The study of populations and their characteristics is called demography. These characteristics include:

* Size: is the population large or small, growing or declining?

* Age structure: is the average age of the population rising or falling?

The factors that most directly affect the size of a country’s population are:

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* Births: how many babies are born.

* Deaths: how many people die.

* Immigration: how many people enter the country from elsewhere.

* Emigration: how many people leave the country to live elsewhere.

Britain in 1801 had a population of 10.5 million. By 1901, this stood at 37 million. By 2007, the population of the UK had reached nearly 61 million and one projection is that it will rise to 71 million by 2031.

Until the 1980s, UK population growth was largely the product of natural change – that is, the result of there being more births than deaths. However, since the 1980s, most of the growth has come from net migration – that is, more immigration than emigration.

Births

The number of births obviously affects population size. Sociologists use the concept of birth rate to measure births. The birth rate is defined as the number of live births per 1000 of the population per year.

There has been a long-term decline in the number of births since 1900. In that year, England and Wales had a birth rate of 28.7, but by 2007 it had fallen to an estimated 10.7.

However, there have been fluctuations in births, with three ‘baby booms’ in the 20th century. The first two came after the two world wars (1914-18 and 1939-45), as returning servicemen and their partners started families that they had postponed during the war years.

There was a third baby boom in the 1960s, after which the birth rate fell sharply during the 1980s, before falling again after the early 1990s, with a recent increase since 2001.

The total fertility rate

The factors determining the birth rate are, firstly, the proportion of women who are of childbearing age (usually taken to be 15-44) and, secondly, how fertile they are – that is, how many children they have. The total fertility rate (TFR) is the average number of children women will have during their fertile years.

The UK’s TFR has risen since 2001, but it is still much lower than in the past. From an all-time low of 1.63 children per woman in 2001 it rose to 1.84 by 2006. However, this is still far lower than the peak of 2.95 children per woman reached in 1964 during the 1960s baby boom.

These changes in fertility and birth rates reflect the fact that:

* More women are remaining childless than in the past.

* Women are postponing having children: the average age for giving birth is 29.6, and fertility rates for women in their 30s and 40s are on the increase. Older women may be less fertile and have fewer fertile years remaining, so they produce fewer children.

Sociologists have identified a number of reasons for the long-term decline in the birth rate since 1900. These reasons involve a range of social, economic, cultural, legal, political and technological factors.

1. Changes in the position of women

There were major changes in the position of women during the 20th century. These include:

* Legal equality with men, including the right to vote.

* Increased Education Opportunities – girls now do better at school than boys.

* More women in paid employment, plus laws outlawing unequal pay and sex discrimination.

* Changes in attitudes to family life and women’s role.

* Easier access to divorce.

* Access to abortion and reliable contraception, giving women more control over their fertility.

As a result of these changes, women now see other possibilities in life apart from the traditional role of housewife and mother. Many choosing to delay childbearing, or not to have children at all, in order to persue a career. For example, in 2006, one in five women aged 45 was childless – double the number of 20 years earlier.

2. Decline in the infant mortality rate

The infant mortality rate (IMR) measures the number of infants who die before their first birthday, per thousand babies born alive, per year. Many sociologists argue that a fall in the IMR leads to a fall in the birth rate. This is because, if many infants die, parents have many children to replace those they have lost, thereby increasing the birth rate. By contrast, if infants survive, parents will have fewer of them.

In 1900, the IMR for the UK was 154. In other words, over 15% of babies died within their first year. These figures are higher than those of less developed countries today. For example, in 2003, the world’s highest recorded IMR was that of Liberia, at 144.

During the first half of the 20th Century, the UK’s IMR began to fall. This was due to several reasons:

* Improved housing and better sanitation, such as flush toilets and clean drinking water, reduced infectious disease. Infants are much more susceptible to infection because of their less developed immune system.

* Better nutrition, including that of mothers.

* Better knowledge of hygiene, child health and welfare, often spread by women’s magazines.

* A fall in the number of married women working may have improved their health and that of their babies.

* Improved services for mothers and children, such as antenatal and postnatal clinics.

Before the mid-20th century, it is doubtful whether specifically medical factors had much effect on the IMR – although indirectly, the medical profession had a significant impact through its campaigns to improve public health measures.

However, from about the 1950s, medical factors began to play a greater role. For example, mass immunization against childhood diseases such as whooping cough, diphtheria and later measles, the use of antibiotics to fight infection and improved midwifery and obstetric techniques, all contributed to a continuing fall in IMR.

As a result of all the above developments, by 1950 the UK’s IMR had fallen to 30 and by 2007 it stood at 5 – less than one thirteenth of its 1900 figure.

However, while many sociologists claim that the falling IMR led to a fall in birth rates, others reject this view. For example, Brass and Kabir (1978) argue that the trend to smaller families began not in rural areas, where the IMR began to fall, but in urban areas, where the IMR remained higher for longer.

3. Children have become an economic liability

Until the late 19th century, children were economic assets to their parents because they could be sent out to work from an early age to earn an income. However, since the late 19th century children have gradually become an economic liability.

* Laws banning child labour, introducing compulsory schooling and raising the school leaving age mean that children remain economically dependent to their parents for longer and longer.

* Changing norms about what children have a right to expect from their parents in material terms mean that the cost of bringing up children has risen.

As a result of these financial pressures, parents now feel less able or willing than in the past to have a large family.

4. Child centredness

The increasing child centredness both of the family and of society as a whole means that childhood is now socially constructed as a uniquely important period in the individual’s life. In terms of family size, this has encouraged a shift from ‘quantity’ to ‘quality’ – parents now have fewer children and lavish more attention and resources on these few.

Future trend in birth rates

As a result of the above factors, birth rates, fertility rates and family sizes have fallen over the last century. However, as we saw earlier, there has been a slight increase in births since 2001.

One reason for this is the increase in immigration because, on average, mothers from outside the UK have a higher fertility rate than those born in the UK. Babies born to mothers from outside the UK accounted for 22% of all births in 2005. However, the projection for the period up to 2041 expects the annual number of births to be fairly constant, at around 700-720,000 per year.

Effects of changes in fertility

Changes in the number of babies born affect several aspects of society. These include the family, the dependency ratio, the public services and policies.

The family

Smaller families mean that women are more likely to be free to go out to work, thus creating the dual earner couple typical of many professional families. However, family size is only one factor here. For example, better off couples may be able to have larger families and still afford childcare that allows them both to work full-time.

The dependency ratio

The dependency ratio is the relationship between the size of the working or productive part of the population and the size of the non-working or dependent part of the population. The earnings, savings and taxes of the working population must support the dependent population. Children make up a large part of the dependent population, so a fall in the number of children reduces the ‘burden of dependency’ on the working population.

However, in the longer term, fewer babies being born will mean fewer young adults and a smaller working population and so the burden of dependency may begin to increase again.

Public services and policies

A lower birth rate has consequences for public services. For example, fewer schools and maternity and child health services may be needed. It also has implications for the cost of maternity and paternity leave, or the types of housing that need to be built. However, we should remember that many of these are political decisions. For example, instead of reducing the number of schools, the government may decide to have smaller classes instead.

Deaths

In the UK, the overall number of deaths has remained fairly stable since 1900, at round about 600,000 per year – although of course in 1900, this number of deaths was out of a much smaller population than today. However, there have been some important fluctuations. For example, the two world wars (1914-18 and 1939-45) brought a rise in the number of deaths, while the influenza epidemic of 1918 brought deaths to a record level of 690,000.

However, the death rate has fallen since 1900. The death rate is the number of deaths per thousand of the population per year. In 1900, the death rate stood at 19, whereas by 2007 it had almost halved, to 10.

The death rate had already begun falling from about 1870 and continued to do so until 1930. It rose slightly during the 1930s and 1940s – the period of the great economic depression, followed by World War II – but since the 1950s it has declined slightly.

Reasons for the decline in the death rate

There are several reasons why the death rate declined during the 20th century. According to N.L. Tranter (1996), over three-quarters of the decline in the death rate from about 1850 to 1970 was due to a fall in the number of deaths from infectious diseases such as diphtheria, influenza, scarlet fever, measles, smallpox, diarrhoea, typhoid and above all tuberculosis (TB). Since deaths from infectious disease were commonest in the young, it is not surprising that most of the decline in the death rate occurred among infants, children and young adults.

By the 1950s, so-called ‘diseases of affluence’ (wealth) such as heart disease and cancers had replaces infectious diseases as the main cause of death. These degenerative diseases affect the middle aged and old more than the young.

There are several possible reasons for the decline in deaths from infection. It is possible that the population began to develop some natural resistance as a result of natural selection (that is, those who were most susceptible died off and did not reproduce), or that some diseases became less virulent (powerful).

However, social factors probably had a much greater impact on infectious diseases. These include the following:

Improved Nutrition

Thomas McKeown (1972) argues that improved nutrition accounted for up to half the reduction in death rates, and was particularly important in reducing the number of deaths from TB. Better nutrition increased resistance to infection and increased survival chances of those who did become infected.

However, others have challenged McKeown’s explanation. For example, it does not explain why females, who receive a smaller share of the food supply, lived longer than males, nor why deaths from infectious diseases, such as measles and infant diarrhoea, actually rose at the time of improving nutrition.

Medical Improvements

Before the 1950s, despite some important innovations, medical improvements played almost no part in the reduction of deaths from infectious disease. For example, as Tranter observes:

“As late as the 1930s, levels of obstetric knowledge and technique were so poor that they were more likely to increase rather than decease death rates in childbirth.”

However, after the 1950s, improved Medical Knowledge, techniques and organization did help to reduce death rates. Advances included the introduction of antibiotics, widespread immunization, blood transfusion, higher standards of midwifery and maternity services, as well as the setting up of a single publicly funded National Health Service in 1949. More recently, improved medication, by-pass surgery and other developments have reduced deaths from heart disease by one-third.

Public health measures and environmental improvements

In the 20th century, more effective central and local government with the necessary power to pass and enforce laws led to a range of improvements in public health and the quality of the environment.

These included improvements in housing (producing drier, better ventilated, less overcrowded accommodation), purer drinking water, laws to combat the adulteration of food and drink, the pasteurisation of milk, and improved sewage disposal methods. Similarly, the Clean Air Acts reduced air pollution, such as the smog that led to 4,000 premature deaths in five days in 1952.

Other social changes

Other social changes also played a part in reducing the death rate during the 20th century. These included:

* The decline of more dangerous manual occupations such as mining

* Smaller families reduced the rate of transmission of infection

* Greater public knowledge of the causes of illness

* Higher incomes, allowing for a healthier lifestyle.

Life Expectancy

Life expectancy refers to how long on average a person born in a given year can expect to live. As death rates have fallen, so life expectancy has increased. For example:

* Males born in England in 1900 could expect on average to live until they were 50 (57 for females).

* Males born in England in 2003-5 can expect to live for 76.9 years (81.2 for females).

If we take the past two centuries, life expectancy has increased by about two years per decade.

One reason for lower average life expectancy in 1900 was the fact that so many infants and children did not survive beyond the early years of life. As we saw earlier, in 1900 over 15% of babies died in their first year. To put the improvement in life expectancy into perspective, we can note that a newborn baby today has a better chance of reaching its 65th birthday than a baby born in 1900 had of reaching its first birthday.

Class, gender and regional differences

Despite the overall reduction in the death rate and the increase in life expectancy over the last 100 years, there are still important class, g ender and regional differences. For example, women generally live longer than men – although the gap has narrowed due to changes in employment and lifestyle (such as women smoking).

Similarly, those living in the North and Scotland have a lower life expectancy than those in the South, while working-class men in unskilled or routine jobs are nearly three times as likely to die before they are 65 compared with men in managerial or professional jobs.

The ageing population

The average age of the UK population is rising. In 1971, it was 34.1 years. By 2007, it stood at 39.6. By 2031, it is projected to reach 42.6. There are fewer young people and more old people in the population. As figure 2.4 shows, the number of people aged 65 or over is projected to overtake the number of under-16s for the first time ever in 2014.

Public Services

Older people consume a larger proportion of services such as health and social care than other age groups. This is particularly true of the ‘old old’ (usually defined as 75 or over) as against the ‘young old’ (65-75). However, we should be aware of over generalising, since many people remain in relatively good health well into old age.

In addition to increased expenditure on health care, an ageing population may also mean changes to policies and provision of housing, transport or other services.

Another way of illustrating the change age-profile of the population is by means of ‘age pyramids’. These show how older age groups are growing as a proportion of the population, while younger groups are shrinking. If fact as Donald Hirsch (2005) notes, the traditional age ‘pyramid’ is disappearing and being replaced by more or less equal-sized ‘blocks’ representing the different age groups. For example, on current projections, by 2041 there will be as many 78 year olds as five year olds.

This ageing of the population is the result of several factors:

* Increasing life expectancy – people are living longer into old age.

* Declining infant mortality, so that nowadays hardly anyone dies early in life.

* Declining fertility – fewer young people are being produced in relation to the number of older people in the population.

Effects of an ageing population

We have already examined the reasons for changes in life expectancy, infant mortality and fertility. We shall focus here on the effects or consequences of an ageing population.

One-person pensioner households

The number of pensioners living alone has increased and one0person pensioner households now account for about 14% of all households . Most of these are female, both because females generally live longer than men, and because they are younger than their husbands.

The dependency ratio

Like the non-working young, the non-working old are an economically dependent group who need to be provided for by those of working age, for example through taxation to pay for pensions and health care. As the number of retired people rises, this increases the dependency ratio and the burden on the working population.

However, it would be wrong to assume that ‘old’ necessarily equals ‘economically dependent’. Foe example, the age at which people retire can vary – about one in 10 men in their 50s is no longer working, while recent changes mean that women will soon have to wait until they are 65 to access the state pension (previously women’s pensions began at 60, men’s at 65). Others carry on working into their 70s.

Also, while an increase in the number of old people raises the dependency ratio, in an ageing population this is offset by a declining number of dependent children.

The social construction of ageing as a ‘problem’

Age statuses are socially constructed. This also applies to old age. Much of the ‘discourse’ (way of speaking and thinking of something) about old age is negative and has constructed it as a ‘problem’. For example:

* The Griffiths report (1988) on the care of the elderly saw society as facing the problem of meeting escalating costs of health and social care for the growing numbers of old people.

* Recently, there have been concerns about the ‘pensions time bomb’, with fears about how society will meet the cost of providing pensions for the elderly.

More broadly, in modern societies, ‘ageism’ – the negative stereotyping of people on the basis of their age – often portrays the old as vulnerable, incompetent or irrational, and as a burden to society. This contrasts with the view of the elderly found in traditional societies. In these cultures, the old are revered and respected; ageing is associated with a rising status.

According to Peter Townsend (1981), one reason for negative attitudes to the elderly in our society is that old age has been socially constructed as a period of dependency by creating a statutory retirement age at which most people are expected or required to stop working and are forced to rely on inadequate benefits that push many into poverty.

Policy Implications

Donald Hirsch (2005) argues that a number of important social policies and trends will need to change to tackle the new problems posed by an ageing population. The main problem will be how to finance a longer period of old age. This can either be done by paying more from our savings and taxes while we are working, or by continuing to work for longer, or a combination of both.

Hirsch therefore argues that we need to reverse the current trend towards earlier retirement. One way of doing this is by redistributing educational resources towards older people so that they can retrain and improve their skills and so continue earning.

Similarly, there may need to be changes in housing policy to encourage older people (who are more likely to be living in larger houses than they need) to ‘trade down’ into smaller accommodation and retirement homes. This would release wealth to improve their standard of living and free up housing resources for younger people.

As Hirsch recognises, many of these policy changes require a cultural change in our attitudes towards old age. His view illustrates the notion that old age is a social construct – that is, not a fixed, purely biological fact, but something shaped and defined by society. For example, in an ageing society, we may find changes in our idea of how old is ‘old enough’ to retire, or our beliefs about what share of society’s resources should go to people at different stages of their lives.

Migration

In addition to natural change (births and deaths), the other factor affecting the size and age of the population is migration.

Migration refers to the movement of people from place to place. It can be internal, within a society, or international.

* Immigration refers to movement into an area or society.

* Emigration refers to movement out.

* Net migration is the difference between the numbers immigrating and the numbers emigrating, and is expressed as a net increase or net decrease due to migration.

For most of the 20th century, the growth of the UK population was the result of natural increase (more births than deaths), rather than the numbers of people immigrating or emigrating.

This was because, until the 1980s, the numbers immigrating were lower than those emigrating. For example, in every single year from 1946 to 1978, more people left the UK to settle elsewhere than arrived to live in the UK.

From 1900 until the Second World War (1939-45), the largest immigrant group to the UK were the Irish, mainly for economic reasons, followed by Eastern and Central European Jews, who were often refugees fleeing persecution, and people of British descent from Canada and the USA. Very few immigrants were non-white.

By contrast, during the 1950s, black immigrants from the Caribbean began to arrive in the UK, followed during the 1960s and 1970s by South Asian immigrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and by East African Asians from Kenya and Uganda.

One consequence of this immigration was that it produced a more ethically diverse society. By 2001, minority ethnic groups accounted for 7.9% of the total population. One result of this has been a greater diversity of family patterns in Britain today.

However, as noted earlier, throughout this period, more people left the UK than entered. Nor did non-white immigrants make up the majority of settlers. During the 1950s, the Irish were the largest single group (with over a third of a million) and almost as many again arriving from continental Europe.

Despite this, however, a series of immigration and nationality acts from 1962 to 1990 placed severe restrictions on non-white immigration. By the 1980s, non-whites accounted for little more than a quarter of all immigrants, while the predominantly white countries of the European Union became the main source of settlers in the UK.

Emigration

From as early as the mid-16th century until the 1980s, the UK has almost always been a net exporter of people: more have emigrated to live elsewhere than have come to settle in the UK. Since 1900, the great majority of emigrants have gone to the USA and to the old Commonwealth countries (Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and South Africa.

The main reasons for Emigration have been economic – both in terms of ‘push’ factors such as economic recession and unemployment at home, and even more so in terms of ‘pull’ factors such as higher wages or better opportunities abroad.

In the earlier part of the century, there were often labour shortages in the destination countries, while after 1945, the relatively poor performance of the British economy compared with that of other industrial countries acted as an incentive to emigrate. These economic reasons for migration contrast with those of some other groups, who have been driven to migrate by religious, political or racial persecution.

We should also note the existence of assisted passage schemes, by which the UK or receiving country’s government paid part or all of the costs of migration. These schemes were particularly important in encouraging emigration to the Old Commonwealth countries, such as Australia, and they were often introduced partly for political or ideological reasons, such as to strengthen the ties with the

Recent and future migration patterns

Recent years have seen increasing levels of both immigration and emigration. Between 1994 and 2004, immigration rose from 314,000 to 582,000 annually, while emigration rose from 238,000 to 360,000.

In 2004, there was a net migration of 223,000 people into the UK. This was the highest net inflow of people since 1991, and considerably higher than for the previous year.

The key reason for the increase was the expansion of the European Union in 2004 to include ten new member states, mostly in Eastern Europe, giving their citizens the right to live and work in the UK. Four fifths of the increase in net migration in 2004 came from these ten states, with Poland accounting for the biggest share.

Both immigrants and emigrants were generally young, and slightly more likely to be male than female. The main reasons for migration are study of work, with about a quarter of all immigrants coming to study in the UK and over a fifth coming to take up a specific job.

However, a significant number of emigrants from the UK are older. Forty per cent of British emigrants were moving to other EU countries such as Spain, in many cases to retire there.

The UK’s low fertility rate of 1.84 children per woman means that the existing population is not able to replace itself. Conventionally, it is assumed that each woman needs to produce 2.1 children in order to keep the population at current levels. Thus, if it were not for net migration, the UK population would be declining in size.

While natural increase has been the main reason for population growth in the past, it is now projected that slightly over half the increase up to 2031 will come from net migration.

The dependency ratio

The effect of migration on the dependency ratio is complex. On the one hand, the fact that migrants are mainly of working age reduces the dependency ratio.

On the other hand, immigrant women tend to have higher fertility rates, which in the short term contributes to a higher dependency ratio by adding more children to the population.

However, this also reduces the average age of the population and in due course produces more workers, thereby lowering the dependency ratio as these children grow up and reach working age.

Finally, to complicate matters further, evidence suggests that the longer an immigrant group is settled in the country, the closer their fertility rate comes to the national average.

Internal Migration

While most media attention focuses on international migration, we should note the importance of internal migration within the UK.

During the industrial revolution of the 19th century, which was based geographically in the North of England, South Wales and West Scotland, there was a population shift from the largely agricultural South to the Industrial North to take up jobs in textiles, mining, shipbuilding and iron and steel.

This produced a corresponding shift from rural to urban living; in 1851, Britain was the first country to see more than half its population living in towns and cities.

During the 20th Century, as these industries began to decline and newer ones such as motor cars, electrical engineering and chemicals began to develop in the South and Midlands, there began a population shift in the opposite direction in search of economic opportunities.

More recently, London and the South East have exerted an important pull because of the growth of the finance and service industries located there.

A corresponding trend has been suburbanisation, with the growth of large residential areas surrounding the major cities. However, in recent years, there has been a reversal of the outflow of population from inner city areas.

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