A report last week from the ONS warned that the number of childless elderly women is likely to triple by 2045. Many commentators were surprised by the ONS’s findings, which predicted so many elderly women would be childless because many women born in the 1960s had not had children – either because they’d postponed children until their “biological window” has passed, or because of increases in female employment.
And yet, for me, the data isn’t quite so shocking. I’m 26 – which means a generation ago I’d have been popping out my first little sprog – in 1975, the average age to bear your first child was 26.4. Yet I don’t know anyone (including my most Christian friends) who is thinking of having kids anytime soon. If I swiped past a guy who said he ‘wants children’ on the dating app Hinge, I’d view him as slightly suspect. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if the ONS is surprised by the levels of childlessness now, it’s going to get one hell of a shock in twenty years, when my generation only have a smattering of whiny teens to show for our efforts.
Take, for example, my group of friends who coupled up with each other in the heady days of university. They’d be prime candidates for childbearing – while they generally shacked up with each other a couple of years ago, they’re not quite free-loving enough to have kids without being married. The snag in all this is, as one friend puts it: ‘what’s the point in getting married if you return from the honeymoon to the same old flat you pay rent on?’. Young people still need to get onto the first rung on the housing ladder to get onto the wedding ladder and the kids ladder… and that pushes any dreams of 2.4 children well into the distance. The precariousness of our jobs – not helped by Covid – has pushed out the day where they would ever consider having kids into their thirties.
But women missing their “biological window” is only the half of it – the most curious thing is that these days, many women aren’t missing the window so much as swerving around it altogether.
The most cynical explanation is that financially, we’re one of the first generations of women who can think about life without a husband. It was once a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a small fortune might be in want of a husband – mostly because she’d have no office to hail a horse carriage to. But these days, despite the sizeable gender pay gap, women out-earn male partners in a quarter of households, and in recent years, women in their twenties have often earned more than men of the same age. Destiny’s Child spawned a movement they didn’t know with Independent Women – every millennial has read up about pre-nups and many of my friends would be horrified by someone depending on their partner’s income – and want to pay their own bills.
And lastly, apart from the economics of marriage, many women my age just don’t feel “the urge” to have kids – there are too many other options. I probably fit into this category, though not – as is often assumed, because I am a wild-eyed career woman. Rather, I’m enticed by the freedom of a childless life. I didn’t always feel this way – but then again, I can’t help but wonder whether that’s because society’s expectations didn’t allow me to. When I was younger, the narratives around women who were childless by choice portrayed them as monsters or troubled at best – but these days it would be unwoke in the extreme to judge a fellow Gen Y for not wanting children. Most of all, I can rest secure in the knowledge that I’ll still have some childless pals to hang out with if I do remain barren.
When I ask my friends who do want children why this is, their reason tends to be that it is what everyone else will be doing. Yet this rationale (which sounds suspiciously like the reasoning I gave my mum for getting my first bra), relies on at least a few of us having kids. If more of us decide children aren’t for us, for whatever reason, there may be quite a snowball effect on childlessness. Which would be worrying indeed for the poor ONS.