So often, the answer to big societal challenges gets boiled down to the school curriculum. High levels of obesity? Let’s get schools to teach healthy eating. Too many people in debt? Financial literacy should be taught to every pupil. Concerned about the dangers of social media? Digital literacy lessons for all.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with making sure children and young people are informed about how to keep themselves healthy and safe. But there is a danger not just of overloading schools but of kidding ourselves that the answer to structural and social phenomena is a bit more education.
The latest area to get this treatment is fertility. Last week, Dame Lesley Regan – the government’s women’s health ambassador – called for an educational campaign to tell teenagers that “ovaries get worn out”, that declining fertility affects men too, and that they “need to take charge of their fertility”. It follows similar entreaties from Dorothy Byrne, the president of a women-only Cambridge college who last year said its students would be offered seminars on fertility to encourage them not to leave having children too late.
As a former president of the Royal College of Obstetrics, Regan will know her stuff on the science of conception. But I’m not sure we should be leaving it to doctors to propose the fix to falling birth rates and the fact women are having fewer children later (the average age of a woman having their first child is now over 30, compared with 26 around 50 years ago). I don’t buy the view of Julia Chain, chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority that a key driver of this is “independent young women” not understanding that their fertility is time limited. Women are reminded our ovaries will eventually wither pretty much from the moment we hit puberty. The professional women I know, and highly educated women are most likely to have children later, are painfully aware that fertility declines with age.
Some might argue that choices about when and whether to have children are so deeply personal that the state should keep well out. I disagree. While there’s evidence that richer societies’ declining birth rates are partly a product of choice – with more people deciding to have fewer children as they stay in education longer, and women having roles other than “mother” and “wife” – people are also not meeting their own fertility aspirations. In 2011, the average of the number of children British women said they ideally wanted was 2.32, 2.14 for men, above the so-called replacement rate of 2.1 needed to avoid a shrinking and thus ageing society. But women now have on average of 1.58 children in England and Wales, and just 1.29 in Scotland.
Some of that gap may be people changing their minds, but it is also the case that people are not having as many children as they’d like. That matters, not just from a wellbeing perspective but because a low birth rate poses the kind of long-term economic challenge that will easily eclipse world wars, global financial crises, Brexit and pandemics. Ageing societies have fewer working-age people to pay tax, and more pensioner benefits, health and care to fund for their older citizens; we spend more than twice as much on them as a share of GDP than we did 40 years ago, and they are forecast to account for almost half of government spending within 50 years.
So the question of why people are having fewer children deserves much deeper analysis than the superficial assumption that it is about women prioritising careers over fertility because they’re not aware of their biological clock (though at least Regan’s analysis recognises that men are active participants in decisions about having babies). We should be thinking more about the economics of child rearing: Britain’s astronomical housing and childcare costs actively encourage people to leave it until later. And about why we still live in a society where it is almost invariably mothers, not fathers, sacrificing career progression after having children.
We also need to take into account that the vast majority of people who have children do so in relationships. In a representative study of people born in 1970 the second most common reason men and women gave for having no children at the age of 42 (after not wanting them) was that they hadn’t met the right person (almost a quarter of men, and one in five women without children). More female graduates (one in three) than male graduates said this is why they hadn’t had children. Fewer than 3% said it was because they were focused on their career.
So much of the talk about fertility ignores this. Not everyone who wants children will be in a stable relationship at the right time to do it. That is a product of the fact that we not only bring different desires and values to the mix, but different levels of emotional capability to form lasting relationships.
Psychologists who specialise in adult attachment theory, which seeks to describe and explain different approaches to romantic relationships, believe that just over half the population has secure attachment, meaning they are comfortable with emotional intimacy and easily fall into long-term relationships, but that just under a quarter have anxious attachment (who crave intimacy but whose insecurity can destabilise relationships) and a quarter are avoidant (who fear and run away from emotional intimacy).
If right, that’s a lot of people in the dating pool who may want relationship stability but have problems achieving it. And given there are fewer social norms keeping people trapped in unhappy relationships, and the explosion of dating apps offering the illusion your perfect match remains a few swipes away, it seems plausible that fewer people will find themselves in the right relationship at the right time for having children.
That is a good thing, in the sense that we don’t want people to be in bad relationships. But I wonder if, rather than fertility education to help people fulfil their aspirations to have children, it would be better to think about how to support people to foster healthy relationships from young adulthood onwards. A much trickier proposition perhaps, but surely better than pretending changing lifelong behaviour patterns is as simple as a few hours of classroom instruction or a TikTok information campaign.