Demographic Change in Scotland

This research paper sets out current evidence relating to demogrpahy in Scotland, exploring the implications of demographic change and related policy issues, with reference to Scotland's Population Growth Purpose Target


  • The 60,000 births in Scotland in 2008 was the highest since 1995.
  • The birth rate in Scotland has increased over recent years (although the most recent annual figures (2009) show a slight drop), but is the lowest of the UK countries, a reversal of the situation up until the 1980s.
  • The birth rate is lower in the cities and higher in urban hinterlands and rural areas.
  • In relation to their English counterparts, Scots women delay longer between births and are more likely to "stop at two", both of which contribute to (but do not fully explain) the different birth rates in the 2 countries.
  • A range of social and environmental factors including educational qualifications, female employment, views on gender equality, friendship networks and family friendly neighbourhoods appear to be linked to fertility in Scotland.

5.1 This section looks at fertility in Scotland. Births and deaths together determine natural population change, thus playing a part in progress towards the population target. The data presented covers trends, national comparisons, and factors associated with fertility.

Fertility trends in Scotland

5.2 While migration has been the main driver of population growth over recent years, natural change has also been an important factor, with increases in the number of births recorded in each year from 2002 to 2008. The most recent GROS figures ( GROS, 2010) show there were 59,046 births in Scotland in 2009, a slight drop from the 60,041 recorded in 2008, although the figure remained above that recorded in 2007. The 2008 figure was the highest recorded number of births since 1995. Importantly for population growth, births have also exceeded deaths in Scotland each year since 2006, resulting in positive natural change. Births exceeded deaths by 5190 in 2009, the largest population gain through natural change since 1991. Figure 11 below shows the trends in births from 1951 to 2009.

Figure 11: Births in Scotland (1951-2009) (thousands)

Figure 11: Births in Scotland (1951-2009) (thousands)

Source: GROS

5.3 Despite the recent rise, fertility in Scotland still stands below the level required for population replacement. GROS figures show the 2009 Total Fertility Rate ( TFR) 36 to be 1.77 (very slightly down from the 1.8 recorded in 2008); the 2008 figure was the highest for 26 years but still below the 2.1 required for population replacement. Scotland's fertility rate is currently classed as being in the "safety zone", ie, above 1.5 at a level where migration can realistically be expected to compensate for the deficit in maintaining the population. While the upturn in the birth rate in recent years is notable it is also clear that there have been previous short term rises in the birth rate which have then fallen away (eg, around the early 90s) and that, even if the fertility rate remains unchanged, smaller cohorts of women from periods of low fertility will result in fewer babies being born in total.

Implications of a low fertility rate

5.4 The fertility rate matters as it is a key driver - along with migration (in and out) and life expectancy - of demographic change, particularly in the medium to long term. It impacts on the size of the population and the population profile, and the dependency ratio. Increasing life expectancy will inevitably lead to an ageing population (a greater proportion of the population falling into older age groups). However, this is exacerbated when a low fertility rate reduces the numbers of people in the younger age groups, and over time reduces the numbers of people of working age. The dependency ratio is set to increase more rapidly in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK. Although in-migration can compensate for a low fertility rate (as is the case at present), this is not necessarily a long term solution as the behaviour of migrants in relation to long term settlement is far from certain.

Scotland's fertility in comparison to other European countries

5.5 At an international level, Scotland's overall fertility trends are similar to those in other developed countries, with recent decades having seen a sustained reduction in the birth rate in most European countries. While Scotland's fertility rate has been below that required for population replacement, this is the same for a range of European countries (see Figure 12). Figures for 2008 show Iceland to have the highest TFR, with Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and France having the highest TFR amongst EU15 countries. Several countries recorded TFRs of below 1.5. Scotland is in the mid range of European fertility, with a TFR of 1.8, above the EU27 average.

Figure 12: Total Fertility Rate (Scotland and selected European countries) 2008

Figure 12: Total Fertility Rate (Scotland and selected European countries) 2008

Source: GROS ( GROS High Level Summary of Statistics, 2010) and Eurostat

5.6 Figure 13 shows Scotland currently has the lowest fertility rate of the 4 UK countries. Scotland's fertility rate fell below that of England and Wales in the early 1980s and has remained in that position since. Northern Ireland has maintained its position as the UK country with the highest TFR (although its fertility rate is now much closer to the rates found in the other UK countries). All 4 UK countries have, though, witnessed similar overall trends with falling birth rates since the 1960s, and an upturn in more recent years. All 4 countries have experienced a slight dip in fertility from 2008 to 2009. The greater fall in Scotland's fertility rate over recent decades, relative to the other UK countries, suggests that particular factors in Scotland have impacted on the birth rate which could be further investigated.

Figure 13: Total fertility rate, UK countries, 1971-2009

Figure 13: Total fertility rate, UK countries, 1971-2009

Source: GROS

Groups contributing to the recent upturn in the birth rate in Scotland

5.7 GROS figures (vital events tables) show the increased birth rate over recent years to be apparent within all age groups in Scotland except the under 20s. However the increase has been most marked for women in the older age groups (aged 30 and over) who now account for almost half of all births in Scotland. The birth rate dropped or remained static for all age groups from 2008 to 2009, with the exception of the over 40s, where there is a continuation of the previous upward trend.

5.8 The proportion of births to non-Scots born mothers has also increased from 13% in 1977 to 24% in 2009 ( GROS (2010). Looking at the increase in births in recent years (from 2004 to 2007) Scots-born mothers accounted for 40% of the increase in births, other UK-born mothers a further 5% of the increase, while mothers born elsewhere accounted for 55% of the increase; 30% of the increase was accounted for by mothers born in the A8 countries ( GROS, 2008). However, research suggests that the fertility behaviour of migrants tends to converge with that of the resident population over time 37.

Geographic variations in fertility across Scotland

5.9 GROS figures (vital events figures) show the extent of geographic variation in fertility across Scotland's local authority areas. Across Scotland the General Fertility Rate (number of births per 1000 women of childbearing age) rose from 48.1 to 57.2 in the period 2002 to 2008, falling back slightly to 56.6 in 2009. There has, though, been significant variation at local authority level. Although all authorities have recorded an increase, this ranged from increases of 3.5% and 5% in Stirling and East Renfrewshire to increases of 40% and 32% in Shetland Islands and Clackmananshire (2002 to 2008).

5.10 In general, birth rates tend to be lower in city areas (particularly Edinburgh with a 2009 GFR of 46.9 compared to the Scotland-wide figure of 56.6), and higher in the surrounding commuter areas and in rural areas. Local authorities with the highest GFR levels include Shetland, Aberdeenshire and Moray. Possible explanations for this variation include housing availability and costs in urban areas, and lower rates of female economic activity in rural areas. Graham et al (2008) explore this further suggesting this pattern is driven by selective migration of people wishing to start or increase their families from cities to suburban areas as a result of housing market and quality of life issues.

Factors influencing fertility rates in Scotland

5.11 The 2 fertility projects commissioned as part of the Scottish Demography Research Programme sought to explore the reasons for Scotland's low fertility rate at that time, looking specifically at why fertility in Scotland is lower than that in England, and why fertility varies across Scotland.

5.12 In comparing Scotland and England 38 Graham et al reported similar fertility intentions and similar levels of childlessness; thus neither of these factors appeared to contribute to the fertility differentials between the 2 countries. However, a number of factors were found to contribute to the difference. Significantly, Scottish women were reported to wait longer between births and to be less likely to have a third or fourth child. In addition, black and ethnic minority women, who make up a bigger proportion of the population in England, were more likely to have 3 or more children, and better educated women in Scotland were less likely than their English counterparts to have a third child.

5.13 Beckett-Milburn et al 39 used survey work to explore views and experiences which might contribute to fertility variation within Scotland, looking at a range of factors which might influence fertility decisions. In relation to education, they found higher levels of education to be associated with lower levels of fertility, and a bigger gap between actual and expected fertility. In relation to employment, women in part-time work were more likely to start their families earlier and have more children. Those in full-time work were more likely to think that their work progress would be affected if they had another child, and those who thought their employers provided a poor "fit" between work and family life were particularly likely to express concern about work progress if they had another child. Attitudes and behaviours in relation to a number of social and environmental factors were also found to be associated with fertility (although the presence of any "cause and effect" is not clear): those with a lot of friends with children and those living in areas that were perceived as a good place to bring up children were more likely to have more children; those who practised gender equality in the home were less likely to have large families.

5.14 Thus, the 2 projects highlighted factors contributing to the different fertility patterns in Scotland and England and explored factors associated with variations in fertility within Scotland. Although the fertility rate in Scotland has increased since this work was carried out, the rate is still below replacement level and the findings may still provide pointers in terms of policy options that may support increased fertility, and families bringing up children more generally.

Current issues in relation to fertility

5.15 It is generally recognised that increased fertility needs to be part of the medium and longer term solution to population growth, and meeting Scotland's population target in particular (see, for example, the CEA Annual Report 2009 40). Although, fertility has increased in Scotland in recent years, it is still below replacement levels, and consideration might, therefore, be given to how government activity might influence fertility.

Current policy activity in relation to fertility

5.16 Scotland does not have a "fertility policy" as such. Nevertheless, research suggests that there are a number of policy areas which can have an impact on fertility decisions at the individual level (falling broadly into the categories of: financial support, childcare provision, maternity/paternity/parental leave, employment conditions), and where government activity may be relevant to current fertility trends in Scotland:

  • Provision of childcare: the Scottish Government has a role in provision of childcare, although policy activity is largely confined to the provision of (part-time) pre-school education for children of 3 years and over. In relation to its own staff, the Scottish Government provides a workplace nursery in Edinburgh.

5.17 In relation to employment conditions and fiscal benefits, however, which could form part of any overall "pro-family" package which may encourage childbearing, policy is reserved to Westminster. UK level policies include:

  • Fiscal benefits: maternity allowance, child benefit, tax credits, childcare vouchers
  • Leave arrangements/employment conditions: Maternity leave and maternity pay arrangements, paternity leave, adoption leave, parental leave (unpaid), the right to request flexible working hours.

Current/future evidence requirements in relation to fertility

5.18 GROS publish annual data on the number of births and fertility trends in Scotland. A number of large surveys currently collect information on fertility (eg, General Household Survey and British Household Panel Survey) and this has been used to investigate trends and influencing factors. However, specific work focusing on the drivers of fertility (eg, the drivers behind the recent upturn in fertility rates in Scotland) would be helpful in understanding the current picture. Further work on the impact of policy interventions (in the UK and elsewhere) would also be useful in consideration of how increased fertility might be supported. In relation to Scotland in particular, work that helps explain the lower fertility rate in Scotland in contrast to the UK as a whole would be helpful. Here, issues relating to birth parity (or birth order) would benefit from further investigation, given the differences in Scotland and England, although the lack of relevant information at a national level may be a limiting factor. Other research might include further exploration of some of the social and environmental factors (eg, housing costs and availability, family friendly neighbourhoods) linked to variations in fertility, building on the work previously carried out as part of the Scottish Demography Research Programme. And, reflecting the current economic climate, investigation of the impact of the economic downturn on fertility decisions may prove to have longer term value. 41

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