November 11, 2020

Imagine a world in which girls, when they reach puberty, are required to visit a state-run centre, dressed in their prettiest frocks, and take a lottery ticket. A white ticket means motherhood, a blue ticket means a permanent contraceptive device. This is the scenario Sophie Mackintosh conjures in her novel Blue Ticket.

Her protagonist picks blue, and is initially delighted, having been told all her life that motherhood is an intolerable burden. Only later does the girl wonder if that’s true, as she looks at another blue ticket plucker:

Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email

Already registered? Sign in

“She seemed truly happy. Her skin was smooth, her clothes seemed expensive. I wondered what she might do afterwards with her day, where she worked, what her house was like, whether she was bound to anyone or anything, whether she was thankful for her freedom.”

Separated from their white ticket counterparts, blue tickets live in a world where there is no family of any kind. They spend their time partying, hooking up with unattached men, and pursuing demanding careers, assured that they should be “thankful” for their very specific kind of freedom. A freedom from the responsibility and limitations imposed by parenthood, and particularly motherhood. It is a kind of freedom that was almost unknown to our ancestors, but is increasingly the norm in the modern West.

Mackintosh, 31, does not have children. Nor do roughly 40% of her peers. Some of those women will go on to have children over the next decade or so, but many will not. This fate has not been assigned randomly by the state, as in Mackintosh’s novel, but is, instead, the result of much messier forms of social change — the effects of which have been accumulating over time.

Around 18% of women in England and Wales born in 1972 reached the end of their childbearing years not having had children, compared with only 10% of women born in 1945. Millennials are projected to continue the trend. As of 2019, the total fertility rate in England and Wales is at a historic low of 1.7, and the Covid-19 crisis may lower that still further. All in all, it is quite plausible that at least 1 in 4 people of my generation will not be having children.

Financial insecurity and rising property prices are often cited as reasons for this, and there is no doubt that millennials are not only worse off than their parents’ generation, but also acutely aware of it. I used to agree with the argument that, as one young writer put it, “[y]oung people still need to get onto the first rung on the housing ladder to get onto the wedding ladder and the kids ladder … and that pushes any dreams of 2.4 children well into the distance.” In other words: it’s the economy, stupid.

But I’m not so sure now that the numbers stack up. There is a near-perfect correlation between a nation’s GDP and its fertility rate: globally, poor people have more children, not fewer. The same holds true in this country, since even as the total fertility rate has declined, poorer Britons have continued to have more children on average than their wealthier counterparts, and tend to start their families younger too. Poverty does not preclude childbearing — in fact, it seems to do the opposite.

An income-rich, asset-poor millennial friend once insisted that she couldn’t possibly afford children; she later reconsidered, recognising that she could, but it would mean buying a house outside London, having fewer holidays, eating out less often — all in all, making sacrifices that she wasn’t prepared to make, at least not in her twenties. The issue isn’t how much money today’s young people actually have, but how they prioritise their spending.

The reality is that declining fertility is not a phenomenon affecting every section of society evenly. When we talk about falling rates of childbearing across the Western world, what we’re really talking about is falling rates of childbearing among graduates.

Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at Sheffield University, describes the sharp distinction:

“Society has split into two groups. One group, of women graduates, clustered particularly in London and the commuter belt, is having children very late and the rest are having them at much the same age as their mothers and their grandmothers did.”

This first group of highly educated people, both male and female, is also the group most likely not to have children at all. In contrast, working-class people are more likely to hold on to traditional family values that include a disapproval of voluntary childlessness. In our society, blue tickets are not picked by lottery, but they’re not exactly randomly selected either: there are strong demographic forces at play, with class being the most important one.

So why are graduates choosing not to have kids? Some environmental activists celebrate the decline in birth rates and so-called “BirthStrikers” reject parenthood in order not to further burden an already over-burdened planet. I do know twenty-somethings who are fervent enough in their political beliefs that they have signed anti-natalist pledges, but a vanishingly small number of people actually choose to have children, or not have children, based on such abstract concerns.

I simply don’t believe most of my peers who say that they’re choosing to be childless out of fear for the climate. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, for instance, have committed to having only two children in a display of environmentalist piety, but have made no commitment to reducing their air travel or the number of homes they own. Appealing to the health of the planet is a socially acceptable explanation for reduced childbearing, but not a candid one.

No, I see two plausible ways of explaining the rise of the elite blue tickets, neither of which involve climate change or financial insecurity.

The first possible explanation is linked to the fact that sometimes affluence reveals differences within populations that were always there, but used to be invisible. Variation in appetite, for instance, is indiscernible in an environment of food scarcity, since the greedy and the abstemious are equally limited in how much they can eat. It’s only in an affluent society like ours that the abundant availability of cheap calories allows such traits to surface, with some people — but only some people — becoming obese as a result.

Perhaps, like appetite, a longing for parenthood is a visceral thing and you either have it or you don’t. Perhaps in the past there was always some proportion of people who had no interest in childbearing, but had little choice in the matter, particularly if they were women.

We know that voluntary childlessness is linked to personality, which is highly heritable, so there might always be a chunk of people who, given the option, would prefer not to have children. And now, with contraception, and feminism, and the decline of religion, and all of the other factors that have turned our world upside down, that option is newly available to people with the education and means to choose their own path. “Not every woman goes gooey at the sight of a toddler taking their first step,” insists one young writer, “there are others who quite simply do not want kids. Ever.” And isn’t that their prerogative?

This personality-based explanation seems plausible enough, but I wonder if there may be an additional ideological explanation for why rising childlessness is affecting only one section of Western society — perhaps not coincidentally, the same section of society that has most fiercely embraced a liberal individualism that dominates in today’s universities.

Let’s be honest — children are hard work. They scream, they complain, they make a mess. They limit your leisure time, your sex life, your travel, and your socialising. In our economic system, children limit earning potential because they limit mobility and flexibility, especially for mothers (the gender pay gap is actually a maternity pay gap). All in all, kids limit freedom.

If you subscribe to an ideology that privileges freedom above all else, then why on earth would you want children? It is a sure-fire way to sabotage your beauty, your leisure time, and your ability to buy high-status consumables: the things that matter most according to an ideology that prizes immediate and visible success and enjoyment over everything else. Children do offer pleasures, but they are complicated, costly, and delayed. So if you are a liberal individualist and you don’t find within yourself a visceral longing for parenthood, then the solution is simple: opt out.

The most energetically liberal baby boomers succeeded in eroding the stigma associated with voluntary childlessness, thus granting greater social freedom to later generations who have been born into a world in which choosing to be childless is — for the first time ever — relatively normal. Hence the gradual dwindling of childbearing in the decades since the 1960s — from 10% childlessness, to 18%, to (maybe) 25% or more. This is a cumulative social change, not a sudden one.

People used to have children because of tradition, or religion, or social pressure, or just because they couldn’t access contraception. But, unlike their working-class peers, most of today’s graduates are not subject to these pressures any more and so for them the decision to try for children is based on only one question: do you like kids?

Looked at from this perspective, it’s no surprise that so many young graduates are choosing to be childless. It is a perfectly defensible decision in our ideological environment, and any costs will be paid down the track, or perhaps not at all, at least at the individual level.

Birth rates are difficult from a policy perspective, since they are simultaneously of profound national importance, and also profoundly personal. On the one hand, we have environmentalists urging us to have fewer children. On the other, economists warn of a looming demographic crisis if birth rates keep falling. At the centre of the drama are all of us, with our hotly contested bodies.

Will a generation of blue tickets change their minds, as Sophie Mackintosh’s protagonist does? Will they conclude that actually not being “bound to anyone or anything” is not the life they want? Some might, only to find themselves coming up hard against age-related infertility; others might be quite happy to live without children. It remains to be seen what our society might look like as voluntary childlessness is increasingly normalised — maybe even, one day, becoming the majority choice.

It’s quite possible that it might not matter. We could yet find a way of solving environmental and economic problems without fiddling with birth rates, and it may be that a population that spends less time on childrearing will have more time to spend on other valuable pursuits. But it’s worth remembering that speculative fiction — from The Handmaid’s Tale to Children of Men — is consistently gloomy about what happens to a society in which babies are in short supply.