Will Jones, who has contributed to this blog in guest posts as well as comments, wrote an interesting and challenging piece on the political website Conservative Woman. The website describes its values as being “unashamedly those of faith, married family and nation-state”, though it actually dissociates itself from a direct link with the Conservative party. It is worth a wander round even—or perhaps especially—if you don’t share its values. There is nothing quite like reading good arguments from a point of view you might not agree with to sharpen your own thinking.
Will’s article was titled ‘Without children, the future holds no hope‘ and in it he explores the consequences for Western societies of our plummeting birthrates.
England and Wales are now experiencing their lowest birth rates since records began 80 years ago. The Daily Mail quotes TCW’s Kathy Gyngell saying it heralds a ‘long-term decline in numbers of babies’ and is a ‘social disaster’. She’s not wrong.
Birth rates have been in long term decline since the end of the post-war baby boom, plummeting as the contraception-fuelled 1960s sexual revolution got under way. They rallied a little in the 1980s boom years before returning to decline in the recession-hit 1990s.
Mass immigration under the Blair government in the 2000s saw a surge in births among foreign-born parents. But even with such births holding steady today at around 28 per cent, overall rates in 2018 have dropped to their lowest level yet, just 11.1 live births per 1,000 population. This is down from a baby-boom high of 18.5 per 1,000 population.
The new low represents a fertility rate of around 1.7 children per woman – well below the replacement rate of 2.1. This means the home population of the UK (rates are similar in Scotland and Northern Ireland) is declining, and the current increase in the UK population of around 390,000 per year is entirely a result of net inward migration.
If you try and do some sums, you will realise that, if immigrant communities have a much higher birthrate, and the national average is 1.7, then the birthrate for the historically indigenous part of the population is even lower, and even further from the ‘replacement’ rate.
Will goes on briefly to explore some of the social and economic consequences of this dynamic. For one thing, countries with a highly developed welfare system need a stable, replacement population so that the young who are in work can financially support the old and infirm. (The same is true in all cultures, but in a welfare state the personal, family organisation of this support is missing and thus the need is not so directly obvious.) For another, societies function well when there is a high degree of social cohesion—and substantial, rapid immigration, where migrant populations don’t have time, energy or motivation to integrate culturally, threatens this. We can see this happening in France, where members of former colonial countries were granted French citizenship, thus encouraging migration, and Germany, who opened the door to significant migration under Angela Merkel. Her motivation, though widely seen as compassionate by other countries, actually appears to have been largely motivated by demographic concerns, as Robert Peston pointed out some time ago.
The two relevant points (leaving aside moral ones) are that:
- the UK’s population is rising fast, whereas Germany’s is falling fast;
- the dependency ratio (the proportion of expensive older people in the population relative to able-bodied, tax-generating workers) is rising much quicker in Germany than in the UK.
So to put it another way, it is arguably particularly useful to Germany to have an influx of young grateful families from Syria or elsewhere, who may well be keen to toil and strive to rebuild their lives and prove to their hosts that they are not a burden – in the way that successive immigrant waves have done all over the world (including Jews like my family in London’s East End).
One of the claimed motivations for smaller family sizes (as Prince Harry and Meghan have commented) in the West is to reduce the overall human population, which will in time reduce the environmental pressure of food production on the planet. But the late Hans Rosling was fond of pointing out how futile that is; the global population is primarily growing at the moment because people currently alive are living longer, and there is a population bulge left over in the transition of many countries from poverty to wealth, which is the main thing that reduces family size. ‘What do you want to do—kill them all?’ he used to ask.
Will Jones points out that our current situation is the result of economic and political policy:
We are constantly told that we cannot use the tax and benefits system for social engineering. But governments have been doing just that for the last 40 years to push women back to work. It has worked a treat. Never have more women been in work or more mothers in full-time work.
It is worth noting that this move alone has had a significant detrimental effect on health, stress and family life, because of the housing market. Because house prices mostly reflect supply and demand (rather than primarily reflecting the costs of building), then as more families have shifted to have two adults earning, house prices have moved to become a multiple of two incomes where previously they were the same multiple of one income. As a result, housing has simply become less affordable for everyone. The move from one-income families to two-income families is more or less a one-way ratchet.
And the emphasis on women staying in work, rather than being full-time parents, is a reflection of political values across Europe, as another article on TCW points out:
To spell it out, the EU is run and controlled by political leaders of whom the majority have no children. This is not a gender issue. Neither Theresa May nor Chancellor Angela Merkel has children but then neither do President Emmanuel Macron of France, Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni of Italy, Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven of Sweden, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austria or Prime Minister Xavier Bettel of Luxembourg…
OK, I hear you say, there are still many EU countries where this is not the case – Poland, Hungary, Portugal and Spain to name but some. But add in Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon and Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, neither of whom have children either, and you arrive at a startling finding. It is this: of a total EU population of 510 million, 310 million are living in countries that have leaders who are childless…
Perhaps it’s not surprising that rather than address population decline through family and child policy reforms, this group of politicians is tolerating, if not promoting, a population replacement policy through migration.
Given that this approach is, one way or another, going to lead to some serious political, economic and social consequences, it is remarkable that debate on this question (the importance of parenting, childbirth and child-rearing) has been pushed to the margins—along with any balanced ethical debate about abortion, which is now at it highest levels ever in the UK. It feels as though, in the mainstream discourse in our culture, to suggest that parenting and family life might actually be an important part of our national, political and economic life is to risk being labelled as ‘right wing’ and ‘reactionary’ despite the importance of the issue for national life in just one generation’s time.
This is, in part, a reflection of the short-term nature of our political debate. But it is also because of the set of values and beliefs that underlie these political and economic approaches, which TCW articles repeatedly label ‘feminism’. Thus Will Jones comments:
For this birth decline societal death wish to be stopped three things need to happen:…
The third is a cultural shift in attitude that starts to recognise the deep damage and disruption to family life and happiness bound up in reproduction that is caused by feminism. There is nothing shameful in choosing homemaking as an occupation; there is nothing wrong about having marriage and children as a prime goal in life; there is all to be proud of for a woman to prioritise or focus on her homemaking and nurturing role. It is what many women want – most mothers want more hours at home and fewer at work, and if they can they do. Nor is there anything demeaning about periods of financial dependency on a husband provider. That is what marriage is about: trust, love and commitment.
I think there are three issues around this kind of language. The first is that there is not simply one thing called ‘feminism’, but rather different feminist movements with different convictions that sometimes conflict sharply with one another. The second is that ‘feminism’ in the broad sense of the term has led to women and men being paid equally for the same work—and I would find it hard to argue against that! It is a matter of basic justice. The third issue is that this criticism of feminism will look to some as though it is leading to the imposition of stereotypical sex roles, with the husband at work and the wife at home looking after children—an issue to which I will return in a moment.
In fact, the particular conviction which TCW authors take issue with is the idea that men and women are, to all intents and purposes, interchangeable as regards occupation, an idea that has also been adopted within Christian circles in relation to women and men in leadership. This is a quite distinct idea from the belief that women and men can fulfil the whole range of roles, in the church and the world—it is the belief that they can without any differentiation of interest or aptitude, and therefore this reality is not realised until we see equal numbers of men and women in each and every role. (In reality, this goal his addressed quite selectively; I have never yet seen a campaign for equal numbers of women and men in dustbin collection…!). A couple of years ago, I tackled this head-on with Steve Holmes, who is involved in Project 3:28 which aims to see equal numbers of women and men speakers on platforms at Christian conferences.
And here’s the rub: if you think women should be equally represented in one sector of ministry, and you think that involvement should be on the basis of competence (which combines giftedness, whatever that is, with experience), then women should have as much experience as men—and that implies, for the majority who are married with children, that men should be equally involved in childcare and parenting as women. And it probably means that you need to see parental roles as interchangeable. My problem is, I don’t think I do. And there is a mass of evidence to say that this isn’t the case.
It is impossible to break the connection between occupations (whether that be ‘secular’ or ‘ministry’) and issues around childbirth and parenting. This is the point where debates both within and outside the church tend to polarise: you either believe that men and women have fixed roles, probably set down in the Bible; or you believe that women and men are interchangeable, and the only thing that prevents there being equal numbers of both in every role is social prejudice. This squeezes our an important middle position (the one that I hold): that there is no intrinsic bar to different roles for men and women, but that real sex difference might mean that women and men end up in different numbers in different roles. If you think about it, this position is not saying much more than equality of opportunity does not necessarily lead to equality of outcome.
Michael Biggs, associate professor of sociology at the University of Oxford, highlights the oddity of the idea of interchangeability, in the context of a quite different argument about sexuality:
The foundational premise for feminism is that every difference between males and females in attitudes and behavior is due to socialization: there are no socially relevant biological differences above the neck. Thus the same feminists who denounce male violence and sexual objectification also endorse Cordelia Fine and Gina Rippon for arguing that there are no differences between female and male brains. There are some obvious problems with the premise. Why are humans the only mammalian species where evolution did not produce sexual differences in behavior? Why are some sex differences remarkably uniform across different cultures? For example, men commit more violence than women—as feminists themselves rightly emphasize—even though the overall level of violence varies greatly from one society to another.
Biggs goes on to note that, whilst this claim appeared to be in the interests of women in undermining sex stereotypes and opening doors of opportunity, in the long run denying bodily difference has actually harmed women’s interests:
My argument, in short, is that since the 1970s feminists have been sawing off the branch on which they perched. By denying biological differences they inadvertently eroded the distinction between male and female, which now licenses a social movement [transgenderism] that undermines the interests of women and girls.
What does biblical theology have to say about this? It is sometimes claimed that the creation narrative, in which God made humanity ‘male and female’ in his image (Gen 1.27), offers an argument against the interchangeability of sex roles. I am not convinced that this is the case, since that was not the issue within that culture, and sex difference is simply assumed in biblical texts rather than argued for—our modern, Western cultural assumptions run against the values of just about every culture in every age prior to ours. Nor is it the case that the gospel is about marriage and parenting, as some have also claimed. The gospel is about Jesus dying and rising for our sins!
Nevertheless, there is a consistent assumption in the biblical narrative that our bodies matter; we are body-soul (‘psycho-somatic’) unities, not simply brains on sticks or souls trapped in a material world. The Christian hope is not that our souls or spirits escape our bodies to fly up to God in heaven, but that we will be raised bodily—and this actually has important implications for our bodiliness in the present age, and with that, sex difference now and in the future. There is also a consistent assumption that, for most people, marriage, having children, and raising them will be a normal and natural part of life—expressed in what Judaism takes as the first commandment, to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Gen 1.28).
This connects with the middle of Will Jones’ essay—and the section that I think is the most problematic. He notes not only the large-scale social and economic issues around falling fertility, but also the personal impact, especially on women:
On a personal level to have children is to have family, to give life to a new generation who will survive you and have children of their own. Grandparents, parents and children, brothers and sisters can turn to one another in times of celebration and times of crisis to share joys and challenges with one another, to laugh and to weep.
To lack family is to risk being alone. To have no children is to have no one to watch grow up, to be there for, to care for. To have only one child – better than none, to be sure – is to give a child no brother or sister to grow up with and learn life with…
How have we arrived at this desperate and nihilistic state of affairs? One of the main reasons for the decline in births is the decision of women (or the decision taken for women) to prioritise their careers. Sex and the City author Candace Bushnell has recently spoken of her regret at choosing her career over children, saying that at 60 she was now ‘truly alone’. ‘I do see that people with children have an anchor in a way that people who have no kids don’t,’ she said.
There might be some tough realities being faced here—but on its own I wonder what that says to the many people in our congregations who are single or childless for all sorts of reasons? And what does it say to those who feel God has called them to be single, for the sake of fruitful ministry? Alongside God’s commandment in creation to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ through marriage and raising children (which also contributes to biological growth of the people of God), we also need to hold on to the commandment in the new creation to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ by sharing the new birth through baptism that is found in Jesus’ death and resurrection. If we don’t, we are ignoring the most obvious foundational demographic of the Christian faith: that both Jesus and Paul were single and childless! That is why (once again) I love the slogan of the Engage Network:
The Bible values singleness and marriage. Single people are equally valuable and competent as married people. At the same time, God’s design from the start has been for marriage to reflect his covenant relationship with the church, to be foundational to society, and to be personal experienced by most people.
Unless we can say this important second thing, I don’t see how we are in a position to say the first, important thing that Will Jones highlights. Both need to spoken prophetically into a culture which (ironically) struggles to accept bodily difference. As a culture, to ignore the next generation by setting ourselves against the priority of children and family is to reject hope. But personally, hope is to be found in Jesus, who makes us fruitful both with and without having children.
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