Hatchings, Matchings and Dispatchings.

Hatchings, Matchings and Dispatchings.

2020 will be an unlamented year, known for a long time as the year of the coronavirus. Hopefully 2021 will be better, if the various vaccines and Brexit permit, and some resurgence of normal activity returns. Indeed just as the excesses of the roaring Twenties followed the Spanish Flu, we may well see a year of hedonistic excess.

I do not wish to dwell long on the “excess deaths”, a subject thrashed over fairly heavily by both amateur and professional actuaries, but to focus on the other aspects of the British population pyramid. How has the virus impacted on other parts of the population? 

Hatchings: We are not quite nine months into the pandemic, so the impact on the birthrate is not yet known, though anecdotally from my obstetric colleagues the number of pregnancies is significantly down. This would seem to be a combination of lockdown impact on both unplanned and planned pregnancies, due to reduced opportunity. This perhaps is offset to some degree by lockdown intimacy and difficulty accessing contraception in established couples. Lockdown did start at a time when British (and internationally) fertility rates were already dropping significantly.

How much further might the birth-rate drop? And will there be a rebound? Analysis of previous events do show that following previous severe events, and their consequent economic impact, there is little rebound (the post WW2 baby boom being a notable exception). Indeed with ticking biological clocks and suspension of infertility treatments during the pandemic, the opportunity for some may be permanently lost. One group of American Economists has done some sums and forecast a 15% drop in the US birthrate, or 500 000 births. https://www.brookings.edu/research/half-a-million-fewer-children-the-coming-covid-baby-bust/

This would seem to be a reasonable ballpark figure to extrapolate to the UK, though with stricter lockdown and more economic effect, possibly a 20% reduction or 128 000 fewer births. Worth noting that this is roughly twice the excess mortality, and if an excess death is 10 years lost, these missing births have lost eighty. Perhaps 16 times as many life years are to be lost this way as from direct excess mortality.

Matchings: Once again we start from a low position, with heterosexual marrige numbers declining for years, but even so the restrictions in place have caused massive postponement of wedding celebrations throughout 2020, though whether new relationship formation has been quite so impacted is not so easy to assess. I would anticipate a wedding boom post pandemic, but perhaps also a divorce boom as some households seem to have struggled in confinement, and economic stress swiftly translates to marital stress. 

Dispatchings: As well as births and deaths, the net flow of immigration has been a major contributor to the British population over recent decades, typically a quarter million or so net arrivals per year, mostly of early working age.  Once again, 2020 figures are tentative at present. The hospitality sector has been a large scale employer of migrants, and perhaps the most affected by the decline in tourism, hotels, bars and dining. Health care workers have sometimes returned out of duty to their homeland, many being on short term contracts. Overseas student enrollments have dropped, and some have not returned to complete their courses, so are net departures. Family reunification and economic migration also seem down, with the reduction in international aviation and lack of employment opportunity. Net immigration in the tens, rather than hundreds of thousands may already be here.

The net effect of these changes may be a one off drop in population growth, perhaps in the order of 250 000 fewer people in 2020-21 than anticipated. If the economy stagnates and renewed austerity grinds on, then we may see impact echoing for years to come. There is now a need to reconsider the projected population pyramid for 2041, which pre-pandemic looked like this, based on existing patterns of births and inward migration, with growth of 2.5 million, mostly in the over 65’s:

My numbers are at present speculative, to an extent based on my own anecdata, and hard data is needed. The year of 2020 will go down in history as a lost year, not just in millions of individual opportunities forgone, but also a long term worsening of the stresses of an ageing population and increasing dependency ratios. 

Not just in the UK, but also across the world, politicians may need to rethink policy to support young people and families, rather than just lay heavier and heavier burdens on their shoulders. That essential rebalancing in favour of the young has been growing for some time, but is now needed more than ever. The Triple Lock and similar pensioner benefits are not sustainable, and we grey haired voters need to be a bit less selfish about them.


Foxy is a long time PB poster, and a hospital doctor in Leicester, a parent but not yet a grandparent.

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