In The Children of Men, PD James’s dystopian novel published back in 1992, we are introduced to a society where fertility has plummeted and mankind is facing extinction. What quickly becomes apparent is that ‘humanity’ – man as a social animal – faces extinction too.
With no hope of any future generations (no children growing up) people have lost all interest in politics; democracy has been abolished and the country is governed by Council decree, promising freedoms but granting none. This new society is referred to as egalitarian. Have we heard that before?
Foreign workers are lured into the country and then exploited; young people from poorer countries. These “foreign Omegas” or, generally, “Sojourners” are imported to do undesirable work. Sound familiar?
At 60, which is the age limit, they are sent back – forcibly repatriated. (No working tax credits to withdraw – they came after this novel). The indigenous British, however, are not allowed to emigrate to prevent further loss of labour.
As for the elderly/infirm citizens who of course have become a burden, (nursing homes are for the privileged few – PD James was prescient) they are expected and sometimes forced to commit suicide by taking part in a “Quietus” (Council-sanctioned mass drownings) at the age of 60.
Was I the only one reminded of this book when I read reports of the recent ONS figures which warn that within ten years half of all British children will be what we used to call, rather sadly, ‘only children’; and that ‘only children’ are already the norm for lone parents and cohabitees who themselves are fast becoming the norm?
Are we all OK about the fact we are set to become a nation of loners, not even reproducing ourselves? We must be. It appears to be the cultural choice we have taken as a society – on top of the actual fact of declining (sperm count) fertility in the West (yes that curious biological response to Western prosperity has been recorded for a while).
I grant that The Children of Men scenario is not around the corner, but we do seem to be taking a significant step towards it.
And arguably our very own dystopia has already arrived. It has taken the form of a national rejection not just of the family but of adult male /female relationships too – the Sexodus that Laura Perrins described in a recent blog. For the very first time in history, adults are determining to have their (usually just one) child on their own. What was judged as a shame in the past or forgiven as a mistake has become an adult (individual) right – never mind the well-being of the child or his rights.
But what chance is there of these children achieving happiness, learning to cooperate and compromise, let alone of enjoying loving and committed relationships if their own parents have rejected such relationships even before they’re born?
It’s a problem that ought to be exercising policy-makers. For a nation of loners not just breeds sadness, selfishness and introversion, it is costly too. Human beings are social animals and the family is the crucible of socialisation (who really wants to spend Christmas on their own?). However much the State may take on the role of patriarch, it can’t teach people to get on or to live in a group. Nor can it make the mother / child unit a family in the sociological or anthropological sense.
This is why I find the prospects for a society with a declining birth rate so horrifying and hideous.
Can there be anything more nihilistic and selfish than to deprive the next generation of brothers and sisters, cousins, uncles, aunties and grandparents? And what could be more stupid? Why would any government want to be pushing mothers back to work – as ours is currently – when it presages a nation of lone children, or of no children?
No I am not blaming individuals. I have seen too many of my own generation ensnared by the culture of sexual freedom, radical feminism and extreme individualism – all endorsed by successive governments at the expense of any meaningful support of the married family.
Of course, through the seventies and eighties we were still excited by the novelty of this so called social liberation. We had yet to see the downside.
But surely by now there has been time enough to reflect on it. The connection between small families and the isolation and loneliness that has become the hallmark of contemporary society is staring us in the face – not least in the lives of ageing baby boomers.
This first generation of loners is paying a cruel price for so called having it all – a succession of past fractured relationships, no children or grandchildren and a future of a sad and isolated old age. This is the prospect for some two million of this age group, not just women, but for ever more men too. The current mental ill-health epidemic and drug, alcohol and prescription addiction are all outcomes of this relationship failure, loneliness and anxiety.
As relational interdependence has gone down; state dependence has risen. Yet the prospect the lonely elderly confront is not one of a very brave new world.
That’s unless you welcome euthanasia for the old, unwanted, disabled or mentally ill becoming normative, which I fear will be the end outcome of bills such as Lord Falconer’s. Look at Belgium if you think I am exaggerating.
The ONS figures should be a wake up call about our social dysfunctionality and indifference to defending the (necessary) social institutions and traditions of marriage and family that bind us together. For without them, liberal individualism stops being the theory of the good life and starts to become a social death wish.
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