Is there ever a right time to have a baby?

If the media is to be believed, the answer is no. But do the casual assertions that fly around about women's reproductive choices have any basis in fact?

Whether you are having babies or not, somebody somewhere seems to have something to say about your timing and choices. I wonder how many of our objections to older or younger mothers, those who don’t time their children in the way we did or would have, are in fact just prejudice against what we assume this says about their class or wealth. After all, young mothers are associated with lower class, and older mothers with higher, and anything that doesn't fit in with our own pigeon-hole makes us feel uncomfortable.

I had kids at 25 and 30, neatly pre-empting any fear of the "ticking biological clock". Now as an engaged divorcee I’m considering it again at 35. Does that mean that I’ve hit the mythical right time with at least one child? I don't think any pregnancy has been similar, and none has yet been accompanied by a burst of primary-coloured confetti signalling the one true perfect piece of timing, and certainly none has come with universal approval. According to those-that-comment, apparently 25 was too early, 35 too late and 30 too mid-career. I can understand, if not condone, the excitement over the Royal baby, but given the miniscule likelihood that I will produce a future monarch, why do so many people care what I do with my uterus? Why is this the topic that never goes away (as demonstrated in this article, for instance)?

Medically, despite all the panic, it doesn’t seem to matter. Roger Marwood, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, thinks a mother’s date of birth matters very little “Really, age does not affect the pregnancy significantly compared to say, social class. Risk factors do start to increase after 35, but only very gently.”

Similarly Dr Emma Hayiou-Thomas, a language development specialist at the University of York, sees socio-economic status as the part that really matters. “Teenage motherhood carries with it a whole host of more proximal risk factors, from poor nutrition to less verbal input,” she says. “With older parents there is a greater risk of developmental disorders, but if you avoid these pitfalls, there is a small but reliable trend for better language and educational outcomes for the children of older mothers, perhaps because they have more resources to invest in their kids.”

Holly Baxter, of the feminist magazine Vagenda, believes there’s also an equality issue here. “The idea that women do or should have this paranoia about procreation leads to the endless articles discussing whether 'women can really have it all; suggestions that timing your baby-making should be a central concern to your life and career; and open social judgments about those who harvested the bun in their oven 'too early' or 'too late'.” She believes that our inability to separate motherhood from other issues - friendships, intellect, education, careers - leads to a sexist expectation that a woman will be defined by motherhood, but fatherhood only adds a facet to a man's life and identity.

Traditionally, we’ve never been a nation to ignore a good class indicator, and older or younger parenthood seems to be a popular one. Whether consciously or not our allegiances show through our objections to perceived difference. Post-natal most people I’ve spoken to felt their own timing was just right for them, despite ages ranging from 17 to 47, and yet messages of avoiding teen pregnancy and not leaving it too late still bombard us. If we all gave it a little thought, though, we could perhaps just agree that it doesn’t really matter how other people procreate. Yes, class is associated with access to resources, and affluence is going to help in your quest to give your mini-me the best start, but the effect is relatively minor.

Even the myth of older mothers being “too posh to push” turns out to be just a misinterpretation. Marwood assures me that if anything, age and high income reduces the chances of a caesarean section. Personally, I’ve had two caesareans despite starting young. I’m sure that in the future people will say “Can you believe that they used to cut them out?” but unless the teleport arrives really, really soon there’s going to be violence; or at least a lot of blood. However you have a baby it’s terrifying, and awesome, and someone is going to judge you for it. Even status anxiety can’t fully explain why it’s so common for people to express unprovoked concerns on this. Are we all experiencing some common herd instinct?  Perhaps we’ve all just acclimated to being opinionated: every day celebrities and wannabes are held up to the spectacle for us to pass verdict on. And if we are talking about when or if we should have children, here is something we can all feel like experts on. The good news, of course, is that we’re all right. Quite simply if someone else lives their lives differently to us, they are not intentionally embodying a comment on our choices, or our status. Let’s not feel so obliged to return fire.

A pregnant woman holds her stomach. Photo: Getty
Sian Lawson is a scientist who writes about our Brave New World and being a woman in it, in the hope that with enough analysis it will start making sense.
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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?