Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

How do we stop our best assets leaving?

Child’s play: Northern Ireland is enjoying a mini baby-boom which will offset the cost of supporting the elderly
Child’s play: Northern Ireland is enjoying a mini baby-boom which will offset the cost of supporting the elderly

The census and other recently released figures reveal that Northern Ireland is a special case - but in a good way.

Our senior politicians need to get used to this new reality. Most of them cut their teeth in an era when we could always present ourselves as the poor, misfortunate relation.

It was a line that played well in the UK under Tony Blair, in Europe, in the US or, more recently, in the once-booming republic to the south of us.

Although we have an ageing population, it is not ageing as fast as most other countries, or regions.

In fact, we stand out in the developed world because we have more people under 14 than almost anywhere else except the Republic.

We have a higher proportion of pre-school children than the UK as a whole, where, as the Tory MP Elizabeth Truss complains, "It is easier to get into the Groucho Club than the local Beaver pack."

In Germany, Europe's economic powerhouse, nearly 21% of the population are over 65 and the birth rate is so low that they are proposing incentives for women to stay at home and look after children.

In Japan, another society ageing fast, politicians are suggesting work-breaks to conceive children.

It would be amusing to hear some of our Stormont ministers proposing statutory nookie leave for all employees, but the truth is we are fertile enough already.

Like the rest of the UK and Ireland, we have been going through a mini baby-boom since 2002.

In 2010, for instance, there were 25,000 births and this is what is pushing up pre-school numbers even as the number of older children, born before the boom started, has declined.

We have 5.7% of the UK land-mass, but only about 3% of the population, so there is plenty of room for these people.

That shows through in our lower household size, where, in spite of the continuing squeeze on bank lending, more singletons and couples are getting their own places than ever before.

Overall, 86% of households now consist of one or two people. A good proportion of these may be the elderly, encouraged by Executive policy to remain in their homes.

The job market is tight and low pay is a problem, but our unemployment rate is well below the UK, the US, or the Republic. This all makes it harder for us to seek help from outside our own borders. Our Westminster block grant remains, but it will fall automatically if our population declines, so we must keep our young people here.

Many of the necessary levers to do so are in the hands of Stormont ministries. The focus on the early years, with more pre-school places, is prudent.

So is the decision to reduce higher-level education costs for our young people, so that the brightest and best will be encouraged to stay here and contribute.

The next steps should be boosting economic productivity and building a truly shared society, not grandstanding and squabbling over sectarian issues, as many have done in the last week.

Then bright youngsters may choose to live here after they leave our education system.

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