Motherhood studies

What has spawned the concern about graduates' breeding habits?

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

Coming soon, to a university near you – a new modular course on Having Children: Moral Perspectives on Social Responsibility in a Post-Parenting Age.

Coursework requirements include: oral histories (conversations with friends), personal testimony (what you think you might do and why), and an unseen paper on Fertility Economics (the relative costs and opportunity costs of child-rearing adjusted for age, neighbourhood and career). The final grade will be awarded in 10 years’ time, when you will be assessed on having made the right choices, at the right time, for the right reason. Sign up today – the future depends on it!

All right, I’m kidding. But news headlines on 25 April proclaiming ‘Graduates less likely to bear children’ (1) and ‘Women graduates find cost of having children too great’ (2) have given birth to a weekend’s worth of angsty commentary about highly educated women failing in their procreational duties. And one wonders how long it will take for the anti-sex education designed to warn teenagers off childbearing to become supplemented with a post-graduate course on – as a headline to Minette Marrin’s Sunday Times column put it – ‘Why the educated classes had better get breeding’ (3).

What, I wonder, is all the fuss about? The UK fertility rate is declining, true – at 1.64 children per woman of childbearing age, it is the lowest rate ever recorded since 1924, when this annual measure began, and it is well below the ‘replacement level’ of 2.1 children per woman. A similar trend is happening across the developed world, and this is certainly significant. The ambivalence about whether, when and why to have children seems particularly marked among the elite; and this, too, is significant. But in attempting to explain these trends, commentators are focusing on the wrong problems.

The problem is not that there are too few children in today’s society. With about 10million children in England and Wales – one-fifth of the population – the UK is hardly dying out. Nor is the problem that, as Minette Marrin would have it, the wrong kind of children (ie, not middle-class ones) are being born. To view as the problem, as she does, the possibility that ‘if the brightest and the best continue not to breed…there will no longer be a critical mass of the aspirational bourgeoisie in Britain’ (4) is the narrowest, most conservative kind of demographic determinism.

In fact, the falling fertility rate ‘problem’ has very little to do with the actual numbers of children being born, and to whom. The issue is about how today’s society views itself, its future and its children. And it is the discussion of the falling fertility rate, more than the trend itself, that most clearly reveals the tensions here.

The ‘childless graduates’ headlines were based on an official study produced by the UK Office for National Statistics (5), and focused on one apparently alarming figure: that, as one news report posed it, ‘women graduates are 50 percent more likely than non-graduates to remain childless throughout their lives’. In its study of women born between 1954 and 1958, the report found that 22.5 percent of higher-qualified women were childless, compared with 15.2 percent of non-higher-qualified women. When you pose this in another way – as a differential of 7.5 percentage points – it seems rather less startling.

Furthermore, the study found that attaining a higher qualification is associated with delayed first childbearing, with half of the higher-qualified women who entered motherhood doing so at or after age 29. Women without a higher qualification reached this halfway point at age 24. But delays in first childbearing did not lead to smaller families: in fact, ‘women with a higher qualification proceeded both more quickly and with greater likelihood to the second or next birth’.

To give a blunt counter to the ‘childless graduate’ fears: over three quarters of female graduates have children, and these have more children more quickly than non-graduates. We are not looking at the extinction of the middle class.

What we are looking at, however, is a cultural trepidation about whether and why to have children, which is reflected in the one-sided way in which figures such as these tend to be reported.

The ongoing discussion about the financial costs of having children, for example, represents a particularly middle-class concern. But in its own terms, the notion that higher-earning women have more to lose financially by having children does not amount to a compelling reason why money should be more of a concern to them than it is to lower-earning women, who struggle with the costs in the first place.

The debate about the ‘opportunity costs’ facing career women, likewise, is no doubt based on some real tensions – but it does not, in itself, provide a reason why those women who wanted a family would not do so. Even delayed childbearing, where highly qualified women seem to have children later on in life, cannot be explained simply in the terms often assumed by the discussion: that they need to get ahead with their career, and fit their childbearing around that. There is no straightforward reason why a career should mean late motherhood, any more than it should mean early motherhood or no motherhood.

Women decide whether or when to have children for a myriad of reasons. But these decisions take place in a discussion about the pros and cons of childrearing that is becoming increasingly instrumental in character. An elite that was confident about itself, its children and its future would not worry away at the cost of everything from school fees to babygros, tie itself in knots over choosing precisely the best time for a career break, or take as read the mythical notion of the ‘biological clock’.

A self-confident elite might have children early, late or never. But it wouldn’t have an ongoing angst about the immediate impact of children on your wallet, sex life, career path and social life. It would treat children as something you did, and the future as something you talked about.

Read on:

A demographic deficit?, by Jennie Bristow

A barren elite, by Jennie Bristow

(1) Graduates less likely to bear children, Guardian, 25 April 2003

(2) ‘Women graduates find cost of having children too great’, The Times (London), 25 April 2003

(3) ‘Why the educated classes had better get breeding’, Sunday Times (London), 27 April 2003

(4) ‘Why the educated classes had better get breeding’, Sunday Times (London), 27 April 2003

(5) Higher qualifications, first-birth timing, and further childbearing in England and Wales, UK Office for National Statistics

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Topics Politics


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