WELL, you know things are serious when a Times columnist ends his piece quoting Pope Francis. Very serious indeed. Sebastian Payne, director of conservative think tank Onwards, wades into the fertility debate that is certainly gaining steam. In his piece pointing out the usual barriers to couples having children, including housing, the graduate tax, lack of IVF and the cost of childcare, he concludes: ‘At the last Conservative Party conference, Rishi Sunak proclaimed he wanted to deliver long-term solutions to the country’s thorniest challenges. Few are as urgent as helping parents have the families to which they aspire. All these policies should be brought together to form a “new deal for parents”. This is not merely about the next election; the country will be thankful in decades to come for some bold steps now. Or as Pope Francis put it: “It is necessary to have the courage to bet on families”.’
I do not oppose any of Payne’s solutions to the collapsing fertility rate; build more houses, increase access to IVF and subsidise childcare. Do it. Then after a few years you will realise that none of it makes any difference, or at least it will not make any difference proportionate to the gargantuan costs.
There should be more house-building anyway, given the immigration numbers, but your childcare subsidy or your IVF or a change to the graduate tax will not turn the dial in the long term. That is because these policies do not change the culture, and it is the culture that has changed over the last three or four decades, as well as the economics. In sum, people are a lot more selfish now and just can’t be bothered to put the time, effort and financial investment into children. That’s the unspoken cultural change that no politician would dare utter. The unspoken economic change is the shift in resources over the last 30 years from married fathers to single mothers, the taxes of the former paying for the benefits of the latter. Even more unutterable. But it is not conducive to larger families. The cultural norm is now pretty much ‘one and done’.
Payne points out the policy implications of a collapsing fertility rate (UK is 1.61 children, well below replacement). ‘Many of our challenges in the years ahead will worsen if our birthrate is left to wither. With a rapidly ageing population, we will struggle to care for the elderly. With the desire to reduce immigration, we will be left with job shortages. With a depleted workforce to drive the economy, we will put further strain on the state’s resources. Many other nations with the same problems are not afraid of talking about them, nor should Britain.’ I happen to think that the problem with fewer children is that there are fewer children.
The real reason for the collapsing fertility rate, in free fall in conservative countries such as Japan and Italy and declining in the liberal Northern European countries such as Denmark, is that the role of women has changed fundamentally. There was a revolution in the culture and societal values that feminists pushed and women fell in with.
It is only in cultures that value women as mothers and home-makers that fertility rates have not collapsed, such as Israel and Muslim immigrants to the West. However, often immigrants adopt the home fertility rates within one or two generations as they adopt the value system also. In fact, as immigrants get wealthier they have fewer children.
The feminists told women that the home was a place of drudgery, where women were chained to the kitchen sink and bored out of their minds either on prescription drugs or outright alcoholics.
The home was a place of oppression and the workplace, even though full of discrimination, was a better place to be. Women were told to Get to Work and Lean In to work, so they did. For a while they were told that they could have it all, but the millennial women raised by a generation of stressed-out mothers saw this was a bit of a lie, so they are now opting out of having children at all or, as already pointed out, stopping at one. The so-called environmental disaster is a handy noble excuse for opting out of children completely.
This war on the private sphere came from both the left and right: the right got more workers and lower wages, the left got liberated women, liberating from family duties and above all children. Even President Trump touted women’s gains in the job market during his 2019 State of the Union address, and recently that other ‘far-right extremist’ in Italy, Giorgia Meloni, said that Italy’s record female employment rate made her proud.
So just why are people surprised at the collapsing fertility rate? If you trash and reduce the status of something you get less of it. For perhaps four decades the role of motherhood has been kicked and denigrated, so don’t act shocked when women choose not to pursue it.
In his piece Payne quotes Pope Francis, who has zero children (a cheap shot, but I’m Catholic so it is ok), and Giorgia Meloni, the Italian Prime Minister who never shuts up about women having more Italian babies, but has only one child herself. One. A clear case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’.
Although economic factors can suppress fertility, what we are experiencing now is outright collapse. I know of a few millennials who own their own property, but they are single and without children. None of the above policies would have any impact on them.
And let me say a bit about that old chestnut, childcare. We have covered this a lot, but subsidising childcare, even free universal childcare will not change the fertility rate.
Free or subsidised childcare, counter-intuitively, says very loudly that having children and raising them is not important and certainly not as important as a career. By paying families to pay outsiders to look after their children, you are saying that kids are something to be fit around your already packed schedule. Children are an add-on, not the main attraction. As this has been the main message of the last 40 years, subsidising childcare only compounds that message. But sure, what do I know about kids? I only have four. Four times as many as Pope Francis and the Italian lady put together.
Do let me declare very clearly: unless we have a massive counter-revolution in how society values children and motherhood, low fertility rates are here to stay. Have all the pro-natalist policies you can afford, as those families that have children should be supported economically by the state given the cost in time, energy and money to raise even two children these days. But don’t expect more children to arrive. That’s not going to happen.
Sometimes I find myself almost relieved when I come to this conclusion because it means everything else pales into insignificance. The elections this autumn in the United States and the UK do not matter. With a collapsing fertility rate that neither the right nor left will do anything about, the problems of pensions and a near-collapsing welfare state and health system will continue.
This means the following are here to stay: high immigration rates and high tax rates. You need immigrants to look after the children, old people and sick people that the natives are unwilling to look after, so suck it up and stop complaining. And stop complaining about house prices too – there are two salaries feeding into those house prices as well as immigration increasing demand, so a price increase was entirely predictable.
AI might solve the rest of the problems out there. You can look forward to pushing a little child robot on the swings in the park in your old age. But then it will be difficult to snuggle up to a robot on the sofa and watch Elf for the 14th time. I happen to like doing this with the real thing. But then, I’m a minority.