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Britain's population tops 61 million for 1st time

Britain's population took its biggest jump in almost half a century last year, as a baby boom made new births rather than immigration the main contributor to growth for the first time in a decade.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Britain's population took its biggest jump in almost half a century last year, as a baby boom made new births rather than immigration the main contributor to growth for the first time in a decade.

Government figures show that 791,000 babies were born in the year to mid-2008 — 33,000 more than the year before — helping to bring Britain's population to 61.4 million. The net population increase of 408,000 is the largest since 1962, the Office for National Statistics said Friday.

Britain and other European nations face a looming crisis for health care and pensions as the population ages and the number of working-age people shrinks relative to the retired. But that is being somewhat offset by rising birth rates.

Britain's fertility rate of just under 2 children per mother is at its highest level since 1973, and the country's population is growing by more than 0.7 per cent a year — three times the level in the 1980s.

A quarter of all births last year were to women born outside Britain, but statistician Roma Chappell said fertility rates among British-born women also are rising.

France's birth rate has been rising steadily for years and stood at 2.07 children per woman in 2008. That is one of Europe's highest, due both to a tradition of large families among African immigrants and to decades of pro-family government policies such as generous maternity leave and public preschools and day care centers.

Germany's birth rate is lower but rising — 1.37 children per woman in 2007, an increase from 1.33 the previous year.

While the number of babies in Europe is rising, so is the number of old people. The British statistics show that 1.3 million people — 2 percent of the country's population — are now over 85.

Dalia Ben-Galim, a social policy researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank, said rising fertility rates would help ease some of the economic pressure by bringing more people into the work force.

"That in itself, through taxation, will help to fund pension provision for the elderly," she said.

But Britain, like other developed countries, will still see a growing "sandwich generation" of middle-aged people who have to look after both their children and their elderly parents.

"This will lead to more pressure for flexible working, allowances for carers and so on," Ben-Galim said.

Immigration, meanwhile, is falling. The recession has seen many of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from new EU member states in Eastern Europe who came to Britain in the last few years go home. In 2008, 79,000 Eastern European migrants came to Britain — down from 109,000 in 2007 — while 66,000 left.

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Associated Press Writers David Rising in Berlin and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.