Why do newspapers portray Britain’s teenagers as an endangered species?
For several reasons, the UK experienced lower births in the early ‘noughties’ than in the 1980s and early 1990s.
This shrunken group of ‘noughties’ babies are now growing up to be teenagers – and as a result there will be around 10% less teenagers in the UK by 2017 than there are today!
What economic and social factors are responsible for this change in population structure? And what are some of the possible consequences, both positive and negative?
Why are teenage numbers falling in the UK?
Will teenagers become extinct?
What impacts does this changing population structure bring?
According to an analysis by the Financial Times of projections from the Office for National Statistics, the UK “is set to see a pronounced decline in the number of teenagers over the next decade – a demographic shift that carries huge implications for businesses and public policy.” By 2017 there will be 4.9m teenagers in Britain, down 9% from 5.4m today.
The coming decline in teenagers is a consequence of a low birth rate recorded during the early “noughties”, around 2000-2004. This was, in turn, a population echo of a period of low numbers of births during the 1970s -
After the end of the baby boom of the 1960s, birth rates fell off sharply in the 1970s as use of the contraceptive pill and family planning methods became more widespread by families who were worried about the cost of living as the UK entered a period of economic crisis. This crisis was a result of the oil shocks of 1973.
The children of this baby slump generation of the 1970s were born in the early noughties. They are the ones now approaching teenage age – hence, the “teenage timebomb” remark (Financial Times, 31 May 2010).
The fertility rate for women in the UK has generally stayed low since the 1930s. But during the 1970s, it certainly fell well below its replacement level (the rate needed to maintain population size over time; for a developed country like the UK it is an average of 2.1 babies born per woman). In the 1980s and 1990s, births rose again slightly.
These interesting inter-relationships between different population structure age groups can be identified in the population pyramid for the UK (Figure 1).
The 1970s oil shocks: the root cause of today’s ‘teenage timebomb’?
During the 1970s, the OPEC group of oil producing nations decided to re-negotiate prices with the world’s major oil companies such as Exxon, Shell and BP (before 1973, western car owners were being charged much higher prices than the oil companies were paying to the producing nations – a very “unfair” type of trade!).
After a failure to reach a compromise deal, OPEC countries such as Saudi Arabia announced a decision in 1973 to increase their oil prices by 70%, much to the horror of the oil companies and the wider western oil-consuming public. By the end of 1973, prices had risen by 400% at petrol stations across America and Europe.
Costs of living sky-rocketed. Many adults began to think very carefully about the costs of having too many children, and the size of the school-age population fell. 30 years later, those children have grown-up and now have children of their own; but like their parents, this new generation of children is relatively small-sized one.
Some of the ideas behind this story are quite complex: the key phenomenon that we are examining (falling teenagers) is (1) a knock-on effect of a low birth rate a little while ago which is, in turn, (2) a knock-on effect (or echo) of a low birth rate way back in the 1970s.
The interactive population pyramid provided by Office of National Statistics will help students, preferably working in pairs, to chart these changes and gain a deeper understanding of the processes involved.
Go to the Office of National Statistics interactive UK pyramid
Using the timeline, set the pyramid to 1977.
Examine the numbers of children aged 5-and-under when compared with those aged 10-15. Write down what you observe.
From now on, we will refer to that group of 5-and-under children (from 1977) as “Group 77”.
Now move the pyramid timeline forward slowly to 2002. How old are “Group 77” now? Write down the range of ages you identify.
Now look at the numbers of children aged 5-and-under in 2002 when compared with those aged 10-15. What do you observe.
From now on, we will refer to that group of 5-and-under children (from 2002) as “Group 2002”.
What is the family relationship between “Group 77” and “Group 2002”?
Now move the pyramid timeline forward slowly to 2002 and watch the progress of “Group 2002”. In particular, observe how old they will be by 2015 – and think about how this is going to impact on the number of children attending secondary schools.
If this trend continues, will the UK run out of teenagers altogether? Worry not. This is a ‘blip’ in a long-term fluctuating trend that is very common to high-income nations such as the UK. It is a key feature of the Demographic Transition Model (DTM).
The important Demographic Transition Model (DTM) describes population changes over time. It shows the population of a high-income country existing in a state of “low fluctuating adjustment”. This means that the birth rate (and the death rate too) fluctuates around a fairly constant low level. In the UK, a birth rate of around 12/1000/year has been maintained throughout the post-war era; however, each decade has had its own demographic character than has resulted in slight upwards or downwards adjustments from the long-term average.
View an image of the demographic transition model.
These slight increases or decreases in the birth rate that have been recorded from decade to decade are the result of a range of economic, social or political factors. Births:
rose in the 1940s after the second world war, as soldiers returned
fell in the 1950s while the economy struggled to recover from the war
rose in the 1960s during a period of social optimism and changing sexual behaviour
fell in the 1970s during a period of global economic recession and rising fuel and commodity prices
rose in the 1990s as an echo of the 1960s, when the “baby boomers” started having their own children
fell in the early noughties as an echo of the 1970s
So what can we expect to happen to the national birth rate next? During the late noughties, fertility in the UK actually rose quite markedly. Office of National Statistics data for 2008-09 show a startling fertility rise. According to the Daily Telegraph (28 August 2009):
The national fertility rate for the UK rose to 1.96 in 2009, reaching its highest level since 1973 (the year of the onset of high oil prices).
Much of the increase comes from foreign-born women living in the UK, whose fertility rate is relatively high at 2.5 children per mother. This trend relates to the enlargement of the European Union in 2004, since when over half a million eastern European women of child-bearing age have relocated to the UK.
The fertility rate among UK-born women has also increased by 10 per cent since 2005, suggesting that some women are wanting to have more children again, or to start having babies at a younger age.
This means that a new wave of births is about to “sweep through the system”
(Financial Times, 31 May 2010). The shortage of teenagers will therefore be over by the mid-2020s. “Just behind the shrunken cohort is a larger generation of children – boosted in part by immigrants who have started families here in recent years. By 2018 the number of children under 11 is projected to be more than 10 per cent higher than in 2009, reaching levels last seen in the late 1970s. That points to a different kind of teen challenge in the years that follow.”
Can you suggest what this new type of “teen challenge” will look like?
Britain’s teenage numbers are facing decline, due to a relatively low number of births recorded in the early noughties. The numbers of young people aged 15-24 will have dropped by 9 per cent in 2017. What are the possible impacts of this trend on UK society and its economy in the years ahead?
As the new baby slump generation moves through the UK education system, it is having a big impact on school numbers. The number of primary-school- age children fell by 10 per cent between 1999 and 2009, resulting in smaller class sizes (the last government tried to avoid closing any primary schools).
The UK government is currently under great pressure to cut public spending. Instead of allowing smaller class sizes in secondary schools, might closing some schools or employing less teachers become an option? Consider the facts:
School rolls of pupils aged up to 15 at secondary state schools have started falling already and are expected to keep falling until about 2015.
By 2014 the numbers are expected to fall to 2.73m – almost 10 per cent lower than in 2004.
For example, the especially badly-effected borough of Erewash, near Derby, is predicted to have just 8,000 teenage residents by 2018, down from about 10,000 in 2010. This could result in a 20% fall in secondary school pupil numbers in Erewash, with all kinds of possible impacts on class sizes and teacher numbers.
Voluntary organisations, school orchestras and sports clubs will also have a smaller pool of talent to draw on in coming years.
Why could some businesses suffer?
The Financial Times (31 May 2010) thinks that the decline in teenage numbers could be very bad news for some niche businesses. Citing teen magazines as one business sector, the newspaper points out that a 10 per cent loss of their target demographic could result in more teenage magazines meeting the fate of music magazine Smash Hits - which folded in 2006 due to falling sales.
Businesses targeting girls will be worst-hit. This is because there are always fewer women to begin with in the 15-24 age group, due to the fact that more male babies are born than girls (although women live longer, so the situation reverses in older age groups - as you can see study the evidence for yourself in the population pyramid for the UK today).
Currently there are 4m girls and women aged 15-24 compared with 4.2m males. However, by 2015 there will be just 3.85m females compared with 4m men. Sugar magazine, the best-selling magazine for girls, has already seen its circulation drop from 416,000 per issue in 2000 to 150,000 last year. The growth of the internet and on-line celebrity news is one major reason for this decline. However, falling numbers of teenagers will not help the situation for magazines currently struggling to survive in the era of new media.
Moreover, increasing numbers of over-16s who are no longer at school will be out of a job in the years ahead because higher rates of youth unemployment are expected to persist for some time after the global credit crunch and recent UK recession. All of this could be bad news for teenage markets.
Are there any positive impacts to consider?
“However, there are obvious benefits to having half a million fewer hormonal nightmares running amok across the country” argues the Financial Times (31 May 2010), quoting research from the Home Office suggesting that there is a correlation over time between the numbers of young men aged 15 to 20 living in the UK and rates of burglary and theft. The predicted near-10 per cent drop in the numbers of young men living in the UK could result in a reduction in street crime.
Written by Dr Simon Oakes, a senior A-level examiner who teaches at Bancroft’s School, Essex
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