To take our minds off the heavier economic / financial topics for a while I thought I would share some thoughts provoked by the Annual Summary of Vital Statistics for 2010 published at the end of June. Taken in conjunction with the preliminary results of the 2011 Census, it reveals some surprisingly positive trends for a country in the throes of a very deep recession.
Our birth rate is holding up despite the surge in unemployment and the resumption of net emigration (even if at a more modest rate than previously feared).
Over 75,000 births were registered in 2008 – almost 60% more than in 1994 and the highest number recorded in modern times. However, this was probably the peak, as the annual total for 2010 was 2% lower than that for 2008, while the 2010Q4 figure was 4% lower than the corresponding figure for 2008.
The surge in births will have far-reaching implications for the economy’s medium-term prospects. Most immediately it is placing pressure on the educational system, but over the longer run it could be argued that our relatively youthful population will bestow a competitve advantage relative to the rest of Europe, where the ageing of populations is becoming an acute problem.
The pattern of births by family size (or number of previous children born to the mother) is revealing. The number of first births passed the 30,000 mark in 2008, which was a historic peak and some 50% higher than the number recorded in the late 1990s. The figure for 2010 was only 2.5% below this peak – suggesting that the number of young couples in the population is holding steady. On the other hand, the number of births to already-large families (four or more children) has fallen by 17.7% in the last three years. The accelerated decline in the number of large families is one of the factors behind the continuing fall in average household size noted by other contributors to the site. However, these developments do not suggest that that we are moving rapidly to the extremely lower fertility rates now common in southern, central, and eastern Europe.
One category of births that has declined steadily since the turn of the century is the number of births to mothers aged under 20 (almost 90 per cent of whom are unmarried). This is partly due to the decline in the number of teenagers in the population, but the rate per 1,000 relevant population has fallen by almost 15% since 2007. This answers a question raised by Cormac Ó Gráda who drew attention to the drop in the proportion of births to young unmarried mothers since the turn of the century in an earlier post. He wondered if these trends would survive the recession. The answer is ‘yes’.
The increase in the number of births of the past fifteen years made great demands on the maternity side of our health services, yet the infant mortality rate declined from 6.0 per 1,000 births in the mid-1990s to 3.8 in 2010, which is below the UK rate. At the other end of the life cycle, the news on the mortality front continues to be good (unless you are in the pensions business!). The gains in life expectancy that have been recorded in Ireland over the last decade are continuing. The death rate among the population aged 65 and over has fallen from 70 per 1,000 in 1999 to 40 per 1,000 last year, with a 4.8% fall in 2010 alone. The large drop in this death rate in 2010 is surprising in view of the exceptionally severe weather experienced at the beginning and end of the year. Disentangling the contributions of better lifestyles, improved housing conditions and progress in health care to these trends is a challenging research agenda.
The data on deaths from ‘external’ causes such as accidents and violence (whether self-inflicted or otherwise) also reveal some surprisingly positive trends. Between 2007 and 2010 the total number of deaths attributed to all these causes declined by 4.5%. Accidental deaths fell by 10.1%. The number of homicides was 5% lower. Consistent with this, the just-published Report on Recorded Crime for 2011Q2 shows that the decline in all major categories of crime that began in 2010 accelerated in the first half of 2011, with some of the most important categories down by over 30%.
While the total of suicides and the closely-related category of ‘deaths due to events of undetermined intent’ was 5.2% higher in 2010 than in 2007, it fell by 15.7% between 2009 and 2010.
In view of the role of alcohol in many forms of violence and accidents, it is relevant to note that Irish alcohol consumption has fallen steeply since the onset of the recession. The yield of excise taxes on alcoholic beverages declined by 27% between 2007 and 2010 – and by almost 15% in 2010 alone. This reflects falling sales rather than any changes in tax rates. While this trend aggravates our fiscal plight, it seems to be having a salutary effect on our national health. The dampening influence of the recession on alcohol consumption and possibly also drug use seems to be offsetting the impact of the social disruption caused by high unemployment.