Childcare should be
fertile ground for
policymakers, says Saskia Murphy

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Once upon a time, in a pre-lockdown world, I’d often find myself wondering how people with kids manage to cope. I’d be there, washing dishes at 11pm after a hectic day at work, looking at my diary for the week ahead and panicking about how I was going to fit everything in – all while finding time to feed myself three times a day, shower, exercise, sleep, read, fold washing and keep my dog alive.

So last week’s news from the University of Washington that there has been a “jaw dropping” global crash in children being born really came as no surprise.

According to the research, the global fertility rate nearly halved to 2.4 children in 2017, with researchers predicting it will fall below 1.7 by 2100.

Those behind the research said the world is “ill-prepared” for the impact the fall in births will have in future. Twenty-three nations – including Spain, Italy, Portugal and Japan – are expected to see their populations halve by 2100, and experts described how the world could face a crisis of an inverted age structure as young people are burdened with looking after the old.

The Mail Online commenters had a field day. Sorry, I couldn’t resist having a look – it’s something I do regularly to gauge the thoughts and feelings of those whose political opinions differ from my own. It’s a defence mechanism I use to protect myself from the shock and despair I experienced after the Brexit referendum and again after last year’s general election.

In the comments section of doom, there was no mention of women’s rights, choice, education and what the news of a declining birth rate means for the environment (less humans = good). Instead, there was fear about migrants arriving on dinghy boats, and one commenter lamented over the good old days, when his great-grandparents had 20 children and people spent less money on luxuries, which can also be read as “lived in poverty”.

There was also little mention of how hard it is to raise a family in the modern world. The cost of living comfortably in most developed countries often requires two people working. That means long days of juggling work, school runs, kids’ hobbies, kids’ homework and older family members’ needs. Couple that with the added financial pressure of feeding a family and keeping a roof over their heads and it really is a lot.

And of course poorer countries pay the price for our fast-paced lives, regardless of how low our birth rates are. In developed countries we are overly reliant on the earth’s resources to make our lifestyles work. We drink water out of plastic bottles, we use cars to travel one mile down the road, we buy fruit that has been peeled, chopped and packaged in single-use plastic just because we’re too busy or lazy to prepare it ourselves.

So I guess we’re left with two options. We either vote for parties that recognise the importance and value of raising children – offering policies such as enhanced maternity and paternity leave, free childcare and extra employment rights. Or we finally learn to share resources and stop being so precious over borders. Either is fine with me.

Saskia Murphy is a Manchester-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @SaskiaMurphy

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