Everyone likes babies, don’t they, with their little tiny toes and the fact that they don’t do anything and are constantly doing those strange dark poos. “That’s my baby,” friends will tell me, pointing to a small wad of skin and flesh that is screaming for no reason, “I love it so much I could die.”
Does the baby do any tricks, I always ask, and they shake their head, no. “We think in maybe 18 months the baby might learn to walk,” they say. “Might get a full sentence out of it at about three.” Cool, well, see you in 18 years when you can go to the pub again.
Babies are the discourse this week, with two news stories that – if you squint and look closely – are absolutely and entirely related. “British ‘baby shortage’ could lead to economic decline, says thinktank,” goes one, and there is some interesting stuff by the Social Market Foundation in there. The current birthrate of 1.58 in England and Wales is far below the 2.1 replacement level needed, meaning in 2060 there will be close to four over-65s for every 10 workers (presuming of course that the millennial generation will be allowed to retire: seeing how we have been shafted at literally every other possible life milestone beyond “living in the same era as smartphones”, I don’t really see that happening). This will open up a support gap that will inevitably lead to economic decline.
Yet, conversely, we are told, “Four in 10 young people fear having children due to climate crisis.” Which makes its own sense. Why have a baby now – love it, care for it, teach it maths over a dinner table even though it refuses to get maths: this is some very simple mathematics, Henry! – when you know one day it’s going to have to use its combat skills to fight over a gallon jug of water while the sun approaches the scorched desert planet? To me, that seems like an unsensible waste of the last 20 years of viable time we have on Earth.
Why aren’t millennials having babies? And while we’re at it, why aren’t they buying houses? Well, we have got to the point where Britain’s economic reality has finally overcome the primal, lizard-brain urge we all have to replicate ourselves. It seems like a stupid and impossible ask: hey, 34-year-olds who are still paying off your student loans and renting, can you hurry up and have a baby please? The future of the economy relies on it. And no, we won’t be doing anything to make things in any way easier while you do it. Work harder.
The Social Market Foundation made a fairly humble suggestion to overcome the birthrate problem, which is – and I’m paraphrasing: “Stop making it so insanely difficult and expensive to have and look after a child.” The National Childbirth Trust calculates the average cost of full-time nursery for a child under two at £263 a week, which even with both parents working is a hefty chunk of the average family budget. If you want to keep your child past that age, or even have another one, for some reason, those costs are only going to accrue.
I know there’s a viable environmental argument for not having children, but that doesn’t stop a lot of people still deeply wanting to have them, and it seems bizarre that we make it so difficult for those who do. The foundation estimates British working parents spend 22% of their income on full-time childcare – twice the average of other western economies; a 2019 Unicef report found the UK’s paternity leave provision was still embarrassingly low, compared with other countries’; and a survey of more than 20,000 British parents undertaken in July and August this year found just 16% of mothers had their seniority at work and income unaffected by having a child (two-thirds had reduced their hours).
Though I don’t think any parents came out of lockdown going, “Wow! Homeschooling my child while juggling the infinite Zoom calls of my job was very easy! I really enjoyed that!”, there is at least an opportunity for more flexible homeworking schedules that could accommodate childcare, now that a lot of people know how to do their jobs from home. But then, that doesn’t directly benefit commercial landlords, so bosses and decision-makers are not in favour of it. Being a parent is basically just being awake all the time and spending all of your money, and that’s before you’ve done anything like buy shoes or uniform or those Nerf Blasters they all go crazy for.