Structural change is needed to raise low birth rates

THE idea of having babies has always seemed fairly abstract and faintly absurd. I mean, of course I know where they come from, but the whole shebang still retains the air of a sci fi miracle.

I see friends with their children and it’s wild – tiny new humans with familiar eyes or an instantly recognisable smile. That came out of your body? Wild.

In my teens and early 20s I assumed marriage and children would naturally follow the establishing of a satisfying career. That’s what everyone did: they left school, worked or went to university, got married, had kids, raised them.

The “having it all” generation was the one before mine. By my generation it was expected that women would work and have children. The pendulum had swung so far that peers who wanted to be full time mums were a bit of an oddity and there was certainly no expectation that sacrifices would have to made.

Then friends started having children. It turned out we’d been sold a pup. Sacrifices absolutely had to made and they didn’t look so appealing.

Watching other women struggle to find balance, to keep up with careers, just to try for an unbroken night’s sleep, there was always a reason not to think about children. Wanting to be more settled in a career first. Wanting to have more savings and a higher income. Wanting to travel more first. Suddenly you find yourself in a fulfilling job with disposable income for the first time in your life and a wish list of countries to visit.

Suddenly there’s little or no space for a child.

Girl power was the defining narrative for a 90s child. It wasn’t merely about doing it all, it was about smashing it all. Not only did we keep up with the boys but we overtook them. Biology was nothing.

It’s only now, when the choice to have children or not is becoming less of a choice and more of a chance that’s passed by, it hits home that biology is everything.

Friends have two, three, even four children. I do not feel mature enough or ready enough to be a mother. I’d like a bit more time to think. Conversely, my male friends who aren’t quite sure which path they want to choose don’t need to give it a minute’s thought. It feels grossly unfair.

Agonising over the perfect conditions in which to have a family is largely the preserve of women in affluent countries with higher rates of education and employment opportunities.

And these are the same countries where birth rates are falling or women are choosing to have families much later.

At regular intervals newspaper articles share the latest lamentations about the decline in birthrates.

This week it’s the Social Market Foundation (SMF) with a report stating Britain is looking down the barrel of a “baby shortage” that could cause “long-term economic stagnation”.

In the face of a climate crisis, the earth doesn’t need more consumers, it needs consumers with more robust economic power. And that’s one of the main setbacks to making babies – those things are pricey.

The thinktank says working British parents spend around 22% of their income on full-time childcare, which is more than double the average of western countries.

According to the Family and Childcare Trust, Scottish parents pay £111 per week for a part time nursery place, more than £5000 a year, a fairly daunting sum.

Scotland is in the middle of introducing 1140 hours of free childcare for children aged three and four, which is a bold and welcome step but, as it only extends to some two-year-olds, doesn’t help parents of infants. Extending paid parental leave would help to fill that gap.

While shared parental leave has been introduced – allowing both parents to divvy up the leave as they see fit – uptake has been vanishingly low. It’s not economically viable in many couples for the man to take time off work and there is still stigma around stay-at-home dads.

Attitudes need to change, but so does parental pay – upwards – and the length of time parents are allowed to take off work. Women had to fight hard for 12 months maternity entitlement and so no wonder they don’t want to give that up.

An increase in length of leave would make practical and economic sense.

From a 1964 peak of 2.93 children per woman, birth rates fell to 1.29 last year in Scotland, which the SMF said would ultimately lead to a shortage of working-age adults.

One of the reasons routinely put forward for boosting the birth rate is that we need young people to man the workforce and care for an ageing population. Yet my generation is constantly having the wind put up us by reports that we’ll be working until we’re 75 – if we’re lucky.

The 70-somethings of my acquaintance are active, curious, fit people yet the idea of old age and what constitutes “old” has hardly changed despite this shift to a more youthful outlook and lifestyle.

We aren’t going to be acting our stereotypical ages and we are going to be expected to be working decades after the previous generation has retired but this seismic shift never seems to be taken into account when fretting over birthrates.

Warnings resound over the baby drought but there are ample steps governments can take to make parenthood more appealing. We hear horror stories about maternity care in hospitals – fix these. Deal with childcare. Don’t allow the increased work flexibility created by the pandemic to be lost.

Crackdown on firms that discriminate against and sack women when they become pregnant. Tackle affordable housing and the flaws in the rental market.

No easy list of tasks but all of them necessary. Yet, yet, even when the perfect conditions are met, the baby bust might not be so easily solved. Women may still not want to have children, having weighed up all the pros and cons and found they have other options now.

The problems that might prevent some women from wanting children should be fixed because it is morally the right way to build society, not as an incentive for women to birth the next generation of carers and workers.

The result might be fewer babies but that shouldn’t be viewed as a bad thing but rather a success for women to have these options and the freedom to choose them.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992