Sociologists are interested in how demographic (population) changes in Britain have influenced the size and nature of families and why these have occured. Important changes have been:
- changes in birth rate;
- increased longeevity;
Even though the UK birth rate has declined since 1990, the population has risen because people live longer. This is known as natural growth. Also, since the 1980s more peope have entered the UK than have left, thus increasing the population through net migration, though more may be emigrating again since the recession. A 2010 estimate suggested that the UK population was over 62 million compared with 37million in 1901.
Birth rate: number of live births per 1,000 people per year.
Total fertility rate (tfr): average number of children born to women during their fertile years.
Infant mortality rate (imr): number of infants who die before their first birthday per 1,00 born alive per year.
Life expectancy: how long an average person born in a given year can expect to live.
Death rate: number of deaths per 1,00 people per year.
Dependency ratio: relationship between the numbers of workers and numbers of dependants.
Net migration: differences between the numbers immigrating and emigrating
The Birth Rate
In England and Wales the birth rate has declined dramatically since 1900, though there were baby booms following each of the World Wars and in the 1960s. There has been a small increase again in the last decade. The birth rate is influenced by the proportion of women who are of child- bearing age and their fertility rate. Reasons for the overall decline include medical developments, legal developments, changes in attitude and material factors.
Medical developments Due to improvements in health, children are far more likely to survive to adulthood than in the nineteenth century. This is becuase of:
- inoculations against diseases such as tuberculosis, polio and scarlet fever;
- free medical care since the founding of the NHS, with health vistors checking on infant welfare;
- better nutrition and healthier environments;
- women therefore choosing to have fewer children as those they have are more likely to survive.
The availability of effective contraception, especially the since the 1960s.
Legal developments The legislation of abortion since 1967.
The Birth Rate
Changes in attitude Women are choosing to have families later or not at all because:
- they are more likely to go to university;
- they often want to launch their careers before taking a break;
- they may delay childbirth until they are financially stable;
- postponing pregnancy means some women are less fertile when they eventually try for a baby, though almost twice as many babies are born to over-40s as a decade ago;
- feminism has made some women question child-rearing as a priority;
- many couples limit their families so they can devote more attention to each child. The average family size is now just 2, compared with 2.7 in 1960;
- more women live alone or are divorced or seperated;
- contraception, abortion and deliberate childlessness have become more socially acceptable; for example, doctors will now prescrie contraception & agree to abortion for teenage girls, whereas in the past families might have insisted on a 'shotgun marriage'.
Materials factors Since education became compulsory in 1880, children became financial dependants, whereas previously they might work. Now children are expensive to rear, despite family benefits, especially if they go to university. As a result of these changes, in white families average family size is slightly less than two children. As it is common for adults to live until they become great grandparents, the postmodern family has been likened to a beanpole, high but with few side branches.
It is common now for people to live into their nineties, whereas life expectancy in 1990 was 50 for men and 57 for women. Reasons for longer lives include medical and public health developments and material factors.
Medical and public health developments
- Once past infancy, in which they are now protected from most infectious diseases, individuals are less vulnerable, increasing changes of a long life.
- Public health advances during and since the nineteenth century, such as efficient sewage and water systems and the Clean Air Acts,have reduced the incidence of disease.
- Houses are less damp and public buildings and workplaces are inspected for health and safety.
- Dangerous and exhausting jobs such as mining and dock work have declined.
- There are numerous treatments and operations that lengthen the healthy lives of older people, such as bypass operations and hip replacements.
- Antibiotics and screening programmes for various cancers can tackle diseases at an early stage.
- People are better informed about health, diet and exercise.
- Universal and means-tested allowances 'from the cradle to the grave', such as maternity benefits, family allowances, sickness benefits, pensions ans winter fuel allowances, provide a safety net so that few have insuffient means for adequate food and warm shelter. In previous centuries elderly people would have had to work until they died, unless they were supported by kin or charities.
- The Welfare State has,since the late 1940s, provided free healthcare and social services, often supporting the elderly who may be isolated in their own homes.
Immigration has increased the population of the UK since the 1980s, though Eastern European migrants in particular have been leaving since the recession. As well as swelling the numbers when they arrive, immigrants are more likely than others to be in their fertile years and so have a significant effect on the birth rate. In 2009 almost 25% of births here were to mothers born outside the UK, even though only 8% of the population are not of white British descent. Immigrants come to the UK because of pull and push factors.
- Economic migrants are attracted by employment and educational opportunities for themselves or their children.
- As a democratic country with strong human rights legislation and a Welfare State, Britain is attractive to many.
- Citizens of former Commonwealth countries, such as India and the West Indies, may feel a bond with the UK.
- People may decide to move from countries such as the West Indies that have few employment opportunites.
- Refugees may leave their nation because of war or disaster
- Asylum seekers leave to escape persecution for their beliefs or because of some aspect of their identity.
Problems of Dependency An ageing population, with the proporrion of elderly growing relativve to those working, can cause economic problems, though these can be offset somewhat by encouraging the immigration of well-qualified workers from abroad. Those in wok pay taxes, which in government can spend on financial support healthcare for the elderly and others unable to support themselves. The Coalition government has tried to tackle this by reducing public sector pensions and forcing people to work longer before claiming them.
On the other hand, it is good news that people can expect to live longer and that many are now sufficiently fit to enjoy later life. They object to old age being constructed as a period of dependency and retreat from society.