Luke Johnson: Our baby boom is good for business

The chairman of Risk Capital Partners says the UK's growing population is good for our economy.

by Luke Johnson
Last Updated: 25 Sep 2013

Recent economic news about Britain's prospects has been consistently good. Credible forecasters are now predicting GDP growth next year of almost 2.5% - a more rapid expansion than perhaps any other major European nation. This shorter-term expectation is cause for celebration.

But the longer-term future for the UK looks bright too. Experts say that demographics are destiny. I agree with them. In 2011/12, we had 813,200 births - the highest number for 40 years.

This is the greatest absolute number of new citizens in any EU country in that period - including Germany, which has a much larger population. In fact, Britain is in the midst of a major baby boom, which shows no sign of slowing down.

Sour critics say most of the births are to immigrants who have large families. There is some truth in this, but the high birth rate also reflects a generation of indigenous, often well-educated women who delayed having children until much later - and are now making up for that deferral.

The gloomy types also tend to worry obsessively about whether we have the space and resources for ever more people - especially in the cramped south-east of England.

However, I believe we are much better off living in a country with a growing population than a stagnant, rapidly ageing one. Places such as Japan, Russia, Germany and even Italy face difficult times ahead if their birth rates don't improve.

In our lifetimes, unless such trends are reversed their economies are almost certain to go into decline, without young families forming homes and earning and spending money. Moreover, who will look after their overwhelming numbers of geriatrics decades from now?

Communities that do not reproduce are in effect committing a slow form of mass suicide. I believe such cultures reflect a very deep sense of pessimism and selfishness. Why bother investing for the future if you'll be dead and you have no offspring to take advantage of your efforts and inherit your assets?

Admittedly, a baby boom places stresses on our infrastructure - schools, healthcare, housing and so forth. But the desire to start a family also shows a confidence in our society. We should be proud of that, and be pleased that so many people see Britain as a desirable place to live and have children.

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What exactly do tycoons do when they retire? Of course, some never make that move - examples being the media moguls Rupert Murdoch (aged 82) and Sumner Redstone (aged 90). I can imagine that surrendering the drug of power and deal-doing is very difficult.

One television magnate who has adopted an unconventional - and impressive - career change in his 60s is Michael Green, founder of Carlton Communications, which, with Granada, formed the modern ITV in the noughties.

I got to know Michael in the 1980s when I was a lowly stockbroking analyst and he was busy constructing his media empire. He was one of the most formidable and driven entrepreneurs I had ever met.

I wouldn't say he inspired me, but he visibly demonstrated how someone who left school at 17 could carve a place at the top of British business and cultural life.

But in 2003 he lost out to Charles Allen in a bitter boardroom battle for the leadership of the newly created ITV plc. I never admired Allen to the same degree - although he was a less abrasive individual. I felt he lacked Green's vision and grit, and was much less of an entrepreneur.

However, the City opted for the user-friendly Allen - recently ennobled as Lord Allen and with lots of plum big company jobs. Green needed to find something else. Around this time I was appointed chairman of Channel 4 and bumped into Green at a TV reception. He used a four-letter word to describe his horror at my new role - typically competitive behaviour, I thought.

Fast forward a few years. I've bumped into the ex-media magnate on a couple of occasions. He is a changed man. He has given up corporate manoeuvres and reinvented himself as a qualified psychotherapist. I am sure he is very good at it.

The transformation was proved to me recently when he declared that my new job chairing the Institute of Cancer Research was an 'inspired choice'. Here's to those brave enough to do something intelligent with the second half of their lives, rather than the obvious.

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I recently reconnected with a godson whom I had hardly seen for years. He is now 17 and seeking advice about what to do in life. I started preparing a list of fairly obvious Things I Wish I Had Known (never smoke, take exercise, fall in love, don't worry about making mistakes, etc).

But, as I pondered, I searched for a single message. I realised that, in a sense, all life should be a story - a classic tale of struggle and redemption. Those activities that prove a challenge, that require one to strive, are the ones that matter.

For these you need to be vitally engaged - then you can enjoy an optimal experience, a sensation of a job well done. That is how work and a career become transcendent. If a task is too easy, if it fails to test you, then it ceases to matter.

So my conclusion is that we should constantly stretch ourselves to reach more ambitious goals.

My 19th-century Maida Vale neighbour Robert Browning put it best: 'Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp - or what's a heaven for?'

Luke Johnson is chairman of Risk Capital Partners.

Follow him on Twitter @LukeJohnsonRCP

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