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Improving global fertility is an economic imperative

The decline of global fertility is one of the most pressing issues facing humanity. Countries across the globe have recently hit the headlines reporting record lows in birth and fertility rates, sounding the alarm bells for policymakers, politicians and population experts across the board.

One of the perhaps most pressing cases is South Korea, which recently reported a fertility rate of 0.72. This means that, on average, women in South Korea are now having only 0.72 children per woman. This is the lowest fertility rate ever recorded and the knock-on effects on South Korea’s economic landscape cannot be under-estimated. For context, for a country to have a stable population, the fertility rate must stand at around 2.1 – otherwise known as the replacement rate. South Korea, however, isn’t alone with New Zealand recently reporting its lowest recorded birth rates and president Macron unveiling a host of family-friendly policies in attempt to address France’s rapidly ageing population, where the fertility rate stands at 1.7 children per woman.

The future for fertility

A recent study in The Lancet medical journal outlines the global economic outlook for declining fertility rates. The study revealed the shocking reality that 97 per cent of the world’s countries will have a shrinking population by 2100. Britain is no exception, and the UK’s fertility rate has fallen from 2.19 in 1950 to 1.49 in 2021 – one of the lowest rates in Western Europe. The study predicts this will fall to 1.3 in 2100.

The study suggests that a greater dependence on immigration for Britain is a remedy to address resultant shortfalls in the labour market and hold up our top-heavy population pyramid. Whilst increased immigration certainly presents a natural solution to our rapidly ageing population, we cannot underestimate the power of family-friendly policies to bolster our birth rates.

Boosting birth rates

According to the WHO, 1 in 6 people suffer from infertility in their lifetime – 17.5% of the global adult population – yet barriers to accessing fertility treatment and education persist. This is not just a question of education and empowerment, but an economic imperative. For context, a peer-reviewed scientific paper has shown that a UK-born child’s economic value is over £700,000 through tax and pension contributions over their lifetime. Improved birth rates will not only stabilise the labour market but also make a significant contribution to the UK economy.

In order to increase fertility rates, we need a multifaceted approach from the Government to introduce family-friendly policy Quote

In order to increase fertility rates, we need a multifaceted approach from the Government to introduce family-friendly policy and improve access and affordability for fertility treatment. Improved fertility education; better workplace support for couples and individuals hoping to start a family; and proactive fertility testing are all necessary steps to ensure all hopeful parents have access to support. Greater fertility education, in particular, will improve chances of natural conception by understanding the impact of lifestyle and age, for example, on natural fertility and empower individuals to make informed decisions around family-planning. For those women who are not ready to start a family yet, egg freezing is a treatment option they can consider – allowing them the opportunity to freeze younger, healthier eggs for use in treatments further down the line. Egg freezing has enormous potential to offer greater reproductive choice for those who are not ready to start a family when they are younger and therefore could play a role in tackling a fertility crisis, but the key to its success lies in improving the affordability of treatment.

An interdepartmental approach

We also need a top-down approach where governmental departments share the burden of increased costs and pro-fertility policy. In the UK, the Department for Health and Social Care, the Department of Work and Pensions, the Women and Equalities Committee and the Treasury all have their role to play in sharing the cost of fertility and pro-family initiatives. A key first step towards progress will be addressing the IVF postcode lottery across the country to ensure fair and equal access to IVF funding for all. Improved accessibility and provision of fertility treatments only serves to bolster our economy and is in the interest of all.

Saving the world from rapid fertility decline is an economic imperative. We need a collaborative approach from leaders to secure the country’s economic future amidst population uncertainty.

Geeta Nargund

Professor Geeta Nargund is a Senior NHS Consultant and the Co-founder of the Ginsburg Women's Health Board.

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