The No-Baby Boom: Why Are Birth Rates Dropping In The UK?

Hannah Pegram

As birth-rates drop to an all-time low of 1.6 babies per woman, Hannah Pegram evaluates: why are people opting to have fewer biological children or in some cases, no children at all.

I think it’s important to preface this article by letting the reader know that I don’t think I want children. Maybe it’s because right now, at the ripe old age of 21, I cry when I burn toast and don’t believe I have the patience or selflessness to deal with a grubby 3-year-old who somehow gets jam everywhere. Or maybe, I don’t want them and never will. 

However, it’s clear that I’m not alone in my viewpoint of children; as national birthrates drop to 1.6 babies per woman, an all-time low, experts are beginning to wonder why so many young people are deciding not to have biological children. Some experts argue that the pandemic urged this on. The amount of financial and emotional stress that COVID-19 placed upon every person meant that making babies was off the cards for many families, focusing instead on keeping afloat.

This is not the ideal time to add “1 hungry baby” to your list of household inventory

It is undeniable that the pandemic helped the ‘no-baby boom’, but for years scientists have predicted that the birth rate will continue to drop, estimating that by 2023 the birth rate will be as low as 1.45 children per woman. So, why is this? 

Children are expensive, and right now is not the economic climate to have them in. The post-pandemic cost of living is at an all-time high, comparable with the 1930s, food prices are rocketing, and gas bills soaring; therefore, this is not the ideal time to add “1 hungry baby” to your list of household inventory.

According to the ONS (Office for National Statistics), the average house in March 2021 cost more than 65 times the average UK home in January 1970, but average weekly wages are only 35.8 times higher. This means that millennial parents face an entirely new problem: the reality that over half will be renting well into their forties.

For a working-class family earning an average of £25,000 a year, over half of their income is spent on childcare alone

Let’s not forget the astronomical cost of raising a child thrown into the mix: the estimate to raise a child from birth to 18 is an average of £185,000, that’s without buying extravagant gifts or luxuries. However, it is the early years that hit the purse strings; childcare in this country has soared in price in recent years – estimates suggest that sending your under-2 to a full-time nursery costs an eye-watering £13,700 a year. For a working-class family earning an average of £25,000 a year, over half of their income is spent on childcare alone. So, with all these costs piling up, who has the luxury even to begin saving for children? 

Studies have found that when the cost of living improves, birth rates increase. Though Labour never had a baby-making policy, in Blair’s government a group of female MPs pushed for legislation to improve the realities of raising children in the UK; this included rolling out free nursery education, childcare tax credits, 3,500 Sure Start children’s centres and a child trust fund that endowed every baby with a small nest egg.

The policy of Blair was ‘education, education and education’, increasing school investment, the creation of breakfast clubs and initiatives to increase holiday and after-school clubs. Teachers received a pay increase and the birth rates saw the benefits of these policies, being the highest they have been this century.

Is it surprising that many young people are choosing to opt out of the significant responsiblity of raising a child?

This demonstrates one thing we know for sure: better childcare policies and children’s education make parenthood more appealing. But in a government where childcare is at an all-time high, teachers’ salaries are the lowest on record, and school attainment is dropping by the year, is it surprising many young people are choosing to opt out of the significant responsibility of raising a child? 

Thankfully we no longer live in the 1950s, and women are no longer required to have the career of housewife; long gone are the days where the only role of a woman was to raise her children and be a good wife. Though gender-based workplace discrimination still exists, such as wage-gap, sexual harassment, and gender-based promotional discrimination, women have more ability to move up the career ladder than they did even thirty years ago.

However, though women are more educated and more employed than ever before, studies have found that they still take on more familial and household duties than their male counterparts. For example, women are eight times more likely to take a day off work to look after their sick children than men. Furthermore, after becoming a parent, the woman is more likely to take on fewer hours at work or find a new job entirely that fits better around children.

In this current moment, women are therefore opting not to have children entirely. Potentially if more effective policies – such as free childcare or more paternity leave – were in place in all workplaces to help families with young children and take the burden of childcare off women, birth rates would increase.  

Is a few people opting to not have have children really a bad thing?

There is, of course, nothing wrong with having biological children, but, controversial statement incoming: what’s so wrong with a falling birth rate anyway? Of course, there are limitations to this. In a capitalist society, we need a continual supply of generations to help keep the economy afloat, and I am not suggesting an end to humans. However, over-population is one of the most significant climate issues our species faces; high birth rates in the past have got our climate into this mess. Is a few people opting to not have children really a bad thing?

In the UK, there are over 57,000 children in the foster-care system right now; the obsession with falling birth rates whilst this number continues to increase is a severe misdirection of outrage. If governments are looking for explanations for why fewer people have biological children, maybe they should look at their policies and ask themselves: are we really creating a society where having children is a blessing? 

*Disclaimer: the author of this article understands that it is not solely those who identify as women who can carry children.

Hannah Pegram

Featured image courtesy of Alex Hockett via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

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