The Guardian view on falling birthrates: to parent or not to parent? | Editorial

Pronatalist policies seem beside the point when existing families’ needs are ignored

There are not many things that most people agree on. But one is that it is a good thing if adults who want children are able to have them. This is the simple idea at the heart of a new report from the Social Market Foundation thinktank, which examines the case for pronatalist policymaking in the UK in the context of a falling birthrate, and recommends more research. The Scottish government, the report says, already has a population taskforce.

So far so uncontroversial. The birthrate in England and Wales stood at 1.58 in 2020, well below the 2.1 required to replace the population (in Scotland, the birthrate was 1.29). More than a quarter of the world’s countries have explicitly pronatal policies, usually entailing financial incentives designed to encourage people to have babies. While often associated with anti-immigrant rightwingers, such policies include birth grants in Finland and variable tax rates in France, as well as housing subsidies and other rewards in Hungary and Poland. Pronatalism need not be the exclusive concern of nativist politicians seeking to reverse population declines.

That said, many socially liberal people, and particularly feminists, are suspicious of those who advocate for larger families as public policy. Such goals have long been seen as running counter to women’s struggle for equality at work, and in public life more broadly. Historically, pronatalist policies have been linked to attempts to restrict female reproductive and other freedoms, most notably in Nazi Germany.

Such disturbing associations aside, discomfort often accompanies the idea of official intrusion into what we have been taught, in liberal democracies, to regard as a highly personal choice. What business of the government is it whether we decide to have one child, four children, or none? The SMF answers this question as tentatively as one might expect, given its own centrist politics and the UK’s socially laissez-faire record in this area. But it concludes that the economic effects of the demographic shift that the UK is now going through merit further consideration.

Evidence from around the world suggests that if the committees recommended by this report are convened, the climate crisis will figure much more prominently as an issue than it does here. One recent survey found that four in 10 young people are hesitant about having children due to their awareness of the growing risks of disastrous global heating. Along with this existential threat, and the fundamental lack of security and hopefulness about the future that it gives rise to, are more immediate problems including the UK’s dysfunctional housing system, low wages and insecure employment, and a chronically underfunded childcare sector that is the third most expensive in the world.

It is impossible to say definitively which of these has contributed most to the decline in births. There is no reason why people should not discuss this. But when funding cuts over the past decade have led to a situation where nearly half of all families with three children or more live in poverty at the moment, it seems fanciful to imagine that the government would exert itself to improve the life chances of babies who have not even been born.



The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Guardian view on Labour education policy: a sure start | Editorial
Editorial: Free state nurseries and increased funding are the right ways to patch up a fragmented system


25, Sep, 2018 @5:44 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Jacinda Ardern: pregnant with meaning | Editorial
Editorial: New Zealand was the first country to give votes to women. Now it gives childcare to the prime minister’s partner


19, Jan, 2018 @4:43 PM

Article image
Discriminating against pregnant women is not just wrong, it’s foolish | Rowan Davies
Women are still hit by the motherhood penalty at work, with lower wages and stalled careers. If men did more childcare this would change, says Rowan Davies, head of policy at Mumsnet

Rowan Davies

20, Feb, 2018 @2:04 PM

Article image
You can smell a new mother’s loneliness. Unless you’re the state | Nell Frizzell
As a new mum, I know loneliness cuts deep – and the lack of services for parent and child plays a large part in this, says the freelance writer Nell Frizzell

Nell Frizzell

03, May, 2018 @1:21 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on declining birthrates: there may be trouble ahead | Editorial
Editorial: Europe’s ageing societies must make it easier for young people to start a family


16, May, 2021 @5:25 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on summer holidays: a good break is not a luxury | Editorial
Editorial: Inequality grows when school terms finish, and tackling ‘holiday hunger’ is not enough


24, Jul, 2018 @5:41 PM

Article image
Why parents should fear childcare going the way of Carillion | Helen Penn
The UK hasn’t seen the collapse of a major nursery provider yet, but other countries have, says academic and author Helen Penn

Helen Penn

14, May, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Why is childcare still not equally shared? | Letters
Letter: If you think you’d like to have children with a man who would neither be able to give or help find childcare, have a cold shower and think again, says Louise Summers


18, Jul, 2021 @4:44 PM

Article image
The economy has shafted millennials: now it wants their offspring too | Joel Golby
Yes yes, we know you can’t afford to have children. But if the economy tanks because of the low birthrate, you’ll be to blame, says Guardian writer Joel Golby

Joel Golby

23, Sep, 2021 @12:49 PM

Article image
How Stockholm became the city of work-life balance
With flexible hours the norm, and almost two years’ parental leave for every child, Sweden’s capital boasts a happy and efficient workforce. What can other cities learn?

Richard Orange in Stockholm

22, May, 2019 @5:00 AM