Alan* has done everything a young person in their 30s is traditionally “expected” to do. He’s in a long-term relationship with his partner of six and a half years. In late 2020, they bought a house together in Belfast, where Alan is from. They both have stable jobs with salaries that allow them a modest lifestyle. They’re basically the paragon of neoliberalism: a professional couple on the property ladder, earning above average during a period of economic downturn. And yet they still can’t afford to have children.
“Kids cost money — loads of it. There’s food, and prams, and childcare, and everything. Without exception, by the end of every month I’m comfortably into my overdraft, and all I have to keep alive at the moment is me,” Alan says despondently. “I suppose I’m a bit taken aback at being 32, having a reasonably well-paid job, and not being in any way comfortable.”
Despite what your Instagram feed might suggest, this story has become the rule rather than the exception, as wages struggle to keep up with annual inflation, the escalating cost of living and a housing market out of control. As a result, many people like Alan are entering a phase of life where they expected to be able to start a family but, confronted with the freshly sharpened pressures of time and increasing age, are finding themselves at a loss. For those in less fortunate circumstances, the outlook must seem even bleaker.
Against this backdrop of millennial impoverishment, there is growing panic over the fact that the UK is “running out of babies”. Births have been falling steadily in every nation since 2011. In Northern Ireland, the population of children aged 0-14 has decreased by nine per cent over the past decade. Since the most recent peak in 2012, the number of live births in England and Wales has dropped by 15.9 per cent. In Scotland, the number of live births registered last year was the second lowest annual total since records began in 1855. Traditionally, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) has attributed this decline to social changes — people having children later in life and fewer of them, women focusing on their education and careers, medical advances such as lower child mortality and access to contraception. These are still significant factors, but for a generation now living through their third “worst economic crisis in [insert historic number of years]”, the definitive issue is income.
“When my boyfriend and I chat about the prospect of having children, the sticking point is always money,” says Jess, 28, who grew up in Clackmannanshire, in the heart of Scotland, and now lives in south-east London. “We spend around half our pay cheques on rent each month with the knowledge that we could be evicted at our landlord’s whim and priced out of the city.”
Until recently, Jess had never really envisioned herself as a mother. Growing up in a small rural village, many of her peers dropped out of school at 16 to have kids or started to couple off and settle down “before actually doing anything for themselves”. “I desperately wanted to leave my hometown and felt like being a ‘career woman’ was the best way forward,” she remembers. “It wasn’t until I met my boyfriend that I started to think about having kids less as a burden and more as a chance to build a better life that’s about love and being in it together, rather than work achievements and wealth.”
Like many, Jess moved to London for opportunities that weren’t available at home. Now, she finds herself in a double bind where her work and social life revolve around a city that’s increasingly difficult to build a future in. “Spending so much of our income on housing is obviously a factor, but it’s the lack of somewhere to put down roots that makes me especially wary,” she says. “Extras — toys, clothes, days out — can be kept to a minimum when money’s tight, but a child needs a stable and secure home, and we can’t guarantee that right now.” The overriding feeling seems to be that, as Jess says, “You can’t win unless you’re wealthy. If we address deprivation and make society fairer, young people will be able to make [major] life decisions without money worries clouding things.”
Housing is an issue for Cleo and her partner, too. As a trans couple considering adoption, the biggest hurdle they face isn’t the process itself but trying to find a suitable place to raise a child. “Many of the properties we look at that have the additional bedroom or a garden space are just out of our price range, and the worse the housing market gets the more it seems like it’ll be another couple of years until we can get there,” Cleo says. The couple currently live in a small flat in a Norwich suburb that they’re trying to buy after the landlord decided to sell it out from under them, but it has nowhere near the space they would need to start a family — something Cleo, now in her 30s, has wanted since her early 20s. “I’ve always been very maternal,” she says. “I feel like it’s something that’s very important to me, and something that I’d be good at. Also, particularly when you look at adoption, there are more children who need homes than there are homes going, so it feels like the right thing to do.”
“Many of the properties we look at that have the additional bedroom are out of our price range”— Cleo
Although the adoption process is far from easy, many of their friends in queer relationships have navigated it successfully, so they are not particularly worried about this aspect. As it stands, though, they’re struggling to put roots down so that they can start their family. “The complaint of this generation —particularly targeted at the LGBT community, actually — is that people aren’t having enough children. We’re talking about ageing populations and dropping birth rates, and it’s often treated as a cultural issue when there are lots of people who want to start a family but can’t for economic reasons,” observes Cleo.
Addressing the “baby issue” in a report last September, The Social Market Foundation (SMF) warned that the low birth rate would ultimately lead to a shortage of working-age adults and further economic decline as the population gets older. To tackle the crisis, the report argues for a “pronatalist” approach — that is, encouraging more people to have children through forms of government support such as cheaper childcare, extra parental leave, and direct payments to parents. For example, in France, there is a “birth grant” worth €950 (£810). In Berlin and Hamburg, daycare is free for all children from birth. But in the UK, childcare costs have gone up by more than £2,000 a year since the Conservatives took office in 2010. Adding to the worsening cost of living crisis, parents in the UK now face the highest childcare costs in Europe and the fifth highest in the world. It’s no surprise, then, that many young people are worried that starting a family is a goal that’s simply out of their price range.
“It’s literally the only thing I talk about at the moment,” says Christian, a 32-year-old filmmaker based in London. As a cis gay man, Christian feels “privileged” to not be racing against a biological clock. However, he does find himself reckoning with time lost. “The prospect of your own children is something that isn’t extended to [gay men], and I’ve sort of navigated through my life so far thinking that I didn’t want children because I couldn’t have them,” he tells me. “But reaching my early 30s, I feel like I’m intrinsically missing out on something far bigger than a career and partying.”
As a single person earning an average salary and living in London, Christian says the mental image of being a parent is a “faint” one. As he began to watch his straight and wealthier friends get pregnant, adopt, or move out of the city, he had a “wake-up call” of sorts.
“We run in tandem with our friends throughout our 20s. We roughly earn the same amount, we’re all climbing the same ladders, going to the same parties. It feels fairly equal — sort of. But [when I started] looking at what my options were if I wanted to have children, it felt like there were none,” he laments. “By the time you hit 30 you really notice the difference between those who have family money and those who don’t, and the cost of living has changed so drastically over the past few years that the luxury of being childless and having the disposable income to have a laugh with has been compromised.”
For those feeling the pressure in their 30s, fertility treatments such as IVF and egg freezing have become more common. According to the regulatory body HFEA, IVF birth rates for patients under 43 years old have steadily increased since 2013. The number of egg and embryo storage cycles have also increased, as freezing techniques have improved and become more commonplace. Again, though, these are luxuries afforded to those who have the financial resources to pay for them in the first place. The cost of private IVF treatment in the UK varies wildly, although the NHS estimates it’s at least £5,000 per cycle. The full process for egg freezing — an invasive and often unsuccessful procedure (data suggests the birth rate for women using their own frozen eggs is 18 per cent) — costs £7,000-£8,000 on average.
Accessing fertility treatments through the NHS is a postcode lottery, especially in England, where funding is set by local integrated care boards (in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, funding is set nationally). But generally speaking, IVF and egg freezing are only funded by the NHS for medical reasons; for example, if the individual is experiencing fertility issues, going through early menopause, or receiving cancer treatment. For those in need of a lifeline for the future because they can’t afford to start a family now, fertility treatments are just another financial hurdle.
James, 33, met his partner at the beginning of the pandemic. They spent the long weeks of the first lockdown having nightly Zoom dates before they could meet in person, so they talked about “literally everything”. James told her about his teenage daughter from a previous marriage and they shared their hopes for the future. “I definitely want more [children], and realistically if it was urgent that we did have kids now, maybe due to unknown fertility issues, we could get by,” he explains. “The worry is that we want to provide our children with opportunities that we feel we missed out on.”
James was raised in South Wales in the 80s and 90s by a single mother, who worked incredibly hard to provide for him. Even so, there were times when they couldn’t afford to pay for basic things like electricity. His partner’s mother died when she was young. Partly as a result, they both feel a heightened drive to give their kids the best possible start in life. “I’m not talking about extravagances like private education,” James says. “We both just want to be able to provide, and it’s a tough ask to commit to that with the uncertainty of the future and current economic issues.”
Cleo echoes this sentiment, saying that “it wouldn’t be sensible to try to pursue” adoption until she’s in a position to do so. “I’m one of five children and growing up we were quite poor. It was really challenging sometimes. I wouldn’t want to raise my kids in that kind of environment.”
“It’s not often I think to myself: ‘How much worse can things get?’ But I’ve been thinking that pretty much daily for the past six months,” James adds. “Looking towards the future, whenever we hit the bottom of this rut, that’ll be the time to start planning the family we want to have. But I just don’t know when that will be.”
“It’s similar to the Roe v Wade conversations we’ve been seeing in the US. So much fervour for people having more children while providing absolutely no incentive for us to actually do so”— Jess
Despite the financial obstacles, starting a family is something Cleo and her partner are still gunning for. “For years and years, I thought, ‘People like me don’t buy houses, we don’t have kids, we don’t get that kind of life.’ But what that mindset actually did was deter me from getting started,” she says. “When you’re in that mess, you’re like, ‘The big change isn’t going to come, so I don’t have any power, so I might as well not try’ — and that is true 90 per cent of the time, but it also stops you from making the small changes that can start getting you to where you want to be.” Although a lot of the fixes might be big picture stuff that feel like they will never come, “it’s important to not get ground down by that.”
Clearly, what people would like to see is support and reassurance at a state level. That means things like building more social housing, rent controls, free or low-cost childcare, better financial support for parents, improved maternity and paternity leave — anything that will, as Alan puts it, “reassure people that there is a degree of solid, unequivocal government support in some shape or form”.
One government proposal to lower childcare costs was introduced this spring as a way to alleviate pressure on families during the energy crisis. However, it involved increasing the number of children one member of staff can legally supervise rather than slashing fees — a suggestion that has been branded “pathetic” by Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson, while TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady has called for “a proper funding settlement”.
Outside of Parliament, potential solutions have included more immigration to help re-balance the population and taxing the childless — the latter being a particularly cruel suggestion for those who want to start families but are delayed by financial circumstances.
“It’s similar to the Roe v Wade conversations we’ve been seeing in the US,” reflects Jess. “So much fervour for people having more children while providing absolutely no incentive for us to actually do so.”
In their report last year, the SMF concluded that any government policy that would “significantly alter” the fertility rate would likely cost tens of billions of pounds. Under the current regime, such an investment in our collective future seems unlikely.
*Alan’s name has been changed
Taken from the October/November 2022 issue of Rolling Stone UK. Buy it online now.