Monday, 21 March 2016


In 1930, John Maynard Keynes looked one hundred years into the future and predicted a world in which the citizens of developed countries would work less and have far more leisure time. With under fourteen years to go, it seems unlikely that this prediction will come true within the time scale set out by Keynes. There's a good chance, in fact, that you are reading this and feeling sure that your leisure hours are dwindling, eroded by your job and by the technologies which enable your job to bleed into the time you used to call your own. The working people in your household, moreover, may well be feeling under pressure to work more in order to meet the rising costs of maintaining the standard of living you and your dependants have come to expect. Of these costs, childcare could very well be among the more worrisome concerns. It's quite likely, then, that you have read numerous newspaper articles decrying the costs and availability of the childcare provision so many people need in order to keep working the jobs that pay for all the stuff and all the services we've been taught to think of as indispensable.
One such article appeared in The Guardian this weekend. Many of the comments below the line were of a horribly familiar nature, the gist of them being  "if parents cannot afford to have children, they shouldn't have them." One charming person used exactly that set of words, in fact. In response, I asked that commenter if he was in favour of Britain having a shrinking, ageing population and a shrinking economy to go with it. Another person then asked me a question which seemed to suggest that the thinking behind my question had not been expressed clearly enough:
"What a strange way to justify having children......are they now being seen as an economic benefit?"
So I explained that, as a parent myself, I know my wife and I did not factor any economic calculation when decided we wanted to have a child together. So why did we have a child? Well, I don't think there's just one reason and I'm guessing that the (pretty much subconscious) workings of our minds were in tune with those of most other parents: the idea of the conception of a child being an act of love; the feeling that being caring, loving parents is a natural, fulfilling part of most people's lives.
But my understanding is that in the poorest parts of the world, one very compelling reason for having children is absolutely an economic consideration.
I remember visiting Bangladesh for a conference a few years ago. Although it was not the main focus of that event, one of the topics under discussion was connected with roles for technology in the alleviation of poverty. In covering this, one speaker explained how even in the twenty-first century, many poor people continue to think of children as future labourers able to supplement the family income. We were told that it doesn't take all that long for the early costs of feeding a small child to be outweighed by the uplift in income. This, we learned, is because children commonly begin to provide income by the age of five, and because all such children contribute way more than they consume by around the age of ten. The speaker opined that for these poor families, though, the real benefit kicks in once the parents' ability to earn income and feed themselves is declining with age. At this stage, we were informed, their children become the primary breadwinners. We were reminded that these are people with no bank accounts, savings or pensions.
Understanding this has NOT made me believe that children born to poor people around the developing world are conceived ONLY as a result of a rational calculation of their economic value. Moreover, I am sure that such parents love their kids. But the economic imperative does seem to be there.
Here in the UK, I think most of us do not consciously think of parenthood in this way. Living as we do, for the most part, in warm, well-lit, dry and comfortable homes and with more than sufficient food, we can afford to believe that economic considerations are not at work when we decide to have kids. That said, won't most of us eventually need our offspring to make arrangements for our care in our old age? Won't our last years be a bit more comfortable if our children are there to do for us the things we can no longer do for ourselves?
Back, then, to the question which was put to me in the comments section of that Guardian piece:
"What a strange way to justify having children......are they now being seen as an economic benefit?"
On balance, I completely agree with what I think the questioner was suggesting: that it seems cold, grim and distasteful to think of having children as being only or mainly to do with economics.
The fact remains, though, that this country is one of many developed nations facing a demographic time-bomb. Not that long from now, retirees will outnumber wage-earning, tax-paying contributors to economic growth, I believe.
So when someone contends that "if parents can not afford to have children, they shouldn't have them", I tend to infer that I'm speaking with someone who does link having children very strongly with economic considerations. I then tend to appeal to the apparently cold, pragmatic views of that person by bringing up the economic imperative for a country like ours to keep producing enough kids. It seems a safer bet than trying to appeal to an apparently absent feeling for the more emotional side of deciding to become a parent!

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