A Scotland for the future: opportunities and challenges of Scotland's changing population

Scotland’s first national population strategy, framing the diverse and cross-cutting demographic challenges that Scotland faces at national and local level, and setting out a programme of work to address these challenges and harness new opportunities.

Family Friendly: Growing Our Population

Families in Scotland are diverse and come in all shapes and sizes. We celebrate that and it must continue. In looking at our demographics, in order to support our increasing older population, we need to increase the number of our younger people. Migration is one route, but this relies on powers from the UK Government but the other is to identify and address the barriers that stop people from growing their families. It also helps sustain our public services such as schools. This chapter looks at the context behind our falling birth rate and what actions we are taking that can address this.

What does the evidence tell us?

Scotland's total fertility rate (TFR; the average number of children per woman that a group of women would have expect to have if they experienced the observed Age Specific Fertility Rate) has fallen from 2.5 in 1971 to a record low of 1.37 in 2019. In order for a population to grow, the replacement fertility rate needs to be at 2.1. Scotland's fertility rate has not been at 2.1 since 1973. 

There is variation in fertility rates across Scottish council areas. The five council areas with the lowest rates are all cities – Stirling, Dundee, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Each has a TFR of below 1.3. 

Rural and remote areas, and commuter areas, tend to have higher fertility rates. The Shetland Islands, Argyll and Bute, the Scottish Borders, Midlothian and East Dunbartonshire all have higher TFRs than the England and Wales average of 1.65.[19]

Though cities generally have low fertility rates internationally (primarily due to younger age profiles and higher concentrations of students), the rates in Scottish cities are substantially lower than cities in England and Wales with comparable age and student profiles.

For example, Bristol and Leeds, cities of comparable population size with comparable student populations, have total fertility rates of 1.44 and 1.58 respectively, compared to 1.01 for Edinburgh and 1.18 for Glasgow. It would be helpful to understand more about the basis for these differences and this is something we propose to explore.

Scotland is not alone in this, the rest of the UK and all EU counties also have a total fertility rate lower than the replacement fertility rate (although Scotland has the lowest rate across the UK). 

Deciding to have a child is an important decision and it is a decision for that individual or couple. It is not for government to seek to dictate or influence whether an individual should have a child or how many children they should choose to have. However, there is a role for government in addressing the barriers that may prevent individuals and couples from starting a family.

Figure 10: Comparison of Total Fertility Rates ( TFR) across UK Nations. [20]
Figure illustrates the difference in total fertility rates between Scotland and the other UK Nations from 1971 to 2019.

There are a number of factors that influence people's decisions to start, or to expand, their family. Some of these include:

Financial. For example, families may not have the economic sustainability to pay for children, or their ability to access well paid flexible employment or local affordable childcare may also mean they choose to have fewer children. Women may also be concerned about the risk of discrimination and the impact on their career.

Housing. Depending where families live, they may not have adequate housing to raise a family, or at least the family size they wish to have either due to supply or cost. If individuals do not have certainty about their housing then this can also impact on their decision.

Personal. Couples or individuals may choose to wait longer to have children than their parents did, either due to the financial reasons set out above or to focus on their education or career development. People may not be living close to their extended family with the attendant loss of close family support. With people having children later in life, this means that families tend to be smaller.

Wider societal. As well as health reasons which can lead to fertility issues, people may also choose not to have children because of a range of cultural and religious reasons including concerns about the size of the global population and the impact on our climate.

Impact of COVID

Financial uncertainty already plays a part in when and if people decide to start a family. There is a risk that COVID-19 has compounded these issues with the risk that young people who may be considering starting a family may be more exposed to the economic impact of the pandemic. 

The Social Renewal Advisory Board report,[21] which reported on the impact of COVID-19 on our society, recognises the pandemic has disproportionally affected certain parts of our society, from those in deprived areas to ethnic minorities. The actions contained in that report are of importance to all aspects of our nation, including the high labour market standards we expect and demonstrating how we want our country to be – which is important in attracting families and those who may want to raise a family here. Work will be on-going to support communities hardest hit by the pandemic, and the population programme will be aligned to this work as it progresses.


We want to encourage families and people of working age to come to Scotland and build their lives here; to make a positive contribution to our economy, our communities and our public services. For them, and those already in Scotland our focus is on identifying and addressing the barriers which may prevent people from taking the decisions to start or expand their family, if that is what they wish. 

Current actions and commitments

Our aspiration is that all families are supported to give their children the best start in life, so that Scotland's children grow up loved, safe and respected and that they realise their full potential. Getting it right for every child (GIRFEC) is Scotland's national approach to improving outcomes for children and young people. It provides a common framework which puts the child at the centre and helps children get the right support from the right people at the right time. 

We are committed to delivering the whole system changes needed to develop and implement the recommendations that The Independent Care Review set out in their report, The Promise[22]. Scotland has a clear commitment to early intervention and prevention, and by offering children and families support at the right time it will give parents the chance to thrive and mitigate the impact of socio-economic factors supporting them to fully function in society. That commitment is best realised through proper, holistic support for families. We must provide access to universal services to assist families and prospective parents at all stages of their lives. There must be sufficient resources to offer support during pregnancy through early education and healthcare, and during pre-school where community-based support is vital. Services must be responsive and flexible to a family's needs and their voices must be heard in the decisions that impact them.

Offering support to children, young people and families is one way of demonstrating that Scotland is a great place to raise a family. However, one of the barriers women face is concern about the impact of parenthood on their job.

Employment Law, including the provision of parental leave and pay is a matter reserved to the UK Government which means Scotland is currently limited to following the decisions of the UK Government in these areas. 

Therefore, like the rest of the UK, Scotland has maternity leave for eligible employees to take, either for 26 weeks, or 'Ordinary Maternity Leave' and up to 52 weeks with the additional 26 weeks as 'Additional Maternity Leave'. Fathers/partners leave, however, is different with eligible employees only being able to take one week or two consecutive weeks' leave.

To build a family friendly nation we are:

  • Providing a box of essential items to all expectant mothers with our baby boxes
  • Committed to funding more early learning and childcare hours for all parents for those aged three to four years and for two year olds for those in more deprived households. 
  • Committed to GIRFEC as an overarching rights-based policy approach through a common framework for whole family support including named person or single point of contact, consideration of wellbeing and, where needed, co-ordination of support for identified needs through a single child's plan
  • Working with local authorities, care providers and all relevant stakeholders, to make the necessary changes to the care system set out in The Promise.
  • Committed to free education for all of our children and continue to offer no tuition fees to Scottish people who wish to study in Scottish universities.
  • Committed to providing universal and targeted health services to support the health and development of all children in the earliest years of life.
  • Delivering the Family Support Directory which allows users to access information and further sources of support on a broad range of issues such as money advice, relationships, health and wellbeing.
  • Providing support through the Scottish Child Payment which launched on 15th February 2021 which pays the equivalent of £10 per week to eligible claimants with a child under six years old. The payment will be rolled out to eligible claimants with a child under 16 by the end of 2022, subject to the receipt of data on qualifying benefits from DWP.
  • Supporting those on certain benefits through our Best Start Grants to buy healthy food for their children and provide financial support at key stages of their lives. Committed to ensuring that no child grows up in poverty - our Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan sets out a range of actions to help us achieve this
  • Providing holistic support to help parents progress toward and within work, access to child care funds, financial advice and support from our Money Talk Team service and support for young parents through our Parental Employability Support Fund and the Young Person' Guarantee.
  • Delivering on the commitments in our Fair Work Action Plan aiming for Scotland to be a Fair Work Nation by 2025, including rolling out our flagship Fair Work First approach to public sector grants and contracts.
  • Promoting payment of the real Living Wage through the Living Wage Employer Accreditation scheme and supporting more towns, cities and regions to become Living Wage Places.
  • Supporting women back into the labour market following a career break, for example to have children, through the Women Returners Programme.
  • Launching the Workplace Equality Fund 20/21 supporting equality groups impacted by the economic impact of COVID-19.
  • More person-centred approach to employability for all, including disabled people to ensure everyone can move into fair work employment.
  • Working with the Hunter Foundation to support and promote the development of flexible and family friendly workplaces though Flexibility Works.
  • Working with TimeWise to support employers and employees develop more fair and flexible work opportunities.

What more needs to be done?

Deciding whether or not to have a child is rightly a matter for individuals and couples. We are not seeking to attach value judgements to different families but we are interested in the barriers that individuals may face when deciding whether or not to have a child. We are interested in exploring why people are waiting longer and having fewer children. Through these insights, this will help us determine whether the interventions we have set out above to eliminate barriers are the right ones or whether we need to focus elsewhere.

A number of countries across the world are considering the impact of a declining birth rate. Some countries have put in place incentives to encourage people to have children while other countries have focused on addressing the potential barriers that may discourage people from having a child. 

For example some countries that offer more generous parental leave packages, such as Sweden which offers 480 days of gender-blind parental leave at 80% of salary, have a higher total fertility rate than Scotland. That is not to say that policy interventions are the reason behind the higher fertility rates, but does suggest more investigation into family friendly policies and the impact on fertility.

We must continue to promote Scotland as a fairer country. Not just for our children, with our aim to reduce child poverty from 1 in 4 as it currently stands to 1 in 10 by 2030, but also by empowering women to return to the workplace after having children (if they wish to do). We need to ensure that workplaces are fair and give women the same opportunities to pursue a worthwhile career.

Similarly we must continue to encourage broader participation of women in business and entrepreneurship. Current figures demonstrate a clear and long-standing gender gap in rates of business start-up, growth, scale and access to finance.

Work led by Professor Sara Carter from the Hunter Centre of Entrepreneurship at Strathclyde University indicates that if women's participation rates matched men's there would be the potential of c.35,000 more direct jobs in the Scottish economy. It could also boost the economy by as much as 5% GDP, a difference of £7.6 billion GVA.

The Scottish Government supports a gender-balanced use of employee benefit and family-related leave however we do not have the powers required to enact such changes. Changes to maternity pay and leave are the responsibility of the UK Government but actions to increase the level and length of statutory provision would provide financial support to families throughout the maternity leave period, supporting parents and children to get the best start in life and not feeling the imperative to return to work due to a low income level. This would help address the 'motherhood penalty', a key driver of the gender pay gap and will respond to 2015 research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission whose findings on pregnancy and maternity discrimination revealed that 77% of women reported a negative or discriminatory pregnancy/maternity experience.

At the moment, NHS assisted conception services are offered to heterosexual and same sex couples who meet certain criteria. Increasing access to NHS treatment for the purposes of increasing population could be achieved by widening access criteria to NHS fertility treatment (for example to include single people, or couples who already have a child) or by increasing the number of cycles of IVF to increase success rates. Further modelling would need to be undertaken to inform the demand and possible outcome of these changes and insight work to be carried out to understand if that is one of the reasons behind people not having children.

We must ensure all employers, no matter the sector, support mothers who return to work, offering flexible opportunities around childcare and working. UNICEF's report on Family Friendly Policies[23] suggests that employers must support breastfeeding breaks in the workplace. Breastfeeding has a number of health advantages for children and if mothers choose to breastfeed, they should be supported to do this once they return to the workplace. This is one policy which might support the choice for women to return to work earlier than they would otherwise. As part of our engagement with the public, we should explore and ensure these opportunities are available in Scotland. 

We must also ensure people are getting the work-life balance that they want, and perhaps need, to raise a family. A study by Family Friendly Working Scotland found that 95% of Scottish people believe a work-life balance is as important as their salary and one third believe this balance is more important than salary.[24] At a UK level flexible working experts Timewise found that at the start of 2020, 9 out of 10 people wanted to work flexibly and even with the onset of COVID and the rise in working from home only 22% of jobs advertised as flexible in Scotland.[25] since lockdown. Scottish Government has commissioned Timewise have been to produce the Timewise Flexible Jobs Index for Scotland due to be published in March 2021

We recognise the importance of enabling all children in Scotland to have access to high quality and affordable childcare which meets their needs and the needs of their families and communities. The benefits of this type of childcare are 3-fold:

  • Improving outcomes for children
  • Providing opportunities for parents and carers to access work and study
  • Improving family wellbeing

That is why in Scotland, we are in the process of almost doubling the number of hours of funded early learning and childcare children can access in Scotland; and we have committed to developing a strategic framework for school aged childcare, supported by a £3 million Access to Childcare fund to test new models of school age childcare that will be accessible and affordable for low income families.

We know when it comes to providing flexible and affordable high quality childcare, challenges and opportunities are different across local areas. That is why our partnership working with local authorities and the private and third sectors is so key to the successful delivery of these ambitious commitments. Each area of Scotland is responding to their communities in ways that best suit their needs.

A lack of access to high quality and affordable childcare is a barrier to encouraging young families to move to an area. We understand this can be a key challenge in rural and island areas, which tend to have higher proportions of people who have a second job and who are self-employed, working part-time and working from home. Families in these areas need flexible, wrap-around childcare to accommodate non-standard or seasonal working patterns; childcare before/after school, weekends and holiday; and they need it to be very local to avoid long travel times or routes that can be disrupted in adverse weather.

The challenges to address for these areas include: attracting and retaining a qualified workforce; providing sustainable services that are flexible enough for the patterns of rural employment; and minimising travel times for children and families to a childcare setting.

These issues are part of the on-going programmes of work on Scotland's commitments for childcare. We are developing cross-government networks to ensure key policies for rural and island communities (e.g. on rural economy, women in agriculture) are feeding in to these work programmes. 

In addition, individuals' decisions on whether or not to have a child, or a further child, may be affected by accessibility of maternity services locally and experience of those services in previous pregnancies. Rural maternity services in particular are under pressure to centralise and loss of these services may contribute to decisions of families in those areas, either to have children or to locate in those areas. Work is underway across Scotland to improve maternity and neonatal services as part of The Best Start: A Five Year Forward Plan for Maternity and Neonatal Care, with a strong focus on individualised care as close to home as possible, however pressure will remain on the more remote and rural services. 

Improving women's position in the labour market remains a priority for the Scottish Government and a key part of delivering inclusive economic growth. We have committed to reviewing the actions in A Fairer Scotland for Women: Gender Pay Gap Action Plan[26] to ensure they remain fit for purpose and support women through the economic recovery from COVID-19. 

We must also look to address the gendered approach to child caring responsibilities which creates inequality in the first place. Women are typically expected to take this on, which can impact on their ability to work or reach their potential. We must explore the nation's view on this, and how we address these inequalities.

Access to affordable, secure accommodation is another key consideration when starting a family. The proportion of households in the private rented sector has grown from 5% in 1999 to 14% in 2018 and 2019. Younger households of owner-occupiers has dropped in the same time period, down from 53% in 1999 to 38% in 2019.[27]

This evidence highlights a number of important actions. For the private rented sector, this suggests addressing the affordability of rent by capping rents to tackle high rent rates and allowing those living in the private rented sector greater opportunities to make changes and improvements to their homes.

The other aspect is making owning your own home more achievable for our younger generations – if that is what they choose to do. We will continue our commitment to build more affordable homes as well as focusing our shared equity schemes on those who really need to buy a home.

While it is important to have these family friendly policies in place, it is equally important that people are made aware and understand the support which will be available to individuals, couples or families when they make that decision to have a child.

Encouraging Families to Move to Scotland 

Attracting people to move to Scotland is important in addressing our demographic challenges. In doing so, we can hope to address our challenges twofold, by encouraging more working age people to live here to help support our ageing population and increase the numbers of children and young people if they choose to raise a family here as well.

Scotland is a vibrant country, and it is important that we publicise this. We have beautiful green open spaces for families explore, we have amazing cultural heritage from book festivals in the south to our Nordic heritage in the north, we have fantastic sporting opportunities and families can benefit for all of these things being right on their doorstep.

Work has already been delivered through the collaborative Brand Scotland Strategic Partnership[28] with a range of marketing campaigns under the current international audience umbrella strategy #ScotlandisNow. These campaigns have publicised what a fantastic country Scotland is to live, work and grow up in and demonstrates the quality of life families and individuals can enjoy.

We will share our family friendly policies with investors we engage with through our Inward Investment Plan, as this may well be a deciding factor in which businesses decide to invest here. We will continue to use the Brand Scotland umbrella strategy to develop and deploy campaigns over the coming months and years to help achieve our population ambitions. That means we must do more to increase awareness of our work through other channels, making links with the domestic parental audience strategy through Parent Club. 

A family friendly nation: summary of actions
# Action Action for
1 We will review the actions of the Gender Pay Gap Action Plan to ensure they remain fit for purpose and support women through the COVID-19 recovery Scottish Government with employers
2 We commit to build more affordable as well as ensuring our current homes are fit for purpose Scottish Government and Local Authorities
3 We will use the collaborative Brand Scotland marketing communications strategy to promote Scotland as a family friendly nation and promote resources such as Parent Club to help attract talent to our country Scottish Government
4 We will call on the UK Government to make changes to employment law to pursue a gender-blind parental leave Scottish Government and UK Government
5 We will explore widening access to fertility services for those within society who wish to raise a family and need those services to conceive  Scottish Government
6 We will explore opportunities to ensure breastfeeding breaks are available to all new mothers in the workplace Scottish Government with employers


Email: population@gov.scot

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