Why is the happily childless woman seen as the unicorn of society?

Non-mothers are often told they'll "change their mind when they meet the right person". Between that and being forced to worry who will visit you in your old age, it's no wonder society seems to believe the happily childless woman is more myth than realit

Being a parent isn’t always a walk in the park, according to the World Happiness Database unveiled in Rotterdam this week. In fact, it could be bad for your mental health: one of the activities which sends happiness levels plummeting, according to the research, is having a child (although, it hastens to add, your happiness increases when they grow up and leave home - which hardly seems a glowing recommendation for having them in the first place). Meanwhile, it was reported by the BBC that China has just passed what it is euphemistically calling the "Elderly Rights Law", a piece of legislation that makes it compulsory for adult children to visit their parents in a country with a rapidly ageing (and lonely) population. In other words, you sacrifice happiness to parenthood in the prime of your life, enjoy a brief but halcyon retirement, then are abandoned in your twilight years to the extent that the government has to force your children to pop in for a cup of tea. No wonder we’re all procreating less.

But the fact remains that the "childless by choice" - or, as some prefer it, "child-free" - are still looked upon as dangerous oddities, possibly with some sort of social disease. Even worse is the female half of the dreaded "childless by choice" couple, all settled down with someone they love in a perfectly good home with a spare bedroom that could be easily transformed into a nursery and just downright refusing to warm up a bun in her oven. "Tick tock", publications aimed at thirtysomething women sing-song, as you scour the magazine rack for something that doesn’t make you want to throw up, move countries, cry, or all of the above. "Your ovaries are getting old! Your eggs won’t last forever! You’ll change your mind in a few short years - and where will you be then?"

It’s beyond comprehension to most of the media, of course, that women without children might not end up crying outside the local school-gates every morning before being shooed away by the caretaker. The "evolutionary science, hideously misapplied" brigade have been banging the "naturally maternal" drum for decades as an explanation for all possible facets of female behaviour. Through this lens, the female role in a heterosexual relationship is to become your male partner’s new mother, helpfully cooking and cleaning and facilitating his life for him while he has fun and plays with his friends outside. The "maternal instinct" apparently inherent in all women has been used as a way to keep mothers out of the workplace and discriminate against fathers who want equal custody of their children. The belief that we are essentially born to be baby incubators crops up again and again amongst anti-abortion debaters, and is one reason why new mothers often report feeling ashamed of postnatal depression. After all, if you’re supposed to be in your element but you feel like crap, then surely you’re a Darwinian failure of the first order - never mind if you opt out of having the baby altogether.

All of this contributes to the idea of the happily childless woman as the unicorn of society. A dedicated bachelor is a good-time guy, and a married man without kids is hardly a talking point. But a bachelorette is more likely to be seen as tragic, bitter, yearning for the family that she hasn’t yet had the opportunity to create; her coupled-up counterpart a perpetual mother-in-waiting. And why should this be the case, on an overpopulated planet with a surplus of poverty, starvation and greenhouse gases? Really, it shouldn’t be the child-free who have to justify their position - it should be those who choose to bring others into the world without good reason beyond "I JUST WANT TO SEE MINI-ME". Yes, your unfortunate nose might look hilarious on an unsuspecting infant’s face - but is it really worth the extra carbon dioxide and the toe-curlingly boring hours spent poring through stacks of GCSE retake papers? After all, the lifetime cost of raising a child in the UK is now £222,458, which is a hell of a lot of luxury holidays and stiff gins down the drain, not to mention the damage those little darlings can do to your nether regions on their way into the world.

Women we’ve spoken to through The Vagenda have told us that their own doctors have made it difficult for them to undergo sterilisation by condescendingly insisting that they will "only want it reversed in a few short years", as if they had chosen the procedure on a whim. Others have been told by relatives that they’re not performing their "womanly duty" by shunning motherhood - seriously - and still more have contended with the mind-bending accusations that they’re "being selfish" or "will get bored in your marriage if you don’t". By far the most common amongst our Twitter followers, however, was experience of the smug assurance that "you’ll change your mind once you meet the right person", as if a Baby Alarm will go off in every woman’s mind the moment they meet their God-given soulmate and embark upon Happily Ever After. This is apparently now wheeled out more often even than the old and reliable, "Who will look after you in your old age?", which still persists despite the fact that very few of us are living on isolated farmland dependent on continuous manual labour in countries without some semblance of a national health service.

So how to stop the constant barrage of criticism if you are to live life as a contented child-free female human being? Firstly, ignore all magazines aimed at the thirtysomething demographic: there are far too many allusions to "Fertility O’Clock" and "foods to maximise your spouse’s sperm count". Secondly, have faith in social progression: a recent survey covered by the Washington Post found that the belief that "mothers are more natural parents" is much more prevalent amongst older groups of society, as it fades in the younger (two-thirds of women aged 65+ agreed with the statement, compared with about half of woman in younger age groups.) Meanwhile, grit your teeth while people loudly worry about who’s going to visit you in your nursing home and own the choice that’s right for you. Because £222,458 later, who’s to say that THEY’RE not the ones who’ll be left wanting to change their minds?

Now read Lulu Le Vay's call for "Mumsnot", in which she asks whether if a woman doesn't have any kids, she still has any value.

The happily childless, or child-free, woman is more common than you think. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Getty
Show Hide image

We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?