Demography and the Family

After studying this section, you should be able to understand:

  • how demographic trends, such as birth rates and death rates, have led to an ageing population
  • how birth rates and death rates have affected family size and organisation

The population of Britain

The study of demography is focused on how the number of births and deaths, and the number of people entering and leaving the country (migration), affect the size, sex and age structure of the population.

The population of Britain grew steadily between 1971 and 2003 to reach 61.2 million people in 2009. Population projections suggest that it will reach 65 million in 2023 and 67 million by 2031. The rate of population change over time depends upon five demographic factors.

  • The birth rate – this refers to the number of live births per 1000 of the population over a year.
  • The fertility rate – this refers to the number of live births per 1000 women aged 15–44 over one year.
  • The death rate – this refers to the number of deaths per 1000 of the population over the course of a year.
  • International migration – this refers to the movement of people from one country to another. Immigration refers to people entering a country and emigration refers to people leaving a country. Statistics on net migration provide information on the number of emigrants in proportion to the number of immigrants.

Changes in the birth rate

Only 716 000 children were born in Britain in 2004. This is 34% fewer births than in 1901 and 21% fewer than 1971. However, the birth rate has fluctuated throughout the last 100 years.

There was a fall in births during the First World War, followed by a post-war ‘babyboom’, with births peaking at 1.1 million in 1920. The number of births then fell and remained low during the inter-war period. Births increased again after the Second World War with another ‘baby-boom’. There was also an increase in births in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This was the result of the larger cohort of women born in the 1960s entering their childbearing years.

Since 2001, the birth rate has steadily risen. In 2007, the ONS announced that the 2006 birth rate was the highest for 26 years. However, the number of births in the twenty-first century is lower than the number of births in 1901.

  • There was a major decline in the infant mortality rate, (i.e. the number of children dying at birth or in their first year of life per 1000 births per year) at the end of the nineteenth century which continued into the twentieth century. This was because of improvements in sanitation, water supplies and nutrition, rather than medical progress. The decline in child mortality rates meant that parents no longer needed to have lots of children to ensure that a few survived.
  • As standards of living increased and childhood came to be seen as a special period in our lives, having children became an expensive business and, consequently, parents chose to limit the size of their families.
  • Contraceptive technology in the form of the pill became widely available from the 1960s onwards.
  • Attitudes towards women’s roles dramatically changed during the course of the twentieth century and this had a profound effect upon women’s attitudes towards family life, having children, education and careers. In particular, it resulted in a decline in fertility as women chose to have fewer children and some chose not to have children at all.

Changes in the fertility rate

The fertility rate generally refers to the number of children that women of childbearing age have in any one year. Fertility rates have generally declined over the past 100 years, e.g. in 1900 there were 115 live births per 1000 women aged 15–44, compared with only 57 in 1999 and 54.5 in 2001.

The Total Fertility Rate (TFR) refers to the number of children that are born to an average woman during her childbearing life. In 2004, Britain had a TFR of 1.77 children per woman, but recent ONS data suggests that the first baby-boom of the twenty-first century may be on its way because the fertility rate rose to 1.87 in 2006. Fertility rates have fallen for several reasons.

  • Women are delaying having families and are having children at an older age than they were 30 years ago. The number of children born to women aged 40 and over has doubled in the last 20 years.
  • Delay is possible because of reliable birth control.
  • Women’s attitudes towards settling down and having children underwent a profound change as they took advantage of greater opportunities in education and employment from the 1980s onwards.

The very recent rise in fertility has been credited to the increase in the number of immigrants who tend to have larger families, e.g. in 2005, 146 944 children were born to mothers who did not come from Britain. In 1998 the total was 86 345. Babies born to mothers from overseas accounted for 21.9% of all births in 2005, up from 20.8% in 2004.

The effect of changing birth and fertility rates on family size and organisation

  • The decline in the number of children being born has led to a decline in family kinship networks, because it means people have fewer aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., to fall back on in times of need.
  • There are more nuclear families with one child.
  • There has been a decline in the number of full-time mothers and a rise in the number of children looked after by other relatives, especially grand parents, child-minders and nurseries.
  • There has been a trend towards voluntary childlessness. In 2000, one in five women aged 40 had not had children compared with one in ten in 1980 and this figure is expected to rise to one in four by 2018.

The death rate and life expectancy

As the population of Britain has increased, life expectancy has increased and death rates have fallen. Between 1971 and 2004, the death rate for all males fell by 21%, while the death rate for all females fell by 9%.

In 1851, life expectancy at birth in England and Wales was 40 years for males and 44 years for females. Just 150 years later, in modern day industrialised Britain, life expectancy has nearly doubled from Victorian levels. Children born in 2004 will, on average, live for 78 years. This increase in life expectancy is the result of:

  • improved public health (sanitation and hygiene)
  • improved medical technology and practice (drugs such as vaccines and antibiotics)
  • rising living standards (which have improved nutritional intake and housing quality)
  • better care and welfare facilities (which have been mainly provided by the State).

However, life expectancy is not uniform across the country. There is some evidence that life expectancy differs according to region, e.g. male life expectancy in 2002 was 76.2 years in England, but 73.5 in Scotland. There is evidence that life expectancy also depends on social class and ethnicity. Those in middle class jobs tend to live longer than those in manual jobs and the unemployed, whilst some ethnic minorities have lower life expectancy than White people.

The ageing population

The decline in the death rate, especially the infant mortality rate, and the increase in life expectancy, has led to an ageing of the British population. There are increasing numbers of people aged 65 and over and decreasing numbers of children under 16. Between 1971 and 2004, the number of young people aged under 16 declined by 18%, whilst the number of people aged over 65 increased by 29%. There are a number of consequences of an ageing population for families and households.

  • There has been an increase in the number of one-person households over state pension age as a proportion of all households. In 2005, 14% of all households were of this type.
  • Women aged 65 and over were more likely to live alone than men because of their longer life expectancy and because they tend to marry men older than themselves. In 2005, 59% of women aged 75 and over were living alone.
  • Evidence from sociological studies such as Finch and Mason, O’Brien and Jones et al. and Foster, suggest that the elderly have regular contact with extended kin. Many elderly relatives use new technology such as e-mail to keep in contact with their extended kin.
  • There are signs that the ageing population might lead to a growth in children caring for elderly parents, who do not have the economic resources to go into private residential care homes, by taking them into the family home or building granny flats.
  • However, caring for the elderly might have three negative effects. Firstly, it may increase the domestic burden on women who take most responsibility for caring in families. Secondly, it may result in financial hardship for the family because one partner may have to give up work in order to care full-time for elderly relatives. Thirdly, there may be emotional strain and over-crowding if an elderly and physically dependent relative moves in, which causes conflict between couples and between parents and children.
  • Brannen (2003) notes the increase in the number of four-generational families which include great-grandparents and great-grandchildren. Many of these multi-generational families are long and thin in shape and are typically described as beanpole families. They have fewer ties within a generation because of high divorce rates, falling fertility and smaller family size. They have more ties between the generations because of increased life expectancy. Brannen argues that the grandparent generation is more healthy and active compared with the past. People in this generation, particularly grandmothers, are increasingly looking after both their grandchildren and their own elderly parents, e.g. 20% of people in their fifties and sixties currently care for their parent(s), while 10% care for both an elderly person and a grandchild.
  • Studies suggest that there may be more qualitative and enriching contact between grandparents and their grandchildren. This may result in more positive experiences of socialisation as grandparents pass on life lessons.


The population of Britain is also influenced by patterns of international migration and the net balance of immigration (people entering the country) and emigration (people leaving the country). In the period 1900–40 there was a net loss in the British population as people emigrated to Canada, New Zealand and Australia. The 1950s–60s saw a net gain as thousands of immigrants arrived from India, Pakistan and the Caribbean to meet a shortage of labour caused by the Second World War. The 1980s onwards saw a net gain in population as White immigrants from Eastern Europe, Australia and USA entered the country.

The effects of migration on family life

  • Only 39% of British born African-Caribbeans under the age of 60 are married compared with 60% of Whites.
  • Over 50% of African-Caribbean families are single-parent families.
  • African-Caribbean mothers often choose to live independently from the fathers of their children, e.g. 66% of 20-year-old African-Caribbean mothers remain single compared with 11% of their peers. At 30 years, 60% of African-Caribbean men are unattached compared with 45% of Whites.
  • Most Asian families are nuclear, although 33% of Asian families are vertically extended, (i.e. they include grandparents) or horizontally extended (they include brothers and their wives, e.g. Sikhs).
  • Marriage is mainly arranged and negotiated with children in Asian families, although forced marriage is largely a thing of the past.
  • Attitudes towards women tend to be very traditional in many Muslim families. Few Muslim mothers work outside the family. However, Hindus tend to encourage their young women to gain qualifications and to pursue careers.
  • Parent–children relationships are based on stronger notions of respect, duty, and honour than are traditionally found in the White western community.
  • Asian families tend to feel a strong sense of duty to help extended kin, especially those still living in their country of origin.
  • There are at least 200 000 mixed-race marriages a year in Britain, mainly between Whites and African-Caribbeans. The Policy Studies Institute estimates half of Black men and one-third of Black women in relationships had a White partner.
  • One in ten children live in a mixed-race family. Young people are six times more likely than adults to be from a mixed-race background.


  1. Identify three factors that can affect population size.
  2. Which term refers to the number of live births per 1000 of the population per year?
  3. What does the term ‘international migration’ refer to?
  4. What does the infant mortality rate measure?
  5. On average, do women or men in Britain have longer life expectancy?
  6. Which sociologist has studied the recent increase in the number of multigenerational families?
  7. Identify one way in which elderly people may keep in regular contact with their extended kin.
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