February 14, 2005

Making some sense of the Houghton baby boom effect

Posted in Sunday Business Post · 3 comments ·
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The entire hullabaloo this week in the media about babies, fertility, marriage and parents should focus our minds on a most puzzling development in Ireland over the past few years: we are having a lot of children. Why are we experiencing our second baby boom since the late 1970s?

In every other European country over the past 40 years, the richer the country becomes, the fewer children are born.

Here, we are bucking that trend. When we were poor in the 1980s our birth rate collapsed, but now our population is rising in tandem with our wealth.

More perplexingly, why are Irish women having more children than anywhere else in Europe, in the face of the most woeful childcare provision?

Economic theory and basic logic predict that countries with the best state-provided pre-school childcare should make it easier for women, particularly working women, to have children.

Therefore, women in places such as Scandinavia, Spain, Germany and Holland should have higher birth rates than countries that make it harder for working women to have children.

Yet this has not happened. In the rich world, Irish, Kiwi and American women are having considerably more babies than their counterparts in Europe. On average, Irish women are having two children each, while women in Catholic Spain are having half that number.

We are having 20 per cent more children than the EU average. Ireland, New Zealand and America are what could be called neo-liberal economies, where childcare is ad-hoc and not nearly as comprehensive as the continental countries where the state provides excellent childcare, maternity and paternity leave, tax breaks for extra children and a variety of other state supports for parents.

So why are the hard-pressed, hardworking women in neo-liberal economies defying logic and having more babies? To paraphrase the T�naiste, why is Boston more fertile than Berlin?

Before we examine this issue, it’s worth having a look at trends in Irish fertility. In 1960 we had the oldest population in Europe. By the time the Pope came here in 1979 we had the youngest.

Thereafter the birth rate plummeted to such an extent that by 1990 we had one of the lowest birth rates in the EU.

All demographers suggested back then that this trend would embed itself in our culture and Ireland would follow the low birth rate experience of other Catholic countries such as Italy and Spain.

But this did not happen. Instead, we experienced what I term the Ray Houghton effect.

Nine months after Houghton lobbed the ball over the Italian keeper in Giants Stadium, we started having babies again – and lots of them. Houghton’s aphrodisiac effect outlasted his own fine career, and by 1999 – just ten years after Ireland registered the fastest declining birth rate in Europe – we were back up there again on top of the EU baby list.

No other country in the western world has experienced such a zig-zagging birth rate. If couples are not going to behave in a predictable fashion, perhaps we might excuse some of the more ham-fisted mistakes of our planners. The birth rate and the structure of the population determine how many hospitals, schools and roads need to be built.

More importantly, the age of the population influences the politics of the nation – the older the population, the more conservative the state.

In the 1960s, the concerns, morals and preferences of Europe’s oldest population were reflected in our laws and our political status quo.

Trends in Irish fertility back then seem quite bizarre today. Our population was maintained by relatively few women having relatively many children.

Those Irish women who were married had four children on average.

An amazing statistic is that one-third of all births in Dublin’s maternity hospitals in 1960 were the fifth birth or higher.

By the late 1990s that figure had plunged. Today, only one in 20 women has a fifth child or more. (Figures from Trends in Irish Fertility by Tony Fahey, ESRI 2001.)

Instead of a relatively small number of large families, we are now seeing a boom in small families in Ireland. Our new baby boom is characterised by one and two-child families. Using the same statistical basis as above, over half of the women giving birth this year in our maternity hospitals will be having their first baby – way ahead of the EU average.

But the question is: why now? Ireland does not have any childcare provision to speak of, and paid maternity leave is among the shortest in Europe. Also, Irishwomen are working harder than ever.

Taken together with exorbitant creche fees, the expansion of private education and the increased paid supervision of our children, economics would suggest that the cost of having a kid has risen so much that the birth rate should fall.

But the opposite has happened. Contrast this with the eastern European states. Birth rates are falling rapidly in eastern Europe, despite the eastern European countries having fantastic state provided child support.

The reason that Serbs, Bulgarians, Russians, Czechs and Poles are not having children is that they simply cannot afford them. It is also possible that their hopes for the future have been so blighted by economic devastation that they are not inclined to bring children into the world.

In fact, there is an intriguing argument: that a baby boom is an indicator of national optimism about the future. In societies where contraception has been widely available for many years, there does seem to be a link between choosing to have children and economic expectation about the future.

Western European countries responded to the hope brought about by the end of World War II by having huge families. Americans did likewise, as did the Japanese, Russians and Germans.

Contrast this with Ireland after the Famine. Because the national psyche was damaged and hopelessness reigned, family structures changed profoundly, and this torpor and economic desperation lasted for over 100 years. Without contraception, we responded to economic hopelessness with sexual abstinence.

The explosion in family formation since Ray Houghton’s famous lob – as seen by over half of births in Holles Street being to first-time mothers – is a sign of economic hope.

The Celtic Tiger was conceived on an unseasonably humid June night in 1994.

We bring children into this world when we think the place is going in the right direction. In general, children are the most conspicuous example of ‘buyin’ a couple can make to a society. Maybe the outrageous zig-zagging of our birth rate since the 1960s is a reflection of the stop-start economics that characterised this place until the early 1990s.

This might be why neo-liberal economies are seeing higher fertility than their quasi-socialist neighbours.

For the moment, the neo-liberal economies are doing better and providing more job opportunities, and appear to have a vibrancy and optimism that is lacking in the more state-dominated economies. Forget all the hi-falutin’ theories – the leading indicators of economic buoyancy are sales of prams, rattles and babygros.

After all the negative talk this week about children, it is heartening to know that even the dismal science can see them all – no matter where they come from – as a cause for celebration.


  1. Christian

    I think this theory is fundamentally flawed.

    However the numbers are undeniable.

    I would suggest that you have underestimated and erroneous
    failed to include the fact of Ireland historic eras of
    emmigration.

    Of which periods having had most impact were during & after
    the famine and in the economic black days of the 80s the
    population birth rate was artificially low because the
    population most fertile were leaving en masse for lands far
    away.

    It is facile to simply correlate unchecked hyper
    capitalistic economic performances euqals optimism-equals-
    confident-procreation.

    It is a simple matter of common sense to deduct that the
    youngest and of most potential to successfully procreate
    strata of the population are also the one with the energy to
    up and leave when the environment cannot sustain them or
    further option of bearing children.

    So it can be argued that the zig zagging effect is actually
    based on population movements in and out of the country and
    right now we are still in the middle of inward population
    movements.

    People are now staying in Ireland and having kids.

    As opposed to leaving and having kids extra of the domain of
    Ireland.

    Of course the healthier the economic performances the lesser
    the reason to leave and the more to stay and enjoy the
    immediate wealth.

    This dictates the population movements but really it has no
    effect on procreation.

    People just leave and have the children somewhere else.

    Are there not 40 million 1st, 2nd, 3rd and so generational
    fasmilies claiming Irish genealogy in the USA alone?

    I would say if you want to find the lost children of Ireland
    look around the world.

    Is it not the joke that if the Irish dispora where to return
    tomorrow the place would be jammers?

    If we could scratch the mass population movements from
    history. I think it would be a fair assumption to say the
    Republic of Irelands population could esily tip over the 16
    million maybe even the 20 millions mark. More in line with
    our Eurpean trends

    Why are so few having children in Europe? I would guess a
    greater focus on long term 3rd level and higher education
    and the shaking of a ROMAN Catholic Churchs anti-family-
    planning-dogma no less owed to improved individual self
    awareness and education. Maybe even a degree of outward
    population movement of the potentially-child-bearing-young
    no less!

    David sometimes its easy to look at Apples & oranges and
    draw some kind of useful or novel correlation but in all
    honesty there are always dynamic and currents be they
    social, historic, natural, obscene and otherwise that need
    to be considered.

    It does sometimes work but in this case I think you have
    missed the opportunity to realise many things, one of whihc
    was that of a sense of context.

    I could argue as easily as you have above that having
    children is held in such negative tenure in the nations
    psyche that terms such as “Crisis pregnancy”, the stigma
    attached to “single parent families” leading to outrageous
    hateful attacks in the media and grumbelling by the ill
    informed in poorly illuminated watering houses, only confirm
    this to be so.

    Children are seen as a liability, a danger. hugging a child
    does not come without some woe of a litany of “child abuse”
    scandals. Fathers find it harder to be close to their
    children for fear of overstepping some very blurred line.

    Holy crap the councils are evening shutting down playgrounds
    because we our peace of mind will not let children have fun
    being a child. (thank you INSURANCE Corp IRELAND)

    Looking forward to the next article.

  2. Dan Hayes

    David,

    How much of this baby-boom is from immigrants? A while ago
    you stated that in a short time some 2% of the Irish
    populace would be Chinese.

    In the U.S.A. if one removed the immigrant birth
    contribution the birth rate would be below replacement
    level.Most of this birth is driven by illegal immigration
    from south of the border (down Mexico way). This illegal
    immigration is detested by the overwhelming majority of
    Americans, but, of course, they don’t count! Who do count
    are the business interests (big, medium, and small)and even
    the labor unions (who delusionally believe/hope that they
    can corral new membership – fat chance!).

    I enjoy your work chronicalling the autodemolition of
    Ireland.

  3. Natalie

    Talking to a wide spectrum of the population, I am always
    amazed to see that the professional women would rather do
    without baby and anything that could restrict their
    opportunities. They would possibly consider having a family
    in theory but it is always later. Talking to the other end
    of the spectrum, where money and opportunities are scarce
    and yet, working is necessary to repay the mortgage and
    associated debt, having children is seen as the one area
    where illusion of control and expectations of worthwhile
    reward is found. There is a perception it brings a meaning
    into the non sensical lifestyle of modern Ireland. Wild
    consumerism makes for hollow life, and children can be seen
    as one way of filling this gap, in theory.
    Why is it not happening in the continent? I would suggest
    that continental economies and cultures are stronger in
    offering an alternative to sheer consumerism in terms of
    maintaining a more dignified life. Consumerism is there but
    not the the extent in UK, Ireland, USA or New Zealand (I
    find the term “Kiwi” demeaning, sorry). In the continent,
    shopping is not the only past-time outside getting drank.
    When a culture can support meaning and purpose to
    anybody’life, children are not used as tool and loaded in
    expectations in order to make their parents happy.

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