Sometimes, when I look at the age profile of a given population, I just know something is awry. There are “normal” age-structures in populations — patterns populations will follow under normal circumstances when birth and death rates are within the range of what might be typically expected. If these are off — particularly if they are dramatically off — something must have happened to cause the anomaly. Historical developments — often decades old — leave their traces.
Take contemporary Polish Jewry, for example. It has a weird age-structure. There is a disproportionately large number of middle-aged self-identifying Jews, relative to the oldest and the youngest age bands. Why?
Ninety per cent of Polish Jews were murdered during the Shoah. Only about 10 per cent of the 3.3 million Jews who lived there in 1939 were still there in 1945. Over the next few years, about half of the surviving remnant left. Two further waves of migration followed: one in 1956/57 during the “thaw” in Soviet emigration policy, and another in 1968, when a State-sponsored antisemitic campaign forced some 15,000 Jews to leave. So those who left then are the missing elderly group today — and they have either passed away, or are now living somewhere other than Poland.
Those who remained were among the most assimilated. According to all normative patterns, their children should have become even more so. Yet some discovered their Jewishness and began to take an active interest in it in the mid- to late 1970s, and again following the collapse of communism in 1989. Hence the bulge seen in the middle age bands now — a disproportionate number of Jews aged between about 35 and 70 today found Judaism and Jewish life in these contexts. But their Jewishness was rarely robust enough to pass on to the next generation, hence the relative absence of a young Jewish population.
The trials and tribulations of British Jews pale into insignificance compared to what Polish Jews have had to face. Yet certain historical processes can be observed in the age-structure of our community, too, which have important implications for our future.
One example. Just over 70 years ago, there was a baby boom in Britain. The war was over, and people were returning to normality. Plans to start a family, delayed by wartime conditions and circumstances, were rekindled. And, for a few years, a disproportionately large number of babies were born.
This phenomenon affected all parts of British society, including Jews. Jews were rebuilding post-war, too. So they, like everyone else, had babies in disproportionately large numbers.
These babies are now in their early 70s. And, when I look at the age-structure of the British Jewish population today, I can see them. They stand out. There are more 70-74 year-old British Jews than one might typically expect, given the size of the other age-bands around them. History, again, has left its traces.
We need to start preparing for the long-term implications of that history. In the coming decade or two, that enlarged population group is going to need to be cared for. For a short period, the numbers requiring care will increase, before returning to more normal levels. Somehow, we’ll need to build capacity to ensure that we can look after all those who need it, in full knowledge that demand levels are only going to increase temporarily.
We also need to recognise how important that enlarged group has been to British Jewry. They came of age during the Six-Day War. Most became more successful and prosperous than their parents. Many make vital contributions to British Jewish charities today. Their prosperity and commitment has been essential to many of the successes the rest of us have enjoyed in the British Jewish community in recent times. So their ageing and eventual passing will have very important financial implications for the British Jewish charitable sector. We have relied on their charity for a long time; as they age and eventually pass on, charities will almost certainly feel their absence.
History leaves traces. Events at any given time have a knock-on effect that can continue to be felt for decades afterwards. But careful demographic analysis can allow us to identify the challenges that are coming.
We can see them — they are there in the data. And once we have seen them there is no excuse for not preparing fully for their implications.
Jonathan Boyd is the Executive Director of the JPR