How to explain the decline in the UKs birth rate

Economic growth, technological developments, more women in work and the child centred society.

Last Updated on September 6, 2023 by Karl Thompson

The birth rate in England and Wales fell from 18/1000 to just 11/1000 between 1950 and 2023.

The Total Fertility Rate declined from 2.9 babies per woman in 1960 to just 1.6 babies per woman in 2022.

This means both the birth rate and the total fertility rate have almost halved in the last 70 years.

Some of the main reasons for this trend include economic changes, technological chances, changing gender roles, postmodernisation and changes to the position of children.

Key terms

The Birth Rate is total number of live births per thousand members of the population per year.

The Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is the average number of live children that a group of women would have if they experienced the age-specific fertility rates for the calendar year in question throughout their childbearing lifespan.

Trends in the Birth Rate and Total Fertility Rate

Between 1950 and 2023 the birth rate in England and Wales declined from 18/1000 to 11/1000….

line graph showing trends in birth rate UK 1950 to 2023

The Total Fertility Rate has fell from 2.9 babies per woman in 1960 to just 1.6 babies per women in 2022….

line grapth showing declining TFR UK

How do we explain the long term decline in the UK’s birth rate?

Five main factors can explain the long term decline in the UK’s birth rate:

  • Economic changes: improved living standards and the recent rising cost of living.
  • Technological and medical advances such as contraception.
  • Changes in the role of women – more women in work means they have fewer babies.
  • Postmodernisation – individualisation means having children is more of a choice, less of a norm.
  • Changes to childhood – children are now very expensive!
mind map summarising reasons for the long term decline in the UK's birth rate

Economic Changes

Globally, the general trend is that the wealthier the country, the lower the birth rate. It would seem that economic growth and rising living standards mean adults have fewer children. Part of the reason for this is that higher living standards mean better quality housing, better nutrition, better education and better medical care – all of which reduce the infant mortality rate, meaning that parents have fewer ‘replacement babies’ to make up for those who die before their first birthday.

A second factor here is related to Functionalism – as Functionalists see it, as societies evolve and become more complex, other institutions take over key functions of the family – men go into wage labour, which gets taxed, which then translates into schools and hospitals and pensions – the last century in the UK has seen the emergence of all of these institutions – people no longer need children to look after them in their old age, or to work the fields, other institutions do this, so people have fewer children. (This is related to the Functional Fit Theory.)

A final way economic factors can reduce the birth rate are that people are so busy working they don’t have time to start families – which is the case in contemporary Japan.

A criticism of economic arguments is that they are deterministic, people don’t just react to economic changes like robots, and they also appear a little ‘cold’ – It implies that people only have children for selfish, economic reasons.

The decline in Infant Mortality

Infant mortality has decreased significantly in the UK since 1980. In 1980 the infant mortality was 12/1000 babies, by 2021 it was down to just 3.7/1000.

line graph showing declining infant mortality UK 1980 to 2021

NB this is worth mentioning here because it is a significant achievement. However this probably doesn’t explain much of the decrease in the birth rate in the UK, because 12/1000 was already very low in 1980. (Obviously 3.7 is better!)

When you look at the global picture however declining infant mortality is a very significant factor in explaining the global trend in declining birth rates.

Technological Changes

The development of contraceptive technologies in the 1960s – Namely the contraceptive pill – gave rise to what Anthony Giddens calls ‘plastic sexuality’ where Sex becomes detached from reproduction. Also, importantly, The Pill gave women control of their reproduction and they could choose when to have children. There is no direct correlation between the invention of The Pill and the decline in the fertility rate – in fact the Baby Boom of the 1960s came immediately after The Pill’s invention, and most women clearly still choose to have babies, but this technological change does explain why women have babies later in life and have fewer children.

Other technological innovations which have led to people having babies later in life are IVF and the freezing of eggs – together these technologies mean women can delay having children into their 40s, extending the ‘natural’ period of fertility much later than is traditionally the case.

An attendant analysis point here is that for IVF to be available for all women, it requires the state to fund it, otherwise this would be prohibitively expensive for couples with low incomes, so for this technological factor to have an impact, it needs to combine with political rights and a wealthy state.

Changes in the Role of Women

Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck both regard this as the most important factor explaining the decline in the birth rate. Because women how have formal legal equality with men, and increased educational opportunities (girls are now outperforming boys at school), women now make up half the work force, and this has led to changes in attitudes to family life – Career now comes first for many women, and childbearing is delayed by an average of ten years compared to in the 1950s. Women now typically have their first babies in their 30s, not their 20s and up 1/4 women are expected to remain childless.

As an evaluation point here – it is important not to exaggerate the advances women have made, when the children come along, it is still predominantly women who do the majority of childcare and housework and suffer the consequences in terms of their career.


All of the above changes are part of the broader process of postmodernisation – The decline of traditional norms and values such as those associated with religions mean that contraception is no longer viewed in a stigmatised way and declining birth rates also reflect individualisation – the fact that we put our own needs first and it is acceptable to choose not to have children.

A criticism of Postmodernism is that many people simply don’t choose to have children. Many people are forced into living an uncertain, unpredictable life where having children may not be a possibility or simply not be rational or affordable.

Changes in the position of children

Until the late 19th century children were an asset to their parents because they could be sent out to work. Today, laws protect children from working and dictate that they should spend 18 years in education, and thus children have become an economic liability – they are a net drain on parents’ income. This puts people off having children.

People also have fewer children because we now live in a ‘child centred society‘. It is expected that children be the centre of family life, and parents are expected to spend more money (£250K is the average cost) and more time than ever engaged with their children – it is easier to do this with fewer children.

Related Posts

This topics relevant to the families and households module within the A-level sociology syllabus.

A closely related topics is Explaining the long term decline of the death rate

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