“People need to stop telling me to ‘just get on with it’ if I want to have children,” Jen Cleary says, clearly exasperated. “Most of my generation simply cannot afford to. Being childless is out of my hands and it is a devastating and frustrating reality.” Cleary, a 35-year-old former teacher, is recounting how financial precariousness means that her dream of having a family may never come true. It is an experience that many millennials – defined roughly as those born between 1981 and 1996 – have encountered.
The UK’s birthrate is at a record low, with fertility rates for women under 30 at their lowest levels since records began in 1938. There are many factors that contribute to this, including the fact that many people struggle with infertility; some make a positive personal choice not to have children; and others decide against having kids because of the uncertainties and peril of the climate crisis. But finances and the rising costs of living are a persistent and growing issue. Just last month, the Labour party chair, Anneliese Dodds, pointed out that many people are being forced to put off settling down and having families thanks to “cost pressures” overseen by the current Tory government.
“One in five women are childless by midlife [including involuntarily and by choice] and 80% of those are due to circumstance, not infertility,” says Jody Day, the founder of Gateway Women, a support network for involuntarily childless women. “So much of this 80% is due to a tapestry of systemic issues, like student debts and career focus, meaning that family planning is left too late,” she adds, while rising house prices and a lack of affordable childcare make genuine financial security seem harder and harder to attain.
These are all contributing factors to Cleary’s story. Having met her wife while they were both training to become teachers nine years ago, the pair started saving for a deposit on a flat while they were renting in London. “We were hopeful that we’d get a good salary, find somewhere nice to live and have children, either through adoption or a sperm donor,” Cleary says. They bought a flat but, only a few months after moving in, the Grenfell fire occurred and triggered a nationwide reassessment of building practices. Their flat was found to have flammable cladding and their service charges ballooned, while the value of the flat began to fall.
“We couldn’t afford the flat and its service charges on teachers’ salaries,” Cleary says. “We eventually sold this year to a cash buyer, but lost £20,000 in the process, and we have really struggled to find somewhere new. We have rented four different flats in six months and keep failing our credit score when it comes to finding a new mortgage because we’ve run up so much debt.”
All the while, the process of beginning adoption proceedings or finding a sperm donor slipped further away. “Adoption applications want you to have lived somewhere for a while, so that you have roots for your child, and we of course can’t give them that right now,” Cleary says. “Sperm donation costs around £2,000 per go, so unless you have a friend you can co-parent with, it’s very expensive to be a gay woman and have a baby. It is also very difficult to adopt if you’ve gone through a tried-and-failed pregnancy cycle initially, so we would need to give a fair amount of time in between if we went for sperm donation first. There are a lot of barriers and decisions to be made. Meanwhile, I’m 35 and my biological clock is ticking.”
Ultimately, Cleary and her wife decided to prioritise finding a suitable home before coming back to the question of children. Cleary has left her job as a teacher for a higher-paid corporate role, and they are looking to move to an area where the housing market is less inflated. Such a momentous decision has an emotional impact. “We have friends who have children and who aren’t sensitive to our situation. I might miss their kid’s birthday party because I find it difficult, but they get upset with me and don’t understand why. Part of me wishes I’d never become a teacher in the first place, because then we might have had enough money to make it happen.”
While childlessness is on the rise, the stigma around it persists. “When I started writing about my own experience of being childless a decade ago, I broke a huge taboo,” Day says. “It wasn’t something people openly talked about, but the millennial generation is more shame-resilient and willing to share.” Day is a psychotherapist and explains how the grief of not being able to have a child is often misunderstood. “There is still a belief that you can only grieve what you have had, and with childlessness you didn’t lose anything. But I’m afraid you did and it needs attention.”
There can also be a cultural element to the stigma. Rahul (not his real name) is a 40-year-old first-generation immigrant to the UK and supports his remaining family in India. He and his wife live in Manchester and have a seven-year-old daughter, but two years ago they decided they could not afford to have another child. “My wife was very disappointed, as she wanted two children at least,” he says. “It created quite a lot of tension between us, as I was the one labouring the practicalities, but once we sat down to go through the amount it would take to pay for childcare if she continued to work, on top of sending money back and then paying for extra tutoring and afterschool clubs, we realised we wouldn’t be able to give our new child the same quality of life our daughter already has.”
Their wider family was disappointed. “With us being the first here in the UK, my family really expected us to set down roots and to have a sibling for our daughter, otherwise they worried she would be lonely,” Rahul says. “But I hope we’ve made them understand our reasons why.”
“Culturally, you’re part of a collective as a person of colour and everything you do is adding to that collective,” says Yvonne John, a workshop facilitator at Gateway Women. “Being from a West Indian background myself, I have experienced how it can feel like you don’t have a place in that community, because you’re not extending it or bringing something back when you’re childless. So you start to ask: where’s your value? What’s the point of you? We become forgotten and silenced.”
According to the Child Poverty Action Group, the cost of raising a child to 18 in 2021 could be as much as £71,611. Academic Joanna Zajac has a three-year-old daughter and would like another child, but has realised that it is not financially viable, mainly because of childcare costs. “I am Polish and my partner is Italian and in both of these countries you have heavily subsidised childcare, whereas the UK is lagging seriously behind,” she says. “We both work, so we’re already paying the equivalent of another mortgage for our existing childcare. Britain feels like the worst place you could possibly be in Europe when it comes to raising small children.” In a recent survey of more than 20,000 working parents, 97% of respondents said the cost of childcare was too expensive.
The situation has become so dire that Zajac is taking up a better-paid academic post abroad to see if she can earn enough to afford a second child. “Our family will have to separate for a number of months or years and, at 37, I’m also getting older, so things still might not work out because of my biology,” she says. “It is hard not to feel like we have missed our chance.”
For scientific researcher Sarah Hague, 27, even being at the younger end of the millennial generation means feeling a financial burden that is weighing on her decision to have children. “It feels dishonest to say that we won’t have kids – it’s that we can’t because me and my partner both have huge student loans after completing PhDs and it’s a battle between choosing housing or a family,” she says. In Cambridge, where she lives, family homes begin at £400,000 and Hague cannot rely on parental help to buy. Nor can she move elsewhere, since the majority of labs are based either in the city or in the equally expensive Oxford. She has decided to save up for a home, rather than childcare. “You can’t have a family without a stable home and since no-fault evictions are only a two-month notice period now, rental isn’t an option. We could be made homeless in eight weeks,” she says.
Prof Bobby Duffy, the director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, says it is the housing crisis in the UK that is particularly affecting millennials and younger generations who want to start a family. “There is an incredible shift from 80% of the baby boomer generation owning their own homes to only 40% for millennials. That pushes people into a private renting market, which is unregulated, very expensive and insecure,” he says. “We need to make this rental market more stable and affordable, as when you add high childcare costs, wage stagnation and austerity measures that have meant cutting support services into this mix, it creates a real collapse in faith that the future is going to be better for young people than it was for their parents.”
Iona Bain, a financial expert, says Britain’s housing shortage needs to be tackled through “land-value reform, encouraging downsizing among older homeowners and the reacquisition of social housing lost to the private sector as part of right to buy. Only then will it have a knock-on effect on birthrates.”
But it is not only housing that causes precariousness. Fiona, a 29-year-old admin assistant, is living in a house-share with seven others. She has two part-time jobs to supplement her £22,000 salary and cannot see a route to financial stability that would enable her to have a family. “I can’t even afford a dog, so how would I afford a child?” she says. “There’s a huge wealth disparity in the UK and it means you have no space to breathe if things go wrong.
“I had a nervous breakdown a few years ago and had to take time off work, which really showed me how easy it is to end up on the breadline, especially if you have mental health issues,” she says. “It’s much easier to be in that situation than you think and it is terrifying.”
Cleary is coming to terms with her and her wife’s decision to indefinitely postpone having children. “We know that if we eventually have a family, it won’t be a ‘neat’ unit,” she says. “Perhaps we might adopt a child who isn’t at a young age, or we might foster, but either way we can only start the process when we are ready and able to give the child the best life we possibly can. If that’s not meant to be, then so be it.”
For Fiona, coming to terms with being childless has ultimately been liberating. “I’ve made peace with it. Although it is a decision that has been taken from me, at least now the focus is on making my life the best it can be for myself,” she says. “We had no choice in being brought into the world, but at least I can take better ownership of my life now, by living it fully.”