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Home > Media

The Death of the British Family: Coming Very Soon

5 May 2006

Hedonism has a lot to answer for. If, some time later this century, you find yourself languishing on an MRSA-ridden geriatric ward, with a solitary overworked Filipino nurse giving you the evil eye after you've spent the past few decades parasitically siphoning off her meagre wages into your pension packet, you know who to blame. An ICM/Guardian poll on Tuesday suggested that the career-driven, have-it-all, fun-loving and self-obsessed twenty- and thirty-somethings of today are too busy working or even - wait for it - enjoying themselves - to reproduce at an appropriate age, if at all. 'Britain's low birthrate is being driven by a generation of potential parents who would rather get rich and have fun than start a family,' the somewhat Daily Mail-esque headline announced.

Teenagers may be at it like council flat-seeking rabbits, sixty-somethings may be nipping off to Italy for a spot of IVF followed by a hearty dose of public condemnation and revulsion, but those for whom the biological clock ticks apparently heed it not. Such generational procrastination when it comes to doing one's patriotic duty to demography means that before too long there are going to be a lot of old people entertaining the grandchildren with tales of their flower power years, and not enough younger people to empty their bedpans or keep the economy afloat.

In Germany, where birth rates have fallen to their lowest level since the Second World War, the tabloid newspaper Bild even predicted that the last German may go the way of the dodo by 2300 - a fact which may or may not provide some scant consolation to xenophobic football fans this summer. Teutonic extinctions notwithstanding, the lesser-spotted twenty-something parent appears to now merit inclusion in the Red Data List of endangered species. The average age at which British women give birth is now 29.4, and, despite stalwart efforts to buck the trend from 15-year-old girls in Blackpool, more babies are now born to women aged 30-34 than to any other age group.

Asked in the Guardian/ICM poll whether it's more important for women to have an enjoyable life or children, 57% opted for the enjoyable life, and just 35% said children. An arguably loaded question perhaps, as it appears to suggest the two are mutually exclusive. Over half - 61% - think it is more important to live comfortably than to have children. Now, interviewing 1,000 or so randomly selected adults one day in April may or may not provide a thoroughly accurate representation of the entire nation's views on the advantages and disadvantages of passing on one's DNA, but it does shed light on some general trends. When you've still got 995 things left to do before you're 30 - who wants to change nappies when you can go bungee-jumping in Bhutan? - and are about to drain the last dregs of your parents' life-savings to put down a deposit on a shoebox on a council estate, bringing a new human being into the world may not be top on your list of priorities.

And let's not forget that whilst it takes two to make a future taxpayer, half of people interviewed said it was becoming more difficult to find someone to start a family with. At this rate, Britain, not content with throwing a bit of cash at working families and maybe even getting its act together and providing some affordable childcare, will be following the example of Japan and holding government-funded speed-dating nights. While we're at it, why not appoint a dating czar, drawn from the many exemplary political role models of fidelity and marital bliss the government has to offer?

Paul Ehrlich's nightmare Malthusian scenarios of overpopulation-inducted mass starvation may have been just a touch pessimistic, but as we squeeze ourselves into a closer proximity with a stranger's armpit on a rush hour train than should be legally permissible, attempt to walk at a speed that would not shame an asthmatic snail down Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon or listen to the latest diatribe on the hordes of foreign scroungers bent on invading our shores, it's somehow hard to believe that the human race is apparently failing to procreate. And even if this were indeed the case, a good many species with whom we share our planet would probably have liked us all to be forcibly sterilised some time ago.

Before we lose too much sleep over our vacuous and materialistic lives in which babies have been reduced to the status of an optional accessory that goes in and out of fashion, let's first remind ourselves that all those career people might actually be doing useful things, like curing cancer or driving trains or inventing things that give us a high standard of living and enough money to spend our holidays climbing Kilimanjaro or exploring Tuscany. And if, like Sheryl Crow, all the 'me' generation wants to do is have some fun, let them party - there's no need for a babysitter.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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