Childhood has gone completely out of fashion

I was walking down the King's Road the other day, past window displays of silver lycra bodices and tight black leather jeans, and wondering who would dare expose their midriff and thighs so blatantly, when the answers materialised beside me. A gaggle of pre-teen nymphettes sashayed forth, in those very same bodices and jeans. These "tweenagers", as they are known in market-speak, spend squillions on manicures and makeovers, Morgan hipsters and Monsoon bags. They don't want to play with dolls; they want to look like Britney Spears. It's a scary prospect - and it had Bryan Appleyard recently bemoaning the end of childhood in the pages of the New Statesman.

Childhood has gone out of fashion. Hamley's does a roaring trade, and Disney World is swamped with families, but the children being treated to a Lego set or a visit to see Minnie Mouse are already impatient with the infantile stuff and panting for their first bra or their first mobile phone.

Of the seven ages of man, childhood was the one that inspired Romantic reveries about the age of innocence and Freudian explanations about Electra complexes. Now it is something kids are in a rush to leave behind; and many adults are in a hurry to help the little mites do just that.

How else do you explain the way laws are changing across Europe? In Spain, you can have sex with a girl of 12 without fear of ending up in the slammer. In Denmark, you can go for it at 15. "Underage" is a category that looks set to shrink here, too. The House of Commons wants to bring down the age of consent for all sexual activity to 16 - even though the Lords has just voted against the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill.

Boys of 16 today, girls of 12 tomorrow - pretty soon, only the toddler with a pacifier will be considered a child. Everyone else will be up for grabs.

In the developing world - and in some first-world communities rent by either vice or poverty - they always were. Childhood was no insurance against incest or prostitution; and it was regarded as a purely functional status, rather than some special perch wrapped in the mists of innocence. A child supplied you with an extra pair of hands on the farm or around the home, a roof and pension in your old age, and childcare for younger siblings. In the first world, however, we hung on to the luxury of thinking that childhood was a magical time before our nasty, short and brutish real life took over.

No more. Everyone from divorcing parents to MPs conspires to prize children out of their little nest of security. Even in America, the land that loves fantasy and sentimentality, childhood has been brought up short. In certain states - often the same ones where a teenager can wind up in jail if he has practised oral sex - an 18-year-old can purchase and play with a Smith and Wesson.

The worst of it is, women no longer believe in childhood, either. One in five women in the US has not had a child by the age of 40; and in Britain, those who claim they want a child in Britain are at a record low. As for Italy, Ireland and Spain, they have sub-zero population growth.

Defiantly unmaternal, women are saying that to bear offspring is either a selfish act (propagation of me, myself and I) or a truly boring one (endless articles by child-free bachelorettes hail the pleasures of eating chocolates in bed after the kind of noisy love-making you wave goodbye to once you have had those little pitchers with big ears). In women's eyes, childhood is a state of being from which it is right to progress - and men, poor hairy things, are accused of suffering from a Peter Pan complex when, all too frequently, they try to hold on to it.

And so, real children are a thing of the past. We'll have to make do with precocious tweenagers who can spend lots of dosh, shoot and have gay sex.

Our loss. And theirs.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Interview - Lord Falconer