noticed that we stopped having quite so many babies.
The population of England and Wales aged 65 and over has finally surpassed the number of children aged under 15, according to the first results of the 2021 census, which provided a snapshot of an increasingly crowded island nation.
As a 20% surge in the number of people aged 65 and over in the past decade drove the population of England and Wales to a historic high of 59,597,300, the Office for National Statistics recorded 11.1 million people aged 65 and over compared with 10.4 million people aged under 15, tipping a balance that has favoured the young for decades.
Cue a little policy panic as people start asking whether this is a problem, why there are so many of us sixty-somethings, and how come we have so few children? Some commentary is dull and short-term – are there too many school places, what does this mean for the NHS and other technocratic questions. Among this there are, however, some people asking about this:
The number of infants aged four and under was one of the few categories where the population fell but the over-90 population broke through the half a million mark, rising to 527,900 people.
Not so much that, even with a pandemic, our over-90 population continues to grow (this is a good thing by the way) but how come we’ve so few pre-school kids. The first comments on this inevitably point to the obvious and proximate cause of low fertility rates – the cost of having a child. Most commonly people frame this cost in terms of how expensive it is to buy childcare. We’re told, for example, that Germany has lower childcare costs than the UK (it doesn’t, it just has a bigger state subsidy) but this observation is almost always made in the context of how the cost of childcare acts as a barrier to women returning to work. As a result, we ask what is best for the mother’s economic circumstances rather than what is best for the child.
But there’s little evidence that lower childcare costs result in higher fertility rates. The UK has a higher fertility rate than Germany (1.74 compared to 1.61) yet, as we have noted, German childcare costs are (to the parent) close to zero whereas UK rates are among the highest in the world. So, if we want a policy that leads to higher fertility rates, state-subsidised childcare isn’t the solution because its sole purpose is to get the woman back into the workforce in the shortest possible time.
Given this finding, people start looking for other factors that lead to lower fertility – levels of female education and especially higher education, delayed start to family formation, and the status of women within the economy (if not within wider society). And all these things would feature in a full analysis of declining fertility and its relationship to society being more socially liberal and more economically successful. But, as Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson wrote in “Empty Planet”, the biggest reason for fertility decline is urbanisation. The best way to get reductions in fertility is to increase the numbers living in dense urban environments.
We have urbanised for the obvious and sensible reason that cities are, in proximate terms, very good for the economy. Even if you don’t accept the certainties urbanists apply to agglomeration theory, there’s no doubt that cities drive a great deal of the international economy. The problem is that, as I wrote a while ago, cities are also mankind’s dead end:
And who would - without necessity or accident - have children in a high-rise environment featuring fug-filled air that causes asthma, streets filled with rushing vehicles, public spaces designed for adults, and places dominated by strangers. In San Francisco and Berkeley over 70% of households are childless. And we're supposed to see dense urban living as a better model than the sprawl or the suburbs, the comfort of the small town or the community of the village?
The problem isn't just that the rural and small-town West has rebelled against the city but that the city is a failing model - at least the idea of the concentrated, centralised, mayor-led city. These things are parasites, sucking away all the good from small towns with the promise of riches, opportunities and better bars while giving little back when it comes to the long-term quality of our lives. Urbanists talk about 'liveability' and 'walkability', about public spaces, even about play - yet the reality of the city is selfish, focused on the here and now rather than on creating places to which people can relate, where they might want to spend their whole lives.
Cities may be an economic success, but they are a sociological disaster. Higher rates of crime, poorer health, more road accidents, higher rates of mental distress, more loneliness and, as we’ve seen, lots fewer children.
So, what to do? One hundred and fifty years ago, people who lived in cities sought out a solution. Not through academic study but by, as their economic circumstances improved, moving a mile or two out of the city to live in a place more suited to family, good health, relaxation and family life. As the railways spread their fingers out from cites like London and New York, communities grew up filled with the families of workers in those cities. Later, as the car arrived, these places spread a little further. Just so long as the worker to get to his - we are talking about a man here - work within a reasonable time (and get home to see his family). Even for places built on industry, as those industrial wages grew, the same journey away from the cramped tenement or terrace took place. This was helped by the building of council houses and by the fact that, with few constraints on development, housing was affordable.
The suburb wasn’t the invention of a planner or some grand thinker. For all that people like Ebenezer Howard tried to picture a sort of utopian suburban place, all they really did was polish what had already been done by builders and the families who bought the homes they built. This laissez-faire development may explain why it is that planners, architect and the cultural elite dislike suburbia. As something that wasn’t designed by the great and good or funded by government spending other folks’ money, suburbia represented the triumph of the middle-class, a place built in their image and containing the things that made their lives good.
Today those suburbs are, in many places, dying. The families that once formed these places don’t exist. And, in large part, they don’t exist because why would anyone set out to have a family and a family life when there’s no prospect of being able to have the things that make that life good? The suburbs of big cities like London, New York, Sydney or Auckland are now filled with people who had a family once. All those fifty-, sixty- and seventy-somethings who once had growing families now live in suburban homes unaffordable for all but the most fortunate twenty- or thirty-something. These older folk like that the house they bought for less than thirty grand is now worth half-a-million or more, they like the golf course even if they don’t play golf, they enjoy the paddock with the horses but don’t ride, and they like that it is a moment’s drive out into a countryside of yellow rapeseed and wheat or barley making patterns as the wind blows. It doesn’t seem to them that it is their fault or their problem that so many people can no longer afford to do what they did – buy a suburban home and raise a family.
There is an urgent need to do something about the housing crisis, but we shouldn’t do this at the expense of family life. Record low numbers of young children should be a wake-up call for those who argue for ever more crowed cities, for technocratic fixes like subsidised childcare, who want to sustain the sociological disaster of a world directed entirely towards economic productivity. A world that gave us depressed adults, stressed children and now, a generation of people who have no real stake in the society that demands their productivity.
What we need to do is build that new suburbia, to provide places that aren’t focused on productivity and the momentary pleasure that makes this grind bearable. We need places that work for children, who can be afforded off one middle-class salary, and which provide an environment that tells us work isn’t everything. We need to compromise again with the Taylorist world of the technocrats by saying that we don’t work to make money for the sake of money or, god forbid, to pay the taxes so we can get cheaper childcare and thereby earn more money to pay more taxes.
A new suburbia is about a family being able to sit in their own garden, surrounded by good comfortable things and looking at the home they own. And as the sun shines, that family knows that the efforts they made was worthwhile. Mum and Dad can look at the kids larking about n a paddling pool or bouncing on a trampoline and take pleasure in knowing that life’s not all about work.