A Review by Sion Jobbins
This article originally appeared in the bi.monthly magazine Cambrian. We are putting it online here at Demography Matters due to its general interest and the importance of the issues raised. We heartily recommend to all those who are interested in the future of Wales and the Welsh language that they read Cambrian magazine.
Sion Jobbins is Marketing Officer at Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru • The National Library of Wales
IT’S THE BIRTH-RATE STUPID
Do you take part in Wales and the Western world's most popular parlour game? It goes by different titles in different places, but tends to be called 'are you’re a grandfather yet?' It's the game played by the over 60s as they fret they may never have the chance to enjoy being a grandparent as their own children lead a childfree life.
Every game has rules and the rules of 'are your a grandparent yet?' are simple. Every one can play it but don't let it be discussed by politicians or the media. Sure, the media report that schools are closing because of lack of pupils or that there aren't enough workers in one sector or another. But nobody in Wales - Government, media, quangos, educationists will actually discuss seriously what is blindingly obvious that we are facing massive problems because our birth-rate is so low. With the exception of Barn, the Welsh-language current affairs magazine, no media in Wales has commissioned an article or programme about the subject. Our intelligencia have their heads in the sand whilst a tsunami is about to hit us.
It should therefore not have surprised me when I received a phone call not from BBC Cymru Wales but from BBC Radio 4's You and Yours programme wanting to discuss and article I'd written for Barn on the subject. Yes, someone sitting in London commissioned the first documented and researched item in the media about the effects of a low birth rate on a minority language like Welsh. It was broadcast on Wednesday 6 October.
So, lets do some facts first of all. Demographers regularly quote 2.1 or 2.2 children as the average number of children that need to be born per mother if a community is to replicates itself. The 2 covers both parents and the .1 makes up for those who, for whatever reason, haven't conceived. Any birth rate below that and a community has to absorb others from outside the community for it to function and continue. The average birth rate in the UK is 1.7, although, in many parts of rural Wales (coincidentally the most Welsh-speaking parts, Gwynedd, Ceredigion, Mon) the rate is lower.
This fall in the birth rate is still too recent for demographers to fully digest its effects but responsible and mature states (of which Wales is alas not one of them) are already making sums and preparing for the knock-on effects.
There is a feeling among our political elite that discussing the birth rate is beyond the pale. How else does one explain the complete lack of serious discussion of a matter which will affect every one of us? What’s the point of having a University of Wales when they are also produce neither research documents nor conferences on the biggest subject affecting Welsh life?
The media is no better. Is it because so many of our media people have a left wing perspective that the subject isn’t on the agenda, not by decision maybe, but by default? We're used to seeing whole programme strands and newspaper articles devoted to the projected effects of climate change on us in 30 years time (which has traditionally been a left wing concern) but what about a series on Wales and the world in 30 years time if current birth trends continue? The Welsh Assembly Government has as its mission statement to have the environmental impact assessment on all its policies. We discuss environmental sustainability but what about population sustainability? After all there is very little the Welsh Assembly Government, or any of our politicians, can do about the Amazonian rainforest or Chinese carbon emissions but there is something they could do about our birth rate.
Of course, for those who believe that there is nothing intrinsically worth passing on in Welsh culture and for those who do not wish to see the Welsh language flourish in any meaningful way, the fall in the birth-rate is something to be welcomed. This can all be done under the guise of progressive internationalism of course - keeping the global population down whilst welcoming more people, who from experience won’t learn Welsh, to move into Wales to work.
Lets be clear. 'Demography,' as one linguist said, 'is the mother of all politics'. The combined effects of a low birth-rate and a movement of people in Wales will, and has, changed Wales - I'll come to this in a moment, but lets first try and work out what's happening. Let me at the outset say that I have no interest in an ethnically pure Wales (isn't it tiresome that I feel I must write that down again). Nor do I wish to see women chained to the Kuchen, Kirche und Kinder (kitchen, church and children) role that the German language so thoughtfully alliterated for us. My concern for the low birth rate is due to a concern for our future economic, services and environmental future of Wales and more pressingly the future health of the Welsh language. Nothing I have read suggests to me that a minority language (and culture) can flourish with the triple effects of immigration, outward migration and low-birth rate. Nothing I have read by the Welsh Language Board, the Welsh Assembly Government nor Plaid Cymru suggests the issue has been discussed at all.
The birth rate for the UK is 1.7. That birth rate, by European standards is comparatively healthy (Greece, Spain and Italy 1.3) only the socialist or corporatist Scandinavian countries are higher (Denmark and Norway 1.8, and Iceland on 2.0). And here’s the irony, it’s the left wing which have the best policies to tackle Europe’s low birth rate as they follow a feminist agenda and recognise economic reality and aspirations on the ground, but it is the right wing which seems to be raising the low birth rate as a poltical issue.
However, these figures hide an even grimmer picture for the Welsh-language. The fact is the birth rate of the Welsh-language community is closer to the euthanasic East European where theirs is very low birth rate and emigration. Alarm-bells ring out in the corridors of Moscow at their low birth rate and Estonia has initiated a campaign to increase the birth rate. All this is cause for concern and serious articles at conferences in the respected communities and discussion sites. But Welsh-speaking community is facing a similar, if not worse demographic trend than our East European friends, and the body responsible for the language and our Government have yet to issue a single sentence.
As I said, lets look honestly at the situation. Taking that the UK and Wales average is 1.7 children, if we factor in the reality that up to a third of Welsh-speakers don't pass on Welsh to their children, then the true Welsh-language community reproduction rate is something closer to Slovakia, Ukrain and Poland’s 1.2. Of course, that's just this generation. The next generation will be starting from a smaller number of potential parents - unless of course a large amount of people of child-baring age move into Wales. But what percentage of them who would learn Welsh or whose children, going though our useless linguistic colander school system would acquire Welsh? Needless to say, Wales has nothing to say about this although other nations in similar situations, Tawain (1.2 children) Hong Kong (1.0), even guilt-ridden Germany (1.3) are no mature enough to discuss it.
What WAG and the WLB will point out to support for the Welsh nursery movement, Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin and Tŵf (Growth) an agency which tries to promote parents and prospective parents to raise their children to speak both Welsh and English. The support of both these movements are all very well and cuddly but totally insufficient. What use more Welsh medium nurseries when there are no children to attend them? There are 80,000 less children in Wales now than there were ten years ago. 80,000?! What kind of a Government doesn't freeze in fear when it hears a figure like that? What are its implications?
As I said for Welsh it is truly catastrophic. Not only are the numbers of Welsh-speaking hearths decreasing and so a decrease in the 'normalcy' of Welsh and an ability to integrate non-Welsh speakers, but the number of potential Welsh-speakers are also decreasing. For a minority language to flourish it needs to hold on to its existing community (which Welsh is only two-thirds doing) but it also needs to absorb new members. The most effective way of doing this is through the education system and Welsh medium education at that. Even so called 'bilingual schools' are ineffective and sells a false premise to parents of proficiency in both languages (which may be one reason that some politicians supports them as opposed to Welsh-medium). Put simply, if the Welsh language is to grow then the number children from non-Welsh-speaking households also needs to increase. One hopes then that a coherent education system and the parents wish to invest Welsh in their children will lead to growth. Policies to promote parents to have children should be targeted across the board then, irrespective of their language, nationality or ethnicity.
There are other effects of 80,000 less children. On a flippant note can Wales expect to win the rugby Grand Slam ever again after this generation with such a diminished pool of players? Will we ever qualify for the soccer world cup? Who will pay the pensions of an increasingly ageing population? In areas like Gwynedd, Môn, the North Wales Coast, and Ceredigion this is compounded by the phenomenon of older people moving into these areas – creating an extra burden on an already low-birth rate area - the very point Simon Glyn made in 2001 much to his chagrin of the political establishment. The same aging problem (but for slightly different reasons) face the Valleys whose school numbers have plummeted and whose politicians are yet to say a word. Politically Wales will become a more conservative and uninteresting places. A culture dominated by the agenda and tastes of older people is doomed. The zeitgeist can sniff the smell of a crumbling culture a mile away and the attractive young culture will not be Welsh (either in Welsh nor English) and will probably not even be Western.
Birth rate is everything. During the Soviet occupation, Estonia was more Russified than Lithuania not because some particular vindication on behalf of Moscow against the Estonians, but because as the historian, Anatol Lieven, points out the birth rate in Lithuania was more than the one in Estonia and so there was less need for workers outside Lithuania to come to the state to work. Conversely, French gained status in the 1960s in Quebec because of what is called the 'silent revolution' where, for a generation, the more traditional, Catholic French-speaking Quebecois had more children than their English-speaking neighbours leading to an increase in numbers, percentage and because there were more youths, a youthful and so attractive and confident political French zeitgeist and culture.
What's so deficient in our political culture that this subject isn't discussed? Is it a fear of association - of being pigeonholed with Mussolini's Monty Pythonesque Medals for Motherhood? Is it our Nonconformist burden and folly that Wales can save the world - that if we have no kids then we'd have done our bit against global over-population? This is one argument I heard from a left-wing nationalist, an argument which is shocking in its naivety and self-loathing - was he actually saying there were too many Welsh people in the world? The Welsh and UK birth-rate has decreased yet the population is increasing. This is partly because of increased longevity and partly because, unless people want an economic collapse on the scale of 1990s Russia, the state needs a workforce to keep the whole economy going. If it's not children born in Wales doing the work then it's the children of other people from other countries. It's the same 'carbon foot-print' but with different people.
What's wrong with Welsh-speakers that such an obvious problem for the Welsh language isn't mentioned in polite society? Nobody's calling for women to have 8 kids, there's no need to show the anti-gay sentiment of previous times nor to stigmatise those who can't have children. We are surely past that sixth-form period. This is a debate that affects us all.
Is it just that Western society have chosen not to have children or is modern life too stressful? Is there also a fundamental juvenile lack of common understanding and education that in reality the only difference between our great-grandparents and us is electricity and that our children are our pensions policy? The safety net is now the welfare state and not the immediate family but the principle is the same. And how long will our national health service survive beyond the class jingoism, which its tribal supporters burden it with? Have my generation (those in their 30s) actually thought about who's going to wheel them about, wipe their spittle and bathe them when they're old or infirm? Who'll perform the plays they like to see or cook the food at the nice restaurants they like to eat? And if not 'their' children, then whose? The children of their contemporaries who lost out on promotion, on wages and who, for the bargain, will get less pension money or will it be the children of parents who may never have heard of Wales or the Welsh language? Are people ready to live in a Wales in which hardly anybody actually speaks Welsh? Who will listen and watch the Welsh-language media then?
The intellectual and moral failure of our leaders is deep-rooted. The Welsh language movement is largely a child of the 1960s conversing in the politics of a stable sustainable birth rate. It's unable and unwilling to comprehend that it's now a totally new ball game. It asks for one last Herculean heave in status politics whilst the very ground crumbles beneath their feet. They're like a flat-earther debating against reality. The historiography taught in our schools and universities are similarly locked in a teleological Enlightenment thought-trap. They've moved on from the histories of Great Men to the history of thought and the mundane but are yet to move to the history of demography. Our political class are slaves to the market forces of votes. The very politicians who tell us we need migrant labour because our workforce is shrinking are the very ones who shout down those who propose that a sustainable increase in the birth rate may answer this very dilemma.
I don't want a massive increase in the population of Wales. I'm talking of a sustainable birth rate - around the 2.2 of a few decades ago. Is that extreme? I'd like to keep our population around the three million mark - that's the intelligent demographics of the future. In a resources rich country like Wales there's a definite advantage in having a comparatively small population in relation to our landmass - that would be one of the advantages of Welsh independence.
The challenge of a below sustainable birth-rate calls for a huge change in attitude, of turning a cultural tanker around. It's a complicated field and policies need to recognise people's aspirations for having children and also a career. Politicians can and should play their part, but there's also a strong cultural context to birthrate which is difficult to quantify. Don’t we also need a change of culture?
How many of Cambria's readers for instance have told their children, 'there we are, two kids are enough, and don’t have more'? Have Merched y Wawr or the WI discussed the issue and addressed what they can do as parents and grandparents? Do the Urdd, Scouts or Young Farmers or sport clubs discuss it? And what of our aspiring politicians – Plaid Cymru Youth Movement and the other parties who profess concern for Cymru? What about the women’s section of the poltical parties, why are they so quite little to say on the subject? What of our schools? Amongst the sex education and exams do they discuss the importance (and joy) of raising children? Do our churches and societies tell of the moral importance of having and raising children? Will our advertising executives continue to portray two children as the desired norm of the nuclear family or will it be three kids? Will our AMs offer free bus-passes to pregnant women and parents not old age pensioners? Does our society have enough moral courage in itself to wish it to continue?
And what of our media? Now that BBC Radio 4 have run an item on Welsh demographics, my hunch is that the Welsh media will see it's OK to peek over the parapet of the prejudices and discuss it as well. As editors and commissioners whose formative years was in the 1980s approach middle age and what was in the past the age of grandparenthood many may now wake up to the reality which isn’t on TV. Let’s hope the debate about birth rates can begin and let’s hope it won’t be childish.