P10. The Declining Population

[Oxford Magazine, 15 November 1934, p. 154]

15 November 1934

To the Editor of "The Oxford Magazine."


I venture to write to you on a subject to which, if I may judge from casual conversation, members of Congregation have not yet given the attention it deserves. [1] It is not possible to make an accurate forecast of future population until the Census returns for 1931 are published in full. [2] It may suffice to say here that the number of children born in 1932 was well below three quarters of the average number born in the years from which our present undergraduates are drawn, and that, as the number of women of the right age is about to decline substantially, a still further decrease is to be expected. It is inevitable that in seventeen years from now the pool from which we can draw our men will have shrunk to less than three quarters of its present size, and it is also certain that, unless a spectacular change occurs in the birthrate, the pool will shrink much more.

Optimists may console themselves with the reflexion that we can cast our net wider. But it is to be remembered that the newer universities, providing first-rate facilities for technological education, will be competing keenly for the diminished number of candidates, and that the proportion of the population desiring the kind of education which we provide is or ought to be limited by the proportion of occupations in life to which it is more fitted. This proportion may, indeed, rise, and ultimately, with growing wealth, it may rise considerably. If every citizen could have a university education, the number coming to Oxford would probably be ample. But that is looking too far ahead. I am concerned in this letter with the next thirty years.

I submit, therefore, that the matter is one which requires serious reflexion by those responsible for policy. It is a relevant consideration for Colleges when undertaking new building and for the University when licensing new Colleges or Halls. It is relevant to acts of policy affecting the balance between research and teaching, between post-graduate and undergraduate work, and between scientific and more general studies.

The changing age distribution of the population also deserves consideration. With a narrow field for recruitment to College and University positions from among the young we may well have qualms about the statutes determining requirements. Is it really desirable to extrude teachers from their duties at any arbitrarily determined age, merely to avoid the matters of delicacy which selective retirement according to capacity occasions? I suggest that the present statutes prescribing University and College age limits require early revision.

Is it permissible to make one further proposal? This tendency to declining numbers has a wider importance, affecting [a] the balance of power in the world and the handing on to future generations of the heritage not only of the British people but of the white races themselves. Should not the University and Colleges seek to give an example, and, departing still further from their age-long tradition, provide that the lives of their married staff be not less comfortable than those of the bachelors by a system of generous family allowances? [3]

I am, Sir,

Yours, etc.,

R. F. Harrod

Christ Church. November 9th, 1934

  1. 1. This is Harrod's first expression in public of his ideas on population, which seems to have been stimulated by "casual conversation". Later Harrod discussed the subject in a more systematic way, probably encouraged at first by the publication of a number of important books on population in 1936, which he reviewed in "The End of an Experiment?" ( 1936:9 ): he contributed articles and letter to the press ("We Must Have Larger Families", 1936:10 , press item 11 ; "The Population Problem", 1937:1 , press item 12 ; "How National Birth-Rate Could be Raised", 1937:6 , press item 13 ; "Birth-Rate Economics", 1937:7 , press item 14 ; "The Problem of the British Birth Rate", 1937:10 ; "Refugee Children", 1939:4 ; and "Raising the Birth Rate", 1939:13 , press item 34 ), publicly proposed some amendments to the Population Bill discussed in Parliament in 1937-38 ("Figures of the Birth-Rate", 1937:17 , press item 17 ; "The Population Bill", 1937:18 , press item 18 ; "The Population Bill. A Proposal for Its Amendment", 1938:2 , press item 19 ), wrote articles for learned journals ("Population and the Future", 1938:7 ; "Population Trends and Problems", 1939:1 ; "Modern Population Trends", 1939:6 and 1939:18 ), gave speeches (he addressed the Primrose League Political School on "The Menace of our Declining Population" on 25 June 1937--see letters 661 R and 682 R--the Liberal Summer School at Oxford on 2 August 1938--see note 1 to letter 805 --the Liverpool Economic and Statistical Society on 4 October 1938--see letter 846 to Lindemann, --and the Manchester Statistical Society on 1 March 1939--the speech is published as 1939:6 ) and lectures (according to the Oxford University Gazette, Harrod advertised lectures on "Population" in Michaelmas term 1925 and Hilary term 1937; in his "Report as University Lecturer, 1935-37" to the Board of the Faculty of Social Studies, Harrod stated that he had "been doing work in the last six months in preparation for the course of lectures next term on Population": AD and T transcription, three and respectively two pages, in Social Studies Reports, 1935-37, in OUA FA4/18/2/2, p. 140. He gave two lectures on "The Problem of a Declining Population" at the 1939 summer course in social studies organized by the University of Oxford--see University of Oxford, Residential Summer Session in Social Studies, 11 July to 18 August 1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, undated). Finally, Harrod also advertised lectures on "Our Declining Birth-Rate" for the Lecture Management Limited: see note 1 to letter 902 R), and discussed the topic with a number of correspondents (see in particular the exchanges with Carr-Saunders, Glass, Fremantle, Marschak and others on the Population Bill between December 1937 and January 1938, and with Joan Robinson between January and March 1938, beginning from letter 735 ).

    It should be stressed that Harrod was not alone in his fervor on the population question, although he certainly was one of the most active propagandists: by 1936-37 the declining population issue was extensively discussed in leading articles and correspondence columns of newspapers and magazines and in wireless broadcasts, and in the Parliament (see for instance J. M. Winter, "Population, Economists, and the State: The Royal Commission on Population, 1944-1949", in M. O. Furner and B. Supple, The State and Economic Knowledge. The American and British Experiences, Cambridge: University Press, 1990, in particular pp. 445-48).

    2. The general tables of the 1931 census were published by the HMSO in 1935.

    3. Harrod expounded his ideas on family allowances in detail in letter 408 to Marie Stopes of 22 November 1934, [jump to page] . The proposal was later refined and made public on numerous occasions, in particular in "The Problem of the British Birth Rate", 1937:10 , part II, pp. 23-26.

    1. a. Oxford Magazine: «affectng».

Welcome page

top of page

Return to index of this section

Go to previous page

Go to next page