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Tricky question of who will pay for our future

The debate about the declining birth rate and the effect this will have on future demographics is one that exercises policy makers.

Last week pensions minister Alan Johnson, addressing delegates at the TUC conference, urged trade unions to face the facts on pensions provision, as changing demographics put pressure on the state.

He said declining birth rates and people living longer meant government had to devise pension schemes capable of withstanding demographic changes.

The reasons for the declining birth rate are complicated. For a long time the focus was on womens’ fertility and their changing role in society. No longer chained to the sink, women are enjoying their freedom, control over contraception and increased participation in employment, so are putting off having babies until their late 30s which, runs the theory, is too late.

But now the lifestyles of both sexes are coming under scrutiny. A survey by Norwich Union shows that more that a quarter of GPs think low male fertility will have a detrimental impact on the nation’s population in the future unless men adjust their lifestyles. Over a third think this will add to the problems of an ageing population, with fewer people of working age to support those in retirement.

The study finds more than two and a half million men may be jeopardising their fertility by drinking and smoking too much. It is estimated that male infertility accounts for over 30% of couples having problems conceiving and in the next 10 years, one in three couples will need help in this regard.

Other lifestyle factors thought to have contributed to the decline include the quality and number of sperm men produce (thought to have fallen by over half by some experts), sedentary lifestyles, obesity, laptops rested on laps (which heat up mens’ groins), and pesticides and female hormones in the water supply. Stress is also cited as a factor.

It is clear most men do not regard their fertility as a problem. Only 5% of men worry about their fertility in contrast to nearly half who worry more about the financial implications of raising a child than their ability to father one.

Dr Ann Robinson, a GP questioned in the survey, comments that “lifestyle is a huge contributor to the health of the nation… With so many couples now experiencing the heartache of fertility problems, the fall in sperm count is certainly a matter for concern.” According to her, “any man worried about his sperm count can cut down on his alcohol intake, stop smoking…and try and get his weight down, if very overweight. These are all factors that might affect your sperm count that men can do something about.”

She adds: “There may also be a case for eating organic produce that doesn’t contain pesticides and drinking mineral rather than tap water but the jury is out on that.”

And it is not just the UK facing a problem with declining birth rates. In August it was reported that in Japan deaths exceeded births by 31,000 in the first six months of this year. The impact that a declining population may have on Japan’s pensions system, tax base and labour market were themes in this month’s General Election. Indeed, the decline is so severe that they have invented a word for it – shoshika – meaning a society without children.

Russia is also facing a spiralling decline in population but it seems the French are poised to buck the trend with a forecast that that country’s population will grow from 61.6 million at present to 75 million by 2050, presenting the government with a different set of challenges to the country’s infrastructure and services. rachelblackmoreis external affairsmanager at the Building Societies Association

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