When the latest census for England and Wales was published last week, it revealed the birth rate is falling. The number of under-fives dropped by 7.6 per cent in the decade between 2011 and 2021.
Demographer Paul Morland was among those to greet the news with grave concern. Who would take out our rubbish or tend to our sick, he wondered in an article for the Sunday Times which immediately went viral, for all the wrong reasons. ‘We need a national demographic strategy… for incentivising families to have more children and to have them when they are younger,’ he wrote.
Anyone imagining this might be an apt moment for a discussion of the real reasons young people aren’t having many babies was in for a disappointment. Instead, he suggested a telegram from the Queen when a family has their third child – a suggestion so ludicrous it united all the women reading it yesterday in hollow laughter/screams into sofa cushions.
He described the early years childcare system as ‘broken’ and ‘expensive’ – a summary that doesn’t come close to capturing the extent of a crisis which, combined with a lack of flexible working, mean the number of women leaving the workforce to look after their family has increased for the first time in decades.
It was his proposed solution, though, which provoked the biggest 'WTF?' What’s required, apparently, to fund a better, less financially ruinous childcare system, is a tax on the childless. ‘This may seem unfair on those who can’t or won’t have children,’ he wrote. You think?
I have a two-year-old son, but it was far from a given that I would procreate. Like several of my friends, throughout my thirties I was socially infertile – the term for those who haven’t found a partner with whom to have a baby. I eventually became pregnant at 39 via IVF using donor sperm, but many others in the same position decide the financial, physical, emotional and myriad other costs of solo parenting are too high to make it a valid option. Who can blame them? Trust me, even with plenty of support, it’s far from easy.
Should they be punished for being unable to fulfil what are sometimes hopes they’ve held since their earliest years, of finding the right person to spend their lives with and starting a family?
The age of app dating has arguably made it trickier than ever before to find more than a one-night stand, let alone someone to raise the next generation with. And single people already face so many extra costs: in February Ocean Finance used ONS data to estimate that on average, we pay £630.38 more per month on bills, annual holidays and so on, compared to those in couples. In a society which still tells us that the ‘right’ way to live involves marriage and children, taxing us for not doing these things is akin to stamping ‘failure’ across our foreheads.
Equally, what about all those who want desperately to have a baby, but can’t? Who try for years to conceive with no luck, undergo gruelling rounds of IVF, or become pregnant only for it to end in miscarriage? How cruel would it be to rub salt in their wounds by making them pay for other, more fortunate people’s childcare bills?
And then there are the childfree, people who just plain old don’t want children, for their own perfectly valid reasons. They already pay taxes which fund services to help other people’s children, such as schools. Why should they have to pay more to plug a shortfall which, frankly, isn’t their responsibility? It's one which other countries, including France, Germany and Denmark, seem able to cover without resorting to the same.
As the charity Pregnant Then Screwed pointed out yesterday, if the Government and demographic experts really want to get the population growing again, they could try asking women - the people who have to conceive, carry and give birth to children - what we think. They might even find we have some suggestions worth listening to.