving to illustrate the implications of alternative assumptions about key demographic variables. The projections for 2011-2041 published by the CSO in April 2008 assumed that the TPFR would decline to 1.78 by 2011, which seems a high given the continuing buoyancy in the birth rate.
But there are reasons for believing that the birth rate could suddenly take a nosedive, as happened in the 1980s. The peak in the number of births recorded in 1980 was quite dramatic and the subsequent rate of decline steep. (The decline began shortly after Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland in September 1979, when he preached against contraception and abortion.) More significant is that it coincided closely with the sharp rise in unemployment as Ireland entered the deep recession of the 1980s. The following graph shows the correlation between the number of births (four quarter moving average) and the seasonally adjusted numbers on the Live Register, lagged three quarters. The coincidence between the peak in the number of births and the floor in the unemployment rate is striking.
The second graph is the comparable picture for the years 2005 to date (using the standardised unemployment rate in place of Live Register figures).
The unemployment rate began to increase dramatically in the second half of 2008, so it should begin to affect births registered from the second quarter of 2009 onwards. The latest available data are for 2008Q3, but it is interesting to note that the graph shows the number of births plateauing over the period 2007Q4-2008Q3. If the experience of the early 1980s is anything to go by, this graph will nosedive over the coming years. Watch this space!