January 18, 2024 - 1:00pm

Emmanuel Macron has this week joined the growing number of world leaders expressing concern about declining fertility rates. In a wide-ranging press conference on Tuesday, the French President observed that his country’s previously healthy birth rate has now plummeted to its lowest point since the Second World War. 

What’s notable — but predictable — about the reaction to Macron’s remarks is that he was instantly labelled “Right-wing” and lambasted by French feminists. It’s certainly true that conservative governments, led by the likes of Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, have been most proactive in raising the alarm over declining birth rates, but they are far from unique in the Western world. The Danes, for example, launched a “Do it for Denmark” campaign several years ago in an effort to persuade citizens to reproduce.

Governments of all political persuasions should be deeply concerned about collapsing fertility rates. To ensure that there are enough young people entering the workforce to replace (and pay the pensions of) those who retire, average fertility must sit at roughly 2.1 children per woman. 

Yet in many Western countries, this number is now well below 1.5. This means that there is a significant and growing “birthgap” with alarming consequences for the future of the economy. If in 2024 you think taxes are too high, the labour market too tight, the NHS underfunded and care workers too scarce, then buckle up because you ain’t seen nothing yet. In Japan, where low fertility has not been masked by high immigration, national debt now stands unsustainably at 250% of GDP.

Given the scale of the economic challenges now unfolding, it should be surprising that the UK Government is paying so little attention to declining fertility rates. But the hysterical reaction from some sections of the French media to Macron’s relatively minor intervention on the issue demonstrates why so few mainstream politicians dare speak out. Within the Westminster bubble there seems to be an automatic assumption that any MP like myself who expresses concern over low birth rates is somehow calling for women to be forced to have children. And while this response is mostly confected outrage, it reflects the fact that while fertility is a serious economic issue, it is more importantly a very sensitive personal issue for women in particular.

It is vital for politicians to emphasise that everyone should have free choice around how many children to have or whether to have children at all, but we cannot afford to let the controversy that accompanies this topic prevent us from discussing it. Because it’s not just the economy that will suffer if we don’t reverse declining birth rates; women are having fewer children than they desire, and this is a source of considerable sadness for many.

We must be braver in our approach to this issue. But we should avoid reaching for apparently obvious but ultimately doomed solutions. “More free childcare” is the go-to policy of the Left, but there is no evidence it increases the birth rate. Indeed, Finland, which has one of the EU’s most generous childcare offers, also has one of the lowest birth rates in Europe.

Having a child is a sign of confidence in the future — and to enable young people to start the families they say they want, we must restore hope. This will certainly include economic measures like tackling house prices and tax, but it must also include a cultural shift towards seeing children as a blessing not a burden, and parenting as a privilege not a penalty. That will take a monumental effort from politicians, commentators and the whole of British society.

Miriam Cates is MP for Penistone and Stockbridge