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28 January 2022

Stop blaming women for falling birth rates

It's no mystery that housing costs are the reason for half of women remaining childless by the age of 30.

By Rachel Cunliffe

The best response to the new ONS report revealing that, for the first time, half of women in England and Wales remained childless by the age of 30 came from my friend Emma, whose thirtieth birthday party I attended this week. “My nana at 30: 12 year old and a 9 year old. Homeowner,” she tweeted. “My mum at 30: 2 year old, with a second before she’s 31. Homeowner. Me: Single, renting with 5 housemates.”

Whenever data about the falling fertility rate comes out, the reaction is pearl-clutching disapproval. Why do these irresponsible women (and the conversation is always about women – rather than the men required for half of the procreation endeavour) keep putting off having babies? People seem perplexed by this conundrum. Do women need educating about their decreasing fertility? Are they so misguidedly anxious about climate change they don’t want to reproduce?

[See also: “Just relax!” and other infuriating fertility advice]

It baffles me that anyone attempting to answer the question doesn’t start with the obvious: as of December 2021, the average UK house cost more than eight times the average UK income; 40 years ago, when the Baby Boomer generation was turning 30, the average house cost just four times the average income. Young people today trying to put together a 20 per cent deposit for their first home must save 110 per cent of the pre-tax income of a typical full-time employee – a record high. The news that childbearing is now being delayed until after a woman’s thirtieth birthday came days after figures from Halifax showing that home-ownership is too: in every area of the country, the average age for joining the property ladder is more than 30. Is it really a surprise that people living in unstable rental accommodation desperately trying to save for a deposit don’t feel financially secure enough to start a family?

Once prospective parents have found somewhere to live, there are other big considerations: childcare. The UK has both the third highest childcare costs of any country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and a housing market that makes it virtually impossible for all but the highest earning of couples to afford one partner to give up work for five years and still pay their rent or mortgage. The eye-wateringly expensive childcare provision which is available is inflexible and over-subscribed. Working parents spend decades in a relentless balancing act of nurseries, wraparound clubs and part-time work, begging favours of grandparents where possible and struggling alone where not. And despite some progress, women still take on a disproportionate share of the child-rearing burden and face a parenthood penalty in terms of earnings from employers for the rest of their careers.

Some people, of course, choose to be child-free – and it may be that the falling number of pre-30 mothers reflects a positive change in attitudes that has liberated women from the pressure to have children they don’t want. That doesn’t lessen the structural factors that make it financially implausible for those in their twenties – of any gender – to start families.

There is consensus among those panicking about the ONS report that it is for the greater societal good that people have children (not least because our tax system will collapse under the weight of an ageing population if they don’t). If that’s the case, the answer is to stop attributing the low birth rate to women selfishly refusing to reproduce, and start fixing policy to enable them to do so.

The reason Emma is childless at 30 when her mother and grandmother weren’t is no mystery. The solutions are obvious. We’d just prefer to blame women than acknowledge them.

[See also: The baby bust: How a declining birth rate will reshape the world]

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