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10 July 2024

Is there a progressive argument for pro-natalism?

The demographer Paul Morland on why we should have more children.

By Hannah Barnes

The world is facing a major population crisis: not too many people, but too few, or so the argument goes. With more than eight billion humans on the planet, it sounds counter-intuitive. But the UK has not had above-replacement fertility – an average of 2.1 children per woman – since the 1970s. In most countries, not enough children are being born to replace ageing populations. And, in a small number, the total population is falling.

In No One Left, the demographer Paul Morland makes a compelling argument for having more children. Having too few creates problems in the labour market and public finances. As a population ages, “more has to be spent on pensions and more has to be spent on healthcare”, he writes, but there aren’t enough taxpayers to fund all that is demanded from it.

When we met at the New Statesman’s London offices, Morland had the air of a City worker on dress-down Friday, in camel chinos, a light-blue shirt and navy blazer. Pro-natalism has a poor reputation, he accepted; it is invariably seen as right-wing and anti-women, forcing them to have more children. But it has proponents on the left, too: “Marxist socialism starts off as pro-natalist,” he told me. “And Stalin – hardly held up as a left-wing idol these days – but he handed out medals to women [who had babies].” Neither example puts the policy in a more positive light. Morland also mentioned France and Australia as countries that have tried to increase birth rates. In 2004, Australia announced a baby bonus of A$3,000 (£1,580) per birth (or adopted child under two). A 2019 UN study found that 55 countries had policies aimed at increasing fertility rates, including, Morland writes, those with “impeccable liberal and democratic reputations like Portugal, Luxembourg and Finland”.

He offers a “progressive” argument for pro-natalism. First, he addresses the feminist argument that it is for women alone to choose what they do with their bodies. “I don’t want to go back to the 1950s,” he said. In fact, evidence suggests that in societies that are more equal, where there is more shared responsibility for childcare and housework, women have more children. And many women are not having as many children as they might like. “If you actually ask women how many children they want, they tend to want two to three,” Morland said, but they’re having one or two. “Helping women achieve what they aspire to do feels more in line with feminism.”

Yet he is unconvinced that the lack of affordable childcare or housing are preventing us having more children. Parts of the UK where housing is relatively cheap, he says, or areas of Germany where childcare is relatively cheap, have the same low birth rates. Housing and childcare options are “necessary” conditions, “but not sufficient for fixing the problem”.

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“I think the problem’s much more deeply cultural,” Morland said. “It’s something about modernity, it’s something about the modern condition.” With widely available contraception and a greater ability to control our fertility, people can ask themselves whether having children is something they really want, whether they want to do something else with their lives instead. “I believe in choice. I’m now saying: OK, if that’s the way the world is, it’s time for a bit of push back… Do we really not want to have children?”

A dual British-German national, Morland was born in Wembley, north-west London. After graduating from Oxford with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics, he began a career in the City, and later completed a PhD. He is a private man, but shares that his “parents are refugees from Nazism”. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he’s an optimist about humankind. “I like humans,” he said. Morland loves being a father and a grandfather, but there is none of this emotion in the book. “It got edited out,” he said. “I wasn’t unreasonably nudged towards toning down the poetics.” But does anyone want children for cold, economic reasons?

The progressive case for pro-natalism begins with saying that this is what women want, Morland said. It then moves to “a progressive optimism about the world” and human capabilities. He challenges the argument that it is irresponsible to bring children into the “terrible” world we live in. The data does not support that: infant mortality is low and, globally, poverty is falling. The world is getting “better and better”.

Morland also believes advances in technology challenge the notion that there aren’t enough resources to go around. “We’ve got all sorts of new ways of producing energy,” he said. And food is being produced more efficiently from smaller spaces: “We can support more people with fewer resources.” But to do so we need “enthusiastic, energetic, inventive, creative young people. It’s not going to be the 60-somethings who create this new world.” I’m not convinced of the strength of an argument that relies on unknown technological advances. Even more so when Morland rejects this notion elsewhere in his case.

For Morland, technology means we need not worry about resources running out. But, he said, advances can’t solve the problems that require us to have more children: for instance, fulfilling the caring roles needed to help older people have a dignified life. “It’s going to be a long time – if ever – before AI can do things like pick up the bins.” On resources, Morland appeals to us to have “confidence that humanity can find solutions to the present and the future”, even if we don’t know what those solutions are yet. So why not for labour shortages, too? Empirically, he said, we see one thing happening, but not the other.

A progressive case for pro-natalism also makes a moral argument against immigration. “It’s a huge brain drain and it’s retarding development in developing countries,” Morland said. It is not liberal to rely on poorer women to have more children, or to expect other countries to invest in education, train doctors and nurses, only for richer countries to benefit. “I think that will seem in 150 years’ time, or perhaps much sooner, as unacceptable as the imperialism of the 1880s does now.”

What is the answer? How can women (and their partners) be persuaded to have more children, if they want them? Several initiatives by governments of different political persuasions – in France, Georgia and Hungary – have had very limited success. When Morland suggested in a 2022 Sunday Times article that the childless be taxed more, he faced a vociferous backlash. “The article stimulated me to write the book,” he said, “because I wrote the article very innocently and in good faith, and I came across so much criticism. I thought, ‘Well, I need to think this through.’”

Today, he is sceptical that government policy can achieve population growth. “Ultimately, my appeal is to people, it’s not to government. We will not even start to move forward until we have a government that says we have an issue.” Paul Morland wants a grown-up conversation, “without hysterical finger-pointing and ad hominem attacks”. He thinks the fertility crisis has wrongly come to be seen through a culture-wars lens: he was told his Times article displayed “a touch of the brown shirts”. “Agree with me, disagree with me, argue with me, whatever. But to say that makes you a fascist is very immature.”

The debate about birth rates needs to happen sooner rather than later, he thinks. “Things will get noticeably very bad in the next ten years” if fertility rates continue on their current trajectory. “And we can only create a light at the end of the tunnel if, in the next five to ten years, our fertility rate – instead of slumping from 1.6 to 1.2 – starts to go up, say, to 2 to 2.5.” This is “very unlikely” he conceded. “But that’s my challenge to society.”

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

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change