Europe's social outcast

September 12, 1997

Britain tops the European league in teenage births and divorce, aligning it with its English-speaking cousins across the globe rather than its continental neighbours, says David Coleman

Until well into this century the British, especially in England and Wales, enjoyed lower death rates than most Europeans and had smaller families. Other demographic trends - indicators of life's chances - were common across Europe. But, since the 1970s, trends in Britain have diverged sharply from those of its continental neighbours in ways which signal neither progress nor moderation.

Our research shows that Britain now leads Western Europe in teenage births, divorce and lone-parent families and is gaining ground in net immigration. I believe that these trends are problems, not benefits; many of our "extra" babies compared with Europe are born into the relative poverty and dependency of adverse family circumstances.

In the past, Britain's demographic indicators signalled its progress and modernity. Today many of the differences which make us stand out from the European crowd merely show where we have gone wrong. How far these national handicaps are avoidable, due to the unintended consequences of law, welfare or housing policies is unclear. But, with a squeeze on welfare, they may not be sustainable.

They also distance us from many of our European neighbours, raising the question of where we fit into the continent - at its heart or on its margins? Statistical analyses often put Britain close to France but even closer to Scandinavia. Wider comparisons put us closer to the English-speaking world - including North America and Australia - than to any European group of countries, especially in relation to our birth rate and causes of death. That Anglo-Saxon connection, brought daily to our televisions, also matches some of the similarities noted in other studies' in tax and welfare policy, and in a shared taste for economic liberalism. Political systems and shared values may be showing themselves here: of the eight developed countries since 1914 not to have had their constitutions overthrown by force, five are English-speaking.

The trends signalled below are all drawn from "Britain's place in Europe's population", a research project based at Oxford University.

* Birth rates in Britain are among the highest in Europe, alongside Ireland, France and most of Scandinavia, although childlessness here is more common than elsewhere. Our birth rates have remained constant for 20 years - equivalent, until a recent dip, to a family size of 1.8 children per woman - while they have fallen in many other countries. France has spent a lot on the family, in part to support the birth rate. British birth rates, just as high but cheaper, are put down to carelessness by disgruntled French observers. Indeed British fertility is distinguished in Europe by the high level of teenage births: four times the West European average. These teenage rates have changed little in 20 years while the fertility rates of women in their 20s, here and abroad, have fallen substantially - as though we had "two nations" in our birth rate.

* Most of these teenage births are illegitimate. In the 1990s, over 30 per cent of births in Britain were outside marriage. Such births have also increased in most European countries but the level in Britain is higher than the European average: less than Scandinavia, about the same as France, twice as high as in Germany, four times the level in Italy or Switzerland. In Britain as elsewhere, much of the increase has come from couples who are cohabiting, rather than women left on their own. However, such "stable informal unions" are less stable than equivalent marriages. In terms of measures of divorce England and Wales are first in Europe.

* As a result, Britain has the highest proportion (15 per cent) of children living in lone-parent families in the EU. In 1994 about 1.5 million households were headed by single parents - about a quarter of families with dependent children, two to three times the level in the Netherlands and Germany.

* A century ago death rates in Britain were the lowest in Europe except for a few rural countries. Now death rates, as measured by expectation of life at birth, are statistically mediocre by West European standards. For about 20 years, male expectation of life at birth has only just kept up with the European average, with a relatively high level of deaths from heart disease and respiratory disease. Women's mortality has also deteriorated relative to that in the rest of Europe. Breast cancer is a particular British problem.

* The UK shared the general European increase from the mid-1980s in immigration and asylum claiming. However, while legal immigration and asylum claims have peaked or reversed elsewhere, asylum claims to the UK increased substantially from 1993 to 1995, although they declined in 1996. Also contrary to the European trend, annual net additions to the population (including some asylum claimants) from international migration rose from an estimated 35,000 in 1992 to 109,000 in 1995, comprising about half of the UK's total population growth, and making a net addition of 647,000 people in the decade. Immigration is partly behind the notorious 4.4 million projected increase of homes from 1991 to 2016, and its recent trend will force a further upward revision.

* The UK's population used to be, with Sweden's, the oldest in Europe. Now the proportion of the population aged over 64, which has trebled since 1901, is 16 per cent. Thanks to lower birth rates, Europe will age more. The UK's elderly population is now exceeded not only by Sweden (18 per cent) and Norway (16 per cent) but also by Italy and Belgium, with Spain and Greece (15 per cent) not far behind.

These trends will exacerbate the problems of funding Europe's pensions, which are sustained much less by funded schemes than in the UK, and to the costs of which a unified monetary system might expect us to contribute.

David Coleman is reader in demography at Oxford University. All opinions are his alone.

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