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19 October 2021

It’s absurd to blame climate anxiety for falling birth rates

Millennials and Gen-Z don’t need “perspective” on climate change – they need an economy less hostile to young families.

By Sophie McBain

How convenient it is to blame falling birth rates on anxiety over climate change. If climate change is the culprit, there’s no need to worry about fixing the many (often eminently fixable) ways in which the British economy is hostile to young families – and especially mothers. You might even decide to chalk declining fertility down to some kind of youth attitude problem rather than climate change itself: if only over-anxious young people would stop fixating on rising global temperatures and instead focus on producing future taxpayers.

When the Office for National Statistics released new data last week suggesting that in 2020 the birth rate fell for the fifth year running, causing the fertility rate to decline to a record-low 1.58 children per woman, there was a flurry of media interest in climate doom.

These stories draw on a handful of surveys that suggest climate anxiety is causing people to have fewer children. One such study was commissioned by Seventh Generation, the purveyors of eco-friendly loo roll and detergents. It polled 2,000 Americans and found that 78 per cent of Gen-Z (aged 18-23) and 70 per cent of millennials (aged 24-39) either weren’t planning or didn’t want to have children of their own because of climate change. The company didn’t respond to my request for more information on how respondents were selected or how the question was phrased. But there’s reason to doubt the findings are representative: after all, over half of American millennials already have children.

Another well-publicised survey was pre-printed in the medical journal the Lancet, and has not yet been peer reviewed. It polled 10,000 young people, aged 16-24, in ten countries and found that 39 per cent of them were “hesitant to have children” as a result of climate change. It’s hard to draw firm conclusions from this finding when the paper does not disclose how the question was posed or discuss how much wider cultural significance we should place on teenagers saying they are “hesitant” to have kids. Statistically, most won’t have them for over a decade anyway.

To be clear, I don’t doubt that some young people are choosing to remain childfree, or to have fewer children, because of climate change. The conversation around family size is shifting: a few years ago, the progressive New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed to the dire scientific predictions for our warming planet and asked her Instagram followers: “Is it OK to still have children?” I have spoken to women who are choosing to remain childfree because they believe doing so is one of the most effective environmental interventions anyone can make. I’ve argued before that climate anxiety feeds into young people’s broader sense of uncertainty about the future.

But this effect is easy to overstate when family-planning decisions are complex and our true reasons for wanting – or not wanting – children are often unknowable even to ourselves. Instead, it’s worth thinking about what we neglect to talk about when we pin low fertility on climate change.

We aren’t talking about how the cost of housing in Britain has vastly outstripped wages, so that around a third of millennials will never be able to buy a home. We aren’t talking about young people’s economic insecurity. We aren’t talking about how the UK has the third-highest childcare costs in the developed world. We aren’t talking about a “motherhood penalty” so large that women in this country can expect their earnings to have fallen by 40 per cent by the time their child reaches the age of ten. We aren’t talking about how, for many women, motherhood offers an unwelcome reminder of the limits of feminist progress: even when they work similar hours to fathers, mothers still do the most childcare and chores.

We aren’t even talking, on a more positive note, about how women are having fewer children because they are now empowered to make decisions over their own bodies and are free to find meaning and worth in things beyond motherhood – or indeed to stop at one, or two, or three kids.

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The Spectator’s cover story this week (16 October) ignores all of this when it asks why “baby doomers” are “putting the planet ahead of parenthood”. Young people have lost “perspective” and the ability “to keep calm and carry on”, the writer Madeleine Kearns argues. For much of human history life was short and brutish, and yet “those who came before evidently did not give up on life”, she continues, somewhat bizarrely, as though parenthood for a peasant in the Middle Ages represented a proactive commitment to “life” rather than, in the absence of reliable birth control, an unavoidable consequence of sex.

I read the piece, and others, having rushed to my desk straight from the morning nursery-and-school run, with no time to finish wiping up the Rice Krispies splattered across the kitchen table, or to tackle the tangle of unwashed laundry bulging from the basket, or to do anything except read and type because I couldn’t get a place on our oversubscribed after-school club, and must pick my four-year-old up at 3pm today and, oh god, I should really buy some tins for the harvest festival on my way… and I thought: baby doomers? Give me a break.

[See also: Trust me, women don’t need to be reminded to think about having children]

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