These are lean times for hospitality and retail. But at least pubs and shops have their champions, popping up on our television channels and radio stations. The squeaky wheel gets the oil, or in this case, taxpayer-funded grants. Where, though, are the voices raised for another activity – also struggling before lockdown – and now facing its own unprecedented crash. Who cares about babies?
Truly, births need a push. Predictions of a boom in coronababies were way, way off. Britain, in common with many other developed nations, is experiencing a sharp new slump in fertility, the full extent of which remains unclear. If our neighbours are anything to go by, we are in for an epidemic of empty cradles. The number of babies born in France is down by 13 per cent. In Spain and Italy births have fallen by a fifth. Data suggests half a million fewer American babies will be born this year – similar to the number of Covid deaths.
Lockdown means couples aren’t getting together and, those who already have, are postponing pregnancies because of The Uncertainty. While home-schooling and household chores may have a contraceptive effect on those who can have children, IVF has been all-but-halted for those who can’t. But the virus is a catalyst not a cause. Birth-rates had tanked to an all-time low six months before the UK recorded its first case of Covid.
This is a crisis without a climax. There won’t be a demographic equivalent of Black Wednesday, when the markets spook and sterling collapses. If you think we’re good at ignoring national debt because a reckoning is too far in the future, console yourself with the thought that at least the Treasury worries about it on your behalf. If the Bank of England misses its inflation target, the Governor writes to the Chancellor. No such target exists for the birth rate, even though – one day – the Exchequer will run out of ideas about how to pay for a welfare state with an ever-diminishing inverted pyramid of workers and taxpayers, and indeed, shoppers and drinkers.
A kind of fecundity Micawberism prevails. Ian Stewart, Deloitte’s chief economist, recently wrote engagingly about the Covid fertility crisis, while assuming that ‘rebooting consumer confidence holds the key to growth and birth rates’.
But what if demographic boom doesn’t follow bust? What if fertility is trapped in a doom-loop, where culture is as important as cash and where shrinking families beget smaller families? In China, for instance, parents are not rushing to have a second, just because the CCP has abandoned its wicked one-child policy. Left as a lifestyle choice, lifestyle wins out.
When it comes to fertility, values increasingly matter. As I pointed out in an essay for the Jewish Chronicle recently, Israel’s birth-rate bucks the downward trend of developed nations partly because the personal is political, or at least historical. When I worked there for Sky News in the 1990s I was always struck by the urgency of the demographic question. Recovering the lost millions of the Holocaust gave it an existential edge. But even things like peace-making were touched by it. The median age of Gazans is 18, the equivalent for Israelis is 30. A Jewish friend would ask:
‘Can you guess who’s more likely to compromise?’
Religion, or more accurately religiosity, is pushing Israel’s birth-rate well above the 2.1 children per mother required to replace existing numbers. In Britain, where this Holy Week sees the unveiling of a statue to the green godhead Greta Thunberg, environmentalism now has its own Commandments. Doubts persist about exactly when Harry and Meghan took their marriage oaths before the Archbishop of Canterbury. But the vow that channelled the zeitgeist was Harry’s subsequent promise to limit himself to two kids for the good of the planet.
The Sussexes are high-profile converts to the cause, but many thousands more are acting on the belief that births aren’t just financially ruinous and domestically arduous, but morally bad. I happen to think that’s mad, even as I respect the right of anti-natal groups like BirthStrike to urge women to be childless-by-choice. What worries me is the one-sidedness of the contest.
For pro-natalism in Britain is friendless. At the state level it’s too much to expect Whitehall to establish an OfDem (Office of Demographics); the sort of state activism we see in countries like Hungary, where IVF has been nationalised and the budget for family expansion is four times that of defence. But was it really necessary to cut the UK’s only sibling subsidy, as happened when child benefit was limited to two children?
If private enterprise is too short-termist to be a reliable ally, what about the third sector, starting with the Established Church? Will it urge worshippers this Easter to go forth and multiply? In its current woke incarnation, it seems just as likely to discourage the pitter patter of tiny carbon footprints. The arts? My former employer, Sky TV, called its comedy about parents struggling with young kids ‘Breeders’. Not exactly an affirmation of the reproductive urge.
Where’s the counter-blast? Even the pubs and shops have associations and press officers, doing the studio-rounds to lament the loss of numbers. At the last count, 100,000 British women said they’d not had all the children they wanted. Who lobbies for them?
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Colin Brazier is the author of ’Sticking Up for Siblings’ (Civitas), and a presenter with GB News