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Britain's accidental one-child policy

Why big middle-class families are an endangered species

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

The future Mrs Marsh and I wait outside a small Victorian terraced house for an estate agent. It’s a familiar Saturday scene, especially in W7 — the last London postcode before you reach Middlesex and an area I formerly classified as the dark side of the moon. Hanwell is where estate agents are fanning the flames of a house-buying firestorm, like therapists prescribing amphetamines to hyperactive children. Here, as on the edges of so many British cities, middle-class buyers driven from even more expensive districts converge in a desperate bid to find a home. They are desperate because prices rose by almost 20 per cent last year, and are expected to rise even further.

Within two minutes we’ve toured the tiny cottage — gazed in awe (I’m not joking) at the two ‘reception rooms’, the commodious cupboard under the stairs and then with tremulous delight ascended the same flight of stairs, which reminds us that this is not a flat but a house. Albeit a small one. By the time we reach the second bedroom, the love match is complete. We are sold, and join a sealed bid. The future Mrs M is almost in tears as she breaks the news over the phone: ‘Our bid won!’

After a few minutes I call her back: ‘Just checking, but can we buy this house and still afford to have a baby?’

‘Yes,’ she says, ‘so long as you cut out socialising, I go back to work full time at six months and we stick to the new savings schedule, we’ll have £30 to spare. You’ve seen the baby spreadsheet.’

Ah yes: the baby spreadsheet — my heart sinks. I plough on: ‘What about two kids?’

‘Well, don’t run before you can walk,’ she says kindly, softening the blow. But she hasn’t even done a spreadsheet for that.

She isn’t exaggerating, my future wife. If anything, she’s not being cautious enough. Last week an insurer, Liverpool Victoria, confirmed what every aspiring parent (and grandparent) in Britain suspected: the cost of raising a child in Britain is surging. It has risen by 62 per cent over the past 11 years and stands at an almighty £227,000. And this terrifying arithmetic doesn’t include any school fees. Add the extra bedrooms and, in my case, I’d have to earn £50,000 just to cover the cost of one child for a year — and that’s without any luxuries. So two children? Right now, it’s unimaginable.

It wasn’t so long ago that we chortled along to a BBC1 comedy called 2point4 Children — named after the average family size. Now the average British woman has 1.9 children. Most strikingly, in the past ten years, the number of one-child families has grown from 42 per cent to 47 per cent — suggesting that soon this will be the norm. Meanwhile, the proportion of families with two and three children is on the slide. The ONS concludes bluntly that ‘families are getting smaller, on average’.

So are we witnessing the emergence of a Britain where rampant house-price inflation and soaring childcare costs are putting the pinch on procreation? Is breeding a luxury we can no longer afford? Are we about to see the implosion of the 20th century’s two-plus-two nuclear family?

Certainly Justine Roberts, the founder of the internet behemoth Mumsnet, believes that having a large family is ‘becoming the preserve of the rich’. Childcare costs can quickly gobble up a third of monthly income, she says, and cost as much as the mortgage. Most Londoners can forget the idea of having a large house and a large family — but the same is happening in the hot spots of Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow. No wonder John Lewis has seen a sixfold increase in bunk-bed sales over the last three years.

The trade-off — bigger house, but further away — is one that families have been making for decades. If you want to keep your job and have Christmas dinners for five without needing guests, then the traditional way of managing this is to accept longer commutes. But Dr Jonathan Cave, an economist and expert in demographics from Warwick University, says even this option is fading away in Britain. The price of commuting is soaring, he says — but he concludes that the long-term result will be that the overall number of children per family will come down. For millions, the dream of working your way up and the dream of having a decent-sized family are mutually exclusive.

This is where the government comes in. Or, more accurately, doesn’t. David Cameron used to speak warmly about a pro-family agenda. He speaks of his own childhood (he was the third of four children) with affection (it ‘wasn’t the wealth, it was the warmth’) and his aides used to promise that he’d be the most pro-family prime minister for a generation. But any plans to help families have been kiboshed by his Liberal Democrat partners — so these much-invoked ‘hardworking families’ find the odds stacked ever higher against them.

For those at the bottom, the incentives are the reverse. Figures show that the poorest places in Britain have the highest proportion of families with three or more children. The financial incentives of the welfare state are tilted towards larger families — there are 300,000 welfare-dependent households in Britain with three or more children. And this includes more than 100,000 families with four or more children and 180 families with an extraordinary ten or more children.

It’s hard to accuse such families of selfishly procreating at the taxpayer’s expense. Collectively, we have paved the road to such lifestyles — so perhaps we should not wonder why so many have taken that road. But the converse is also true: financial incentives work. If we arrange society so that the odds are stacked against couples who want two or three children, then we should not be surprised if the number of single-child households soars. The government is getting tougher on benefit-dependent families, imposing a benefits cap. But there is precious little help for working families.

For those higher up the income scale, the issue of school fees is also terrifying. It has nothing to do with snobbery: in Britain, it’s horribly clear how high the stakes are, with a yawning attainment gap between state and privately educated pupils.

A generation ago, school fees were affordable to the average engineer and the average scientist. No longer. Studies show that fees have almost doubled in the past decade, increasingly putting independent education out of reach for the middle classes. For those whose salaries haven’t almost doubled, and who still want to give their children the best possible education, the solution is as obvious as it is sad: to have fewer children.

Even head teachers of private schools are beginning to worry that this means a drop in pupils — at least in pupils whose parents don’t arrive by helicopter. Martin Stephen, former high master of St Paul’s School in west London, has warned that the best schools are becoming as ‘socially exclusive’ now as they were in the Victorian era. Parents hoping to find a good state school will know that this too comes at a formidable price — in the form of a house in the catchment area.

What will life be like in this reduced-child, ageing Britain? A glance at China’s 35-year-old experiment in population control shows that it’s not necessarily good news. A study published last year in Science endorsed the Chinese media stories about ‘Little Emperor Syndrome’ in the generation of children born after the introduction of the one-child policy in 1979, who have been lavished with attention from their elders. The authors concluded that the children of this policy grew up to be ‘less trusting, less trustworthy, more risk averse, less competitive, more pessimistic and less conscientious’. Crucially, the scientists said that the existence of cousins and socialisation in childcare did not compensate for the absence of siblings. So this may not be the blueprint for producing well-adjusted people.

And there are much broader demographic impacts caused by the rapid emergence of a generation of lone children. China’s ‘four, two, one’ phenomenon, for instance, sees one child effectively providing economic support for potentially two parents and four grandparents. How ironic that the cost of living here is pushing middle-class Britons in that direction just as China relaxes its rules.

The more fearful lesson of China is that, when people know they can only have one child, they start to choose what they get. If boys are preferred, then far more are born than girls. Some studies identify 30 million ‘missing’ girls, which means no blushing brides for millions of Chinese bachelors. For these men the result is social stigma, higher rates of depression, alcoholism and more aggressive behaviour. Some reports suggest that the 2011 National Census for the UK has shown the problem of gender-specific abortion is starting to crop up here, too.

There are plenty of things the British government could do to help out those wanting bigger families, and do their bit to defuse the ‘population bomb’ we keep being told about. The Warwick economist Jonathan Cave has a list: build more houses, make bigger ones cheaper; deflate the housing bubble; tax breaks for nannies, and more help for those trying to create the taxpayers of tomorrow. Even HS2, he says, may help — if it connects property hotspots with the land of cheaper bungalows, then help may be on its way. By 2032.

But for now, a new rule of thumb is creeping in across Britain: if you’re middle-class and have just one child, then you can probably afford the life you expected. But if you have more than one child, you can expect to struggle. This is, in effect, a British version of the one-child policy, and it has arrived not by design, but by accident. For me, this means that a two-up-two-down on the dark side of the moon — where Crossrail arrives in 2018 — will have to do. And bunk-beds, of course.

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