Don’t blame women for our low birthrate – we need to fix our precarious society

The last time there was a panic about women not having kids, it was because we were smashing glass ceilings. Now many young people simply can’t afford to start families

Dorothy Byrne, the president of Murray Edwards College at the University of Cambridge, has warned students not to leave it too late to have a baby. It is an all-female college, of course, otherwise this would make no sense: no one would ever tell a man when to sire young, because it would be considered intrusive and unnecessary. Also, Charlie Chaplin, huh? Remember how old he was when he had his youngest? What a top dog.

This was a huge preoccupation in the 90s – that women were going to forget about having kids until it was too late. Then, as now, it was rooted in fears about the birthrate and the average age of first-time mothers. (The birthrate last year was 1.53 for each woman, down from 2 in 2000, which is striking.) It used to drive me mad, partly because it is the most incredible pain to be a fertile woman. People are constantly in your grill, telling you what decisions you should make and when, what to eat and drink, whom to shag. It is completely draining.

Mainly, though, I divined a broad-brush conservative agenda underneath it all – a message that emancipation was all very well, but it should have hard limits. When it came to the societally useful bits of a woman – her reproductive apparatus – those should remain in the control of doctors, clerics and freelancing moralisers.

Then things went quiet for a couple of decades. Perhaps it was felt that the message had landed, that most women knew their fertility window wasn’t infinite and so didn’t need to be told every single morning. Or perhaps it merely became apparent that people would make their own decisions and the thundering “well-meant” advice wasn’t cutting through.

Seeing it resurface, I can’t help thinking how different the context is. Last century, we were putting off parenthood in order to smash glass ceilings and whatnot. Now, for at least five – if not 10 – years, the evidence has been that young people are delaying starting a family until they can afford it. This precariousness, driven in large part by housing insecurity, is only getting worse. Their elders should think twice before they deliver family planning tips; they are more likely to create young radicals than young mothers.

• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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Zoe Williams

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