Cristina Odone: The state must act urgently to support and encourage motherhood

7 Feb

Cristina Odone heads the Family Policy Unit at the Centre for Social Justice.

That chronicler of the nation’s progress, the Office of National Statistics, has dropped a bombshell: half of women born in 1990 (the most recent cohort to reach age 30 years) remained childless by their 30th birthday.

Mothering, the role that for millennia inspired painters, poets and musicians, church teachings and dynastic ambitions, no longer appeals to today’s young women.

Can we blame them? We have turned motherhood into an expensive and low status occupation, when young women seek either a rewarding, high status career or the chance to withdraw altogether from the job market, in order to raise their own children. 

Three quarters of mothers work, but 20-something single women point out that the gender pay gap is actually the motherhood pay gap: as Oxford University’s Ellen Pasternak shows, until they have children women earn the same as their male colleagues; once the children come into the picture, though, their mother’s earnings dip – and stay that way.

Most mothers who come back to work come back part time,  paying a penalty for doing so: while the full time gender pay gap is of some seven per cent, it is more than double that for part time workers.

Childcare remains costly, patchy and so complicated that a recent Centre for Social Justice survey found only a little over half of low income parents knew how to navigate this system.

And as for status..m mothers used to be compared to the Madonna; today, they rank somewhere between a Deliveroo driver, always on call, and a supermarket shelf-stacker, trying to make things look good even when they are not.

Poor pay, no help, and little respect. Add to this grim combination the responsibility for feeding, clothing, sheltering, and schooling someone over the next 20 years, and you can see why so many regard raising children a niche pastime, best left to those who can hire nannies and tutors before packing off the progeny to boarding school.

We can’t be sure how their renunciation will affect young women in the long term: regret, or relief? A sense of loss or liberation? But whatever the impact on them, their failure to breed affects us all.

Within the next 20 years there will be ten million more pensioners. Already, the average age in this country exceeds 40; and the Office for Budget Responsibility projects total public spending excluding interest payments to increase from 33.6 per cent to 37.8 per cent of GDP between 2019/20 and 2064/65 equivalent to £79 billion – due mainly to the ageing population.

At the Treasury and the Department of Health, they are trying to work out how we can afford to grow old when we have no young carers (whether unpaid children or salaried adult social care workers) to rely upon. AI might come in handy, but in our dotage we long for human connection, not the cold touch of a robot.

How can we act now to spare ourselves this dismal future? Happily, we are not the first country to face collapsing birthrates, so we can learn from others’ successes. Free-market champion Estonia, for example, started paying women to have babies in 2004. On top of a child benefit of 60 euros a month per child, the state pays a “mother’s salary” so working women who take time off after giving birth get their entire monthly income for up to 15 months; the unemployed woman gets £200 a month.  

Incentivising breeding smacks of social engineering to Tories. But we may need to turn a deaf ear to the alarm bells, because the Estonian approach led to a baby boom. The government there is looking at other incentives too: everything from subsidies for nannies to linking pension payments to the number of children raised.

What would a British natalist agenda look like? Returning to a proper child benefit scheme would be a first step. Introduced in 1979, the once-adequate benefit has grown stingier and stingier: since 2009 child benefit for a first child has only been increased by three per cent in cash terms, whereas prices have risen by 24 per cent – a loss of £350 a year for a family with two dependent children.

Improving childcare would be key, too. Research is unequivocal that proper childcare can erase educational gaps long termGiven that disadvantaged pupils in primary school are 9.3 months of learning behind their peers (the gap has increased for the first time since 2007, according to the Education Policy Institute) good childcare is critical for a social justice agenda — and for those mothers who opt to stay in employment.

There is an important group of mothers, however, who would prefer to raise their own children. Miriam Cates MP has been championing their cause, arguing for a change in our tax system: taxing individuals, rather than households, punishes single earner families – sometimes to the tune of an extra 50% on two earner couples.

Promoting population growth would prove a huge undertaking, shaping public services and influencing every piece of legislation. It would also call for a co-ordinated response between departments: an ageing population affects every policy. But if women continue to opt out of motherhood, we may have very little choice.