Make parenting easier with this one weird trick
Fixing childcare and housing costs will not solve declining fertility
Airports tell us a lot about a country’s social values and norms. Last year we were returning from our holiday in Andalucía, me an especially elegant shade of beetroot red, tired and fed up after the ordeal of flying. Afters we arrived at Stansted, one member of staff kindly took us aside and told us we needn’t bother following the people in front of us because instead we were to go through the family queue. Oh wow, I thought, that’s the sort of thing I’d really only expect in somewhere like Italy; so refreshing to see it back home.
We walked into the hall, surrounded by hundreds of other tired holiday makers, where we inched to a virtual standstill; only then did we look across the waiting area and make out the singletons and city break couples on the other side of a partition zipping through their queue, and it occurred to us that we, in fact, had been removed to make their lives easier, not vice versa. Oh well.
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As any parent can tell you, raising children can be hard and one of the hardest aspects is the thanklessness; your offspring are too young to understand the sacrifices and there is no one around to pat you on the back and tell you what a job you’ve done. Except maybe your own parents.
Today the world is descending into a real-life P.D. James novel, and while there is a lot of discussion about how childcare and housing costs are driving the fertility crisis before us, the fact that parenting lacks prestige, appreciation and cultural support is hugely underrated.
This week a new record was set within that crisis, with news that South Korea’s total fertility rate has fallen to a low of 0.78, dead last among 39 OECD countries. Even Japan, long the poster child for catastrophically low fertility, enjoys a whopping 1.3 TFR, which makes them seem like the Amish in comparison.
South Korea is one of the postwar era’s great success stories. From being among the world’s poorest nations in 1945, it is now among the richest. Its life expectancy has increased by 40 years since 1950, while today it scores among the highest in reading, science and maths, according to the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment. Yet it is also collapsing in on itself.
One news report cites the ‘lack of quality jobs, high housing costs and fierce educational competition’, and states that younger South Koreans struggle with youth unemployment at 5.6%. But while material concerns may aggravate a fertility collapse, they are only a part. South Korea’s fertility rate is way below that of impoverished North Korea, with a TFR of 1.8, and communist states tend to be bad at producing children (or anything, for that matter). Family formation is far more to do with norms, prestige and memetic support from wider society.
South Korea is just the most extreme example of a problem afflicting almost every country outside of sub-Saharan Africa. Fertility in England has now been below replacement levels for 50 years but last year fell to a record low of 1.6, and in Scotland it is just 1.29, a statistic that promises extremely bleak economic conditions in the decades to come.
Declining fertility is often linked to the exorbitant cost of childcare, and while that certainly aggravates it, alleviating that problem will probably not make a huge difference. As Martha Gill recently pointed out in The Observer: ‘Mothers still suffer a career penalty almost everywhere, but attempting to remove it doesn’t seem to alter their decisions that much. Since 2008, amid unequalled progress in gender equality and some of the most generous parental support schemes on the planet, birthrates in Sweden, Norway and Iceland have fallen precipitously. Nordic countries are, comparatively, parental utopias, yet birthrates tick along slightly above the EU average and still well below the replacement rate.’
South Korea’s government is already paying out 700,000 won (£480) per month to families with a child under a year old, and this will soon rise to one million — but I doubt it will have much impact.
South Korea is not some decadent modern Babylon; it has the lowest rates of births outside wedlock in the developed world and far from liberal attitudes to abortion, gay rights, immigration or pornography. Until recently it had the sort of social policies western conservative would gasp in soyfaced admiration at, and yet it is further down the road to oblivion than we are.
Perhaps the same industriousness and diligence which allowed South Korea to rise from poverty (and TFR of 6 children per woman) is also contributing to its current difficulties. In his book on declining global fertility, Paul Morland pointed out that, as Koreans treat education extremely seriously, adolescents there report the most stress and anxiety related to school; it has the world’s highest suicide rate among the 10-19 age group; and the highest overall rate among OECD countries. Its intense educational ethos means that 65% of men and 73% of women attend university, and female education is one of the biggest factors affecting fertility.
In developing countries, the opening up of schools and universities allows women to delay marriage and childbearing, and enjoy greater freedom and choice in partners; but with mass university attendance it also leads to a mating market mismatch, since women are very reluctant to marry men with lower education and income levels.
But even that is not insurmountable. The modern system might ensure that a large minority of men are unmarriageable, but western societies have historically had quite large proportions of the population not marrying; this wasn’t a long-term problem because those who did tended to have large families, something that is no longer the case.
This is why states are increasingly trying to meme their population into having three. The first thing you see when you get off an aeroplane at Budapest airport is a sign saying ‘Hungary welcomes families’, showing a mum and dad with three children. The image of 3-child families is common in that country, part of a drive to reach replacement levels, and although the Hungarians have increased TFR from 1.2 to about 1.6, no government strategy seems to have successfully raised fertility above 2.1 so far, with one exception — Georgia.
Significantly, this was achieved with the help of the Church. Georgia is still the most religious country in Europe, and as part of the national effort to raise fertility, its Orthodox patriarch agreed to baptise every third (and subsequent) child in each family.
I’m not sure what the British equivalent would be, since I doubt most people in England would particularly be fussed by the Archbishop of Canterbury christening their child; if the state was involved, presumably a special multifaith naming ceremony with Mr Blobby and this year's Love Island winner, with music by the NHS choir and a special gift of Captain Sir Tom Moore’s gin.
Having a child baptised by the country’s religious leader might involve a nice day out for Georgians, but it also reinforces the idea that large families are the norm, and that they convey status. This is why the Conservative government’s two-child limit on child benefit was a strategic mistake, on top of everything else, imprinting the idea that everything above that is strange.
Outside of Georgia, the failure of any state to reverse the trend suggests that declining fertility is probably an unfixable problem of modernity, or at least secularisation. The only developed country with a fertile secular population is Israel, and that is certainly down to its uniquely tragic recent history and ever-present sense of vulnerability. In contrast, while South Korea may be conservative, it is also among the most irreligious countries on earth, with roughly half the population professing no faith.
Raising children is very hard, even with two parents; it is not surprising that having a grandparent nearby raises fertility, but it also helps to have wider cultural support. One reason why the decline of faith leads to a collapse in fertility is because successful religions work as parenting guides, templates for raising children and instructions on how they should behave. Parenting is made far easier by having the Fifth Commandment — honour thy father and mother — which helps to answer that perennial adolescent act of rebellion: ‘Why should I?’ Not only is it written there in stone, but in religious societies almost every figure of authority will back a parent up.
Today that sort of moral support is totally gone; it’s been disappearing since as long as conservative columnists have been bewailing the decline of society, but most of the messaging children and adolescents now receive tends to in some way make parenting harder. All the powerful cultural influencers fetishise subversion in some form, subversion against family authority being a central part of the 1960s sexual revolution. This was true with both the revolution’s libertarian wing and its authoritarian wing, the hippie who wanted to get in bed with your daughter and the education official who wanted to control what your children learned and thought.
Society’s cultural influencers and moral leaders, as much as it has any, are doing the equivalent of contradicting a fellow parent or teacher in front of the children. Many parents, facing the crisis of authority, have essentially given up and tried to become friends with their children, the almost inevitable outcome being that their offspring are more unhappy than ever, lacking any sort of authority or guidance. Their children, after all, live in an age where life advice has never been in such abundant supply, and most of it is terrible.
The invention of the teenager, and the erosion of parental authority in the face of countervailing messages from new cultural leaders, is probably an under-appreciated fertility-suppressant in the West. In my experience, a lot of young men are scared by the prospect of having children because what they hear about the cultural messages given to teenagers so horrifies them, a fear that has grown hugely with social media. It promises potentially high levels of anxiety and stress, compared to a single life which has never offered more pleasure. Perhaps people have always said this about youth culture, but I suspect that raising children is just much harder emotionally than it was one or two generations ago, when most childhood diseases had been conquered but parents still enjoyed mimetic support.
It’s worth trying to fix housing and childcare costs, because both problems make us poorer and more miserable, but I’m sceptical about how much of a difference it will really make to low fertility levels and the economic crisis that follows. The issue goes much deeper, to the question of how much support we give parents, not in terms of cash but of authority and prestige.
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Yeah, I think this is correct. If even somewhere like Iran can't keep above replacement then it certainly looks like top-level conservative policies aren't the most effective thing driving fertility choices. That said, I think Orban's efforts are more impressive than sometimes portrayed - moving the needle upward is very difficult, and to get back to 1.6 in a decade or so isn't bad. Would be interesting to see if it continues. Hovering just under 2 implies a relatively stately population decline, where Korea's rates look very scary indeed.
Many moons ago I happily chased the American dream across the pond, driven by adventure, opportunity and a willingness to do my very best to succeed...the stuffy, tired and static European old world of the late 70's simply paled in comparison to the new promised land of milk and honey, the USA. California dreamin' was to be a dream come true...several years and degrees later, I eventually settled down and married a bonafide cowgirl from Oklahoma and helped raise six lovely and gifted children, all blessedly schooled in private Catholic institutions. The very model of a success story, some would have said...Today, I'm just not so sure. Truth to tell, I sometimes wonder and pray what I could have done differently to keep it all together....To date, all our children are scattered across the vast expanse of the USA, from the Pacific west coast to the Atlantic east coast...all successful urban professionals, comfortable and fiercely independent. Only our eldest son(a tenured professor) in California is married, with a lovely Mexican wife, helping raise two joyful children. She stepped away from her career as an architect and never looked back to become a full-time mum. They are a delight to be around and I am so proud of how active they are with their Catholic Church community and outreach. Their lives are full, busy and blessed with purpose, definition and meaning. Living on one salary has been a challenge at times for them, but you can see they make it work. Their home is often a scattered mess of children's toys and bric-a-brac on the floor, the pitter-patter of children running amok, yet always with the living and abundant presence of joy. Sadly, the remaining bunch are much too attached to their careers, making money, creature comforts and other silly, pleasurable but pointless pursuits....they have all emphatically professed no interest whatsoever in getting married, having children and raising a family. It's too much of a bother and burden for them, they say, as it would cramp their already active lifestyle. They love their possessions, their collectibles, their trips, their investments, their crap....and all have lost or let go of their faith life....and it sorrowfully shows to a fault. It is hard to see ones children lost in trivial and material pursuits that power their minds, hearts and souls far from the prayers and desires we had hoped for them all over a lifetime. They are free to do so. Yet we are also gladdened by the answer to the many prayers over the years with our eldest son and his family. We travel often to visit our kids, especially our grandchildren, as we retired 5+ years ago and now live in France, close to my ageing family. Parenting is indeed a struggle and a joy. Embrace the journey and be a light of love, hope and determination.