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All I want for Christmas is a rise in birth rates

The newborn child is a living promise. Credit: Getty

December 24, 2023 - 8:00am

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”

These words are from the Book of Isaiah, written hundreds of years before the first Christmas. For Christians, however, they are prophetic of the most important birth of all time.

For non-believers, though, what really gives Christmas its power over the human imagination is that it is about life, as well as light. The flame flickering in the darkness is an uncertain symbol of hope, but the newborn child is a living promise. Christmas, with its focus on the Infant Jesus — and, by extension, children everywhere — exerts a special hold on the human heart.

Until now, the religious and secular versions of Christmas have coexisted — each catering to our desire for life and regeneration in a season of death and decay. Though one set of answers is spiritual and the other worldly, the question is the same.

Yet it is debatable whether this can continue. Though Christmas can endure even among those who don’t believe in God, it cannot survive if humanity stops believing in itself.

For evidence of this apostasy, one need look no further than this year’s birth rate statistics: the bad news is that the downward trend continues across the developed world and can no longer be blamed on the effects of Covid and lockdown. The fact is that modernity leaves ever less room for children.

The worse news is that no one seems to care. That’s weird, because we know what will happen if we don’t boost the birth rate. One can read the detail in official Government reports, but the gist is this: if the baby drought continues, then in the decades ahead welfare states will go bankrupt. We are talking about a 50-year timescale, but if we can think long-term on climate change then we should do the same on demographic change.

Of course, childlessness is not always a choice. Nor is parenthood for everyone. Certainly, no one should be compelled to reproduce for the sake of the nation or even the species. But as a society we still need to think ahead to the empty cradles and classrooms of the future and ask if we have our collective priorities right.

Who would be willing to lead such a conversation? Not our politicians, for whom family values are usually anathema. Not our business leaders, for whom children are an impediment to a flexible labour market. And as for the cultural establishment, forget it.

That just leaves our religious leaders. No doubt, they’ll be accused of every shade of hypocrisy if they do speak up — and yet, for the sake of the future, they must.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
6 months ago

Perhaps the answer, is not to look to the big omnipresent State for the answers to childbirth or other, perhaps we just need a small state and allow people to get on with their own lives

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
6 months ago

Yes.
To paraphrase the quotation from Isaiah:
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall get off his back.

David Morley
David Morley
6 months ago

OK, so that is your proposed solution. But what is it supposed to solve? What are the causes of declining birth rate that you have identified – for which the small state is the answer?

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
6 months ago

In the UK there is severe pressure on resources. They build everywhere, trains are often crowded, traffic jams everywhere. Waiting lists for hospital treatment. On top of this, the government is allowing our population to increase each year by importing the equivalent of Leeds. Population growth will involve either shanty towns in the home counties and widespread disorder, or something like a hyper-controlled Singapore.
I don’t want either, thanks, Peter. In global politics the law of unintended consequences is a harsh mistress, and she’s looking at you with bedroom eyes.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
6 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

The cost of housing is the mother of all other issues; those monthly payments are like a pall over most everyone’s lives. But, on a personal level, our “betters” are are all rooting for higher prices, since their own little fortunes are mostly in real estate. And growing all the time.
We’ve got a problem.

Last edited 6 months ago by laurence scaduto
David Morley
David Morley
6 months ago

Yes. It may not be the only cause, but it has got to be very significant. Sadly we seem to be in a trap of our own making.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
6 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

“…bedroom eyes.” I love it!
But I still disagree.

Phil Mitchell
Phil Mitchell
6 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

Crowded? The entire population of the world could stand inside the city limits of London. The rest of the world would be empty. I know, we need room to grow food and other accoutrements but the world is a giant place. I once encountered a man who devoted his entire life to fighting population, becoming president of his local Zero Population Group. I asked him why. Because he had trouble finding a parking place downtown in his village.

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
6 months ago
Reply to  Phil Mitchell

8 billion people in London…..interesting. I can’t stand Paris as it is.

Last edited 6 months ago by Bruno Lucy
John Galt Was Correct
John Galt Was Correct
6 months ago

Not going to happen. Highest tax burden ever, record house prices. The only people who can afford to have children are those who don’t work.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
6 months ago

I assume Peter Franklin has either inherited a lot of money or is older than he looks. Otherwise the absence of any mention of the cost of housing is inexplicable. Those who take no responsibility for the children they bring into the world know that the welfare state will accommodate them. Those that do take responsibility know that they cannot afford s family home and therefore don’t have a family.

Kat L
Kat L
6 months ago

Don’t parents leave their houses to their descendants?

Chris Reardon
Chris Reardon
6 months ago

Why would anyone want to bring children into this, especially when the direction of travel in the UK is horrendous! Islam, AI, eco-communism. No thanks.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
6 months ago

The CoE won’t speak up as they’re more concerned with gender transubstantiation. As for Christmas, as an atheist it affords me two weeks away from my now woke-infested workplace and an opportunity to order up some of my wine reserves from bond. Chin, chin!

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago

The declining birthrate in the developed world will be offset by the hundreds of millions of immigrants who will pour in from the undeveloped, bringing their large families and in some cases multiple wives with them.

William Cameron
William Cameron
6 months ago

Way back in time when building societies did mortgages they lent up to three times the main income . This set a level of demand that was affordable for young families – who could afford the repayments while having children.
Then banks started to lend on houses and quickly realised that more they lent ,the faster house prices- and their security- would increase.
By doing this banks captured both the workers wages as payments to the bank – for the same houses.
Now young couples needed two incomes to buy a house so could no longer afford to have children when they were young.
This problem did not affect couples on housing benefits or in social housing- who continued to have children when they were younger.
So overall birthrates dropped a bit – but became heavily skewed to either the fairly rich or fairly poor. The middle classes stopped having children younger. The proportion of less well educated children increased.
Banks have much to answer for.
Furthermore banks are hugely exposed to the housing market- if it falls banks will be in big trouble- but they dont care- because history shows we tax payers will bail them out. Darling made a bad mistake bailing out RBS he should have let it go bust. If he had -then today house prices would have dropped back to sensible lev els and middle class house buyers would be having children younger.

Last edited 6 months ago by William Cameron
Ralph Hanke
Ralph Hanke
6 months ago

Uhm, at 8 billion plus, the species doesn’t need an increased birth rate.

Kat L
Kat L
6 months ago
Reply to  Ralph Hanke

In the west it does. 8 billion is close to peak and it falls precipitously from there.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago

You failed to mention that some people want a child, but they can’t afford one. A couple who have a combined income of $100,000 still can’t afford a child if they live in a city. Rents are ridiculously high. Buying a house is also just impossible .for young couples. Childcare can cost thousands of dollars. My niece, who lives in Raleigh, NC, had twins. When it was time to return to work, the cost of childcare was $2000 for each child. Four thousand. She is a teacher who doesn’t make a lot of money. Her husband also didn’t make a lot of money. My sister and brother-in-law payed half of the cost, and his parents paid.half. That’s the reason why some couples chose to be childless, even if they want a child.

El Uro
El Uro
6 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

100 years ago, family incomes were lower, but having a child was not a problem…
The problem is not money, the problem is people

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago
Reply to  El Uro

They didn’t need childcare. Housing was much cheaper.

Robbie K
Robbie K
6 months ago
Reply to  El Uro

It’s not a problem.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
6 months ago
Reply to  El Uro

100 years ago you could afford to house and feed a large family on a single salary, largely irrespective of the job. Therefore you could afford to have a parent at home to look after the children.
With house prices now you need often need two incomes to pay the bills, meaning you then need to pay expensive childcare (£60 a day per kid in England) on top. For many parents they simply can’t afford it

Martin Goodfellow
Martin Goodfellow
6 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

100 years ago, richer people could live as you say, but poorer families struggled and went without. Men pawned their suits on Monday, after having only worn them to church on Sunday. People often didn’t have enough to eat. Today, people expect to live well first, and can avoid having children. It’s not just about housing, and many are not willing to change their circumstances even if that is possible.

David Morley
David Morley
6 months ago

No doubt there is truth in this, but after all this time, with all this technological progress – can we not offer people a bit more than having kids on the breadline. And contraception gives them a choice. No surprise if they don’t choose poverty.

William Cameron
William Cameron
6 months ago

Simple. Limit banks to lending three times the main income on houses- as they used to be.
Then a first time young family will pay around £100,000 for their first home- and will have children ten years earlier.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
6 months ago

Totally agree. The high cost of houses is government policy.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
6 months ago

This assumes that property prices will drop to an affordable level simply by limiting mortgage lending. Given that average prices exceed what you can borrow on median incomes many areas where you can actually find reasonably paid work (or any work at all), combined with younger generations who are stuck with paying extortionate rent and unable to get a mortgage, how will limiting what they can’t even borrow in the first place change anything? The properties they rent are owned by someone or some corporation and they will not be keen to sell at a loss.

William Cameron
William Cameron
6 months ago

It works like this. “Demand ” for houses is not what folk want. It’s what they can pay for. If borrowing is set at sensible levels house prices will fall to those levels.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
6 months ago

What properties sell for is what someone can or will pay for them. If a rental investor can pay more than, for example, a young couple, restricting what that couple can borrow solves nothing. Demand can exist without being satisfied.

David Morley
David Morley
6 months ago

Should never have been abandoned as a policy. But would it work now? If it brought house prices crashing down there would be outrage. Any policy which makes houses affordable is going to meet huge resistance.

Dominic A
Dominic A
6 months ago

More people – just what the world needs.

Kat L
Kat L
6 months ago
Reply to  Dominic A

Yes it is. Especially if you think the west is worth preserving.

Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
6 months ago

It’s very worrying for all sorts of reasons and not just because there will be no one to care for us when we are old. The ‘child unfriendly’ politics will continue with Labour; after Starmer declared that he would retain the 2 child benefit cap, I wrote to my MP to withdraw my vote (gawd knows who I will vote for). On so many levels, procreation is unfashionable and unwise.

William Cameron
William Cameron
6 months ago

The economic argument is sometimes made that we need young people to pay for old people. But we are defining old people as pensioners in their mid sixties. With increased longevity pensions should only be payable at around 75.

David Morley
David Morley
6 months ago

Fine if people are living longer in perfect health. But they are often not. For many time starts to catch up with them in their 60s not their late 70s.

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
6 months ago

How about …….no children at all for those who do not want them ?

Robbie K
Robbie K
6 months ago

The downward trend in birth rates is something that humanity should absolutely celebrate if considering it’s long term sustainability and health. There’s too many people consuming too much stuff and wasting precious resources. It will take adaptation but right now it’s one of the best things that could happen.

El Uro
El Uro
6 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

I would agree with you provided that the invading armies were stopped. Unfortunately, progressives love migrants as a source of cheap labor and a guarantee of their own idleness

Kat L
Kat L
6 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

I don’t think you realize just what is going to be waiting down the line…

Charles Dobb
Charles Dobb
6 months ago

The conversation that will be had will be between prospective grandparents and prospective parents.

Albireo Double
Albireo Double
6 months ago

Who would have children?
Childcare is unaffordable, Our teachers fill their pupils’ heads with science-denying lies and Marxist nonsense, Toxic “social” media poisons their minds, their work place has become a barren desert of insipid milquetoast banality, and they can’t afford a home.
Meanwhile our country is bursting at the seams with immigrants chanting their various religious beliefs, funnelled in by our political class for their own ideological, financial and economic reasons (to rub our noses in diversity, to provide them with a supply of cheap nannies, chauffeurs, builders and gardeners, and to provide the illusion of “economic growth” so that they can borrow more, to spend keeping our indigenous kids sedated on welfare).
I’m sorry if that pops anyone’s bubble. But that’s how I see this country currently, and I think I’m far from alone in that view. My daughter can’t have children due to childhood cancer, and while I very much regret her lack of choice, from my point of view, I’m not sorry.

Last edited 6 months ago by Albireo Double
Kat L
Kat L
6 months ago
Reply to  Albireo Double

Well I guess we can see who will be the first to capitulate to the stronger populace…

Stephen Wood
Stephen Wood
6 months ago

If there is one thing the UK is not short of it’s people. A smaller population might at last give nature and our beleaguered wildlife a chance to breathe.

Kat L
Kat L
6 months ago

Aside from the horrendous effects of feminism on the interpersonal relationship between the sexes, the fact is that the birth control pill, the devastating number of abortions and the utter narcissism of boomers on down have all played their part in a perfect storm that will contract western economies and leave them vulnerable to invasion by stronger armies. Oldsters will be in cut rate nursing homes being neglected by foreigners making minimum wage with no family to advocate for their care- that is if the state hasn’t convinced them to pop off early with a little help.

j watson
j watson
6 months ago

Author must of imbibed too much mulled wine this Xmas if he thinks a call from religious leaders would make the slightest difference. But of course the reason why these panicked calls emanate is the total failure of Right Wing to engage with this reality whilst protecting it’s Golf Club bores constituents.
The Author should spend more time first describing how combination of debt, stagnant wages and insecure work make starting a family seem like a risk, rather than a natural step. ‘Uncertainty’ has primacy.
Nationalist Populists also fantasising about a future without migrant labour may as well howl at the Moon. The question is how we better assimilate and nuture our values in this context. 99% of Unherd readers, if they live long enough, will be grateful for a migrant care workers help in their dotage.

MJ Reid
MJ Reid
6 months ago

Maybe instead of reproducing, people in the West can adopt many of the children who are living and dying in poverty around the world. There are already too many people on the planet. Time to stop and rethink?

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
6 months ago
Reply to  MJ Reid

There is a population explosion in the 3rd world. But if you want to import, get them young.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
6 months ago
Reply to  MJ Reid

People like this who are reproducing hugely, do not ‘think’ about it. Just consider that too. There is some logic employed – attached to the fact that these children could be looking after you in your later years and it is fun to have a baby or I didn’t use birth control, but it has zero to do with being able to afford these children and give them a good future and has zero to do with impact on communities, nations and the environment.

John Galt Was Correct
John Galt Was Correct
6 months ago
Reply to  MJ Reid

People want their own children.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
6 months ago
Reply to  MJ Reid

We would only end up being accused of ‘white saviourism’ by the woke brigade. Nobody wants that!

Kat L
Kat L
6 months ago
Reply to  MJ Reid

That won’t solve the problem because they won’t stop reproducing just because you take a few of their children…