Defusing the demographic time bomb

If we want to create a healthy pyramid of population, we need to make Guernsey a welcoming place for young, economically active people and appreciate the benefits of breeding, says Horace Camp

A diorama model that represents the future of young people who support the elderly (30015282)
A diorama model that represents the future of young people who support the elderly (30015282)

My cat, Tiger, is entering her 17th year and although she has never had a day’s sickness in her life she is starting to slow down a lot.

She spends a lot more time now hanging around the house and somewhat neglects her farm duties of keeping the barns rodent-free. Which made me think that perhaps it was time to let her enjoy her retirement by looking for Tiger 2 to take over from her.

Kittens used to be two a penny and owners were relieved to find homes for them. But now they are as rare as hen’s teeth. The progressive approach to pets has led to a vast reduction in the fertility rate and an enormous boost to the fortunes of veterinary surgeons who remove all the reproductive bits and pieces.

I have to admit we did the same to Tiger and unlike in days gone by when we had unbroken lines of farm cats, Tiger has no progeny to take her place. The world will be a sadder place with the end of Tiger’s unbroken line from the moment her oldest ancestor crawled from the primeval pit and became cat.

It struck me then that the importance of keeping the unbroken line going is no longer deemed necessary for cats and dogs and that humans have also become more of the now and less interested in the future. No wonder we have a demographic time bomb when, just as we have run out of kittens, we are also running out of babies.

My grandfather’s mother had double digits of children and a good number survived to adulthood. Very important in those days to have children who could provide for you when you were old and unable to work. A sort of pension pot.

My Mum and Dad had five children and I expect they would have had more if Hitler had not kept them apart for five years when they were at peak fecundity. Not only was this brood a potential source of support in old age but they were also a cheap source of labour for the family business.

My wife and I only managed three kids. You can see where this is going. We still managed to replace ourselves in the workforce and threw in a spare for good luck but previous generations had contributed to much greater growth and spread the burden of support in old age among far more.

My own three children, disappointingly, have only managed to produce one child between them. Which means that although I have the three of them in the workforce supporting my retirement benefits and health care they will have to rely upon just one young man to provide for them.

Interestingly, they are of the generation which blames mine for plundering all the freely available riches of the Earth and leaving nothing but the scraps from our table for them. How wrong can they be? Their future of working until they are ready to drop and then to rely on depleted state coffers to fund their retirement is all their own fault for not contributing to the growth of the community.

The only way we can maintain a healthy pyramid of population is to ensure that the lower levels always have more bricks than the one above it. I’m afraid the generations following us Boomers have just not realised the economic and community benefit of breeding. Let’s be honest with ourselves and accept that if we can’t produce our own working population, then we have to rely on immigration.

A great problem here is that all our neighbours have the same sort of fertility issues we do, with most rich first world countries in a terminal population decline but for immigration from poorer southern countries.

What does this mean for Guernsey? Well, if our fertility rate continues to decline and if our policy is to only encourage immigration from a handful of rich old people then we will become a land of old people, the Japan of the Channel.

And the very young people who now condemn the Boomers will themselves be reliant on an even smaller cohort of workers to support them over an even longer life span, no doubt achievable only at a greater cost burden to their children (if they have any).

The current demographic problem which is making us consider how we will manage finances over the next 10 or 20 years is only a prop and not a solution. We need a clear decision on what future Guernsey will be like. Do we want Guernsey to be the Island waiting for God or the Island of Opportunity?

If it is the latter then we need more than a tax review. The review is almost like throwing in the towel and accepting that we will become the home of the aged. Jonathan Swift sounded the warning in Gulliver’s Travels when he described the Struldbruggs of Luggnagg, immortals who aged but never died. Laws were passed that the aged could not own property because ‘avarice is the necessary consequence of old age, those immortals would in time become proprietors of the whole nation, and engross the civil power, which, for want of abilities to manage, must end in the ruin of the public’.

We are fast approaching the time when, if we can’t encourage families to grow and we still oppose immigration, the only answer will be to deprive our ‘Struldbruggs’ of their property for the good of the state.

Personally I would like to restore the previous tradition of filling this island with youngsters full of hope and opportunity, with my preference being that we grow our own – and to ensure that, shouldn’t we spend as much time helping people to have families as we do ‘encouraging’ them not to ‘burden’ themselves with children?

No matter what we do, we have to make Guernsey a welcome place for young, economically active people, be they our own children or the children of others drawn here by opportunity and the chance of success. If, as I fear, we will not be able to stop our fertility rates falling, and we shouldn’t rely on immigration from our neighbours who are in the same boat, then why on Earth are we turning up our noses at the chance of Afghan refugees?

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