This year, the ONS announced that for the first time, half of UK women were childless by their 30th birthday. As women leave it later and later to have children, the Great Baby Bust spells trouble for the UK.
An ageing society brings serious problems, from falling standards of living to a slower rate of technological innovation, and a host of features from modern British life have been blamed for our plummeting birth rate. They range from the practical, particularly the rising cost of living and the difficulty of getting onto the housing ladder, to the existential, with increasing suggestions that women are unwilling to bring children forth into what they fear may become a dystopian landscape scarred and scorched by the effects of climate change and war.
Strangely, considering their indispensable biological role in creating children, one group largely escapes scrutiny for their part in our falling birth rate: men.
The decision to have children is a life-changing one for any couple. Yet statistics show that despite strides forward in gender equality, the day-to-day, messy, inconvenient business of raising children remains primarily women’s work.
Continued reliance on women for domestic tasks, particularly childcare, is well-documented, with explanations often focusing on time and money. But the idea that women have more time for childcare, and so logically do more of it, makes little sense as mothers’ labour force participation increases. Similarly, researchers underline that the explanation that women earn less than their male partners, and thus do more childcare, is in danger of being self-fulfilling, as women who must work less to care for children lose out financially in both the short and long-term.
Most damningly, the childcare gap is alive and kicking even in households where both fathers and mothers work full-time. Time Use Survey data shows us that where both parents work full-time, mothers spend 55 minutes daily on childcare versus fathers’ 22 minutes. One might charitably assume that fathers in such homes are compensating by taking on the lion’s share of other household duties, but that is not the case – full-time working mothers spent 107 daily minutes on housework in comparison with full-time working fathers’ 51 minutes.
Tellingly, “interactive childcare” is much more gender equitable, with men more easily finding the time for fun activities with their children, such as play or reading stories. This is in comparison with “routine childcare” which involves time-sensitive and repetitive tasks, such as bath time or feeding, and remains firmly in the female domain.
In a great deal of households, the reason that childcare is women’s work is not rational, its cultural: many men are slacking and most women know it.
The pandemic may have made this even worse by entrenching gender childcare norms: new duties, such as home schooling, were more likely to fall to mothers, even when both parents were working from home.
A frightening, chaotic world and the difficulty of saving for a house deposit are likely to factor in to a woman’s decision to delay children, but so must the knowledge that she will often face the grind of childcare alone.
Failing to reverse our falling birth rate will have profound negative economic and social consequences, the scale of which are difficult to fully comprehend. To be part of the solution, men must pick the baby’s spoon up off the floor and find out what time school pick up is. In practice, this means significant changes in social expectations of men, particularly in the workplace, where we need cultures that support and encourage men to reduce their work hours to do childcare.