In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph the former chief rabbi has asserted that the West is a civilization facing a similar fate to that of ancient Rome. The reasons for its eclipse are complex, but a modern generation which does not want to have children, sits at the top of his list.
When it comes to warning the West about demographic self-destruction, Lord Sacks will find a crowded pulpit. The current Pope, in particular, has lamented the strange death of what he calls “Mother Europe”.
The problem both these figureheads face is that mainstream religious practitioners see family size as a private matter. They consider exhortations to go forth and multiply as irrelevant and patronising at best, environmental vandalism and patriarchal mumbo-jumbo at worst. For the hardcore, it’s different. Large families represent one of the most potent symbols of denominational conviction. That is true regardless of faith. Salafists, Ultra-Orthodox Jews or Mormons all buck the baby bust. But when the Pontiff tells Catholics they should lie back and think of the Vatican, the only response comes from deeply committed adherents of groups like Opus Dei, an organisation with a membership thought to be under 100,000. Globally, that leaves over a billion Catholics with birth rates indistinguishable from the Godless.
So, where the synagogue and St Peter’s fail, might the Treasury succeed?In the UK, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Governor of the Bank of England already have statutory targets they must meet. If Mark Carney lets inflation get too high, he must write an exculpatory note to Number 11. Elsewhere, finance ministers find they now face a legal duty to conform to a range of economic metrics, from rates of growth, to rates of unemployment.
Is it unthinkable that we might arrive at a moment when fertility is treated the same way? A decade ago the idea would have seemed laughable. Since then, demography has been liberated from its academic dreamy spire and transformed into a key component in policy discussions about areas of high public expenditure, the provision of pensions and social care chief amongst them.
I am not a demographer. Nor am I a campaigner. I am a hack not a wonk. But, do it for long enough, and even the most cloth-eared journalist can hear the wind shifting. I don’t think you need to parse too closely the swirling currents of analysis, opinion and, yes, verbiage, to notice a change.
And what I’m left with is an emerging realisation that how we manage average family size is not something which can be left exclusively to the public pronouncements of faith leaders or the stirrings of individual conscience exercised as choice. Only last week, driving to work, I heard the ‘markets guest’ on the BBC Today programme talk about an economy having “fantastic demographics”.
What did he mean?
He was invoking, or, as we must now insist – ‘channelling’ – an image of what is arguably the most important graph of them all; the inverted population pyramid. ‘Healthy’ demographics entails a wide-based data block at the bottom, tapering to a slender peak. The base is made up of lots of young workers, supporting a narrowing phalanx of dependent, non-working and often ailing, oldies. The ‘unhealthy’ demographics graph is the same. Just upside down.
Yet, it’s not just about having enough youthful taxpayers to fund a safety net for aging baby-boomers. It’s also about having enough customers to buy goods and services, sufficient workers to man lathes and call centres.
In time, I have a hunch we will also see unbalanced demography as bearing responsibility for damaging changes in our productive capacity. In a book I wrote in 2013 for the think-tank Civitas (okay, I admit, I’ve thought more about this than most media folk), I assayed how shrinking family size might result in dramatic changes to the workplace.
This was not a diatribe aimed at the growth of one-child families. Yes, there is evidence to support the stereotype of the precious, entitled Little Emperors and Empresses. My book, however, was an attempt to remind people of the sheer necessity of sibship; of a child having a sibling, throughout their lifespan, not just their childhood.
At times there is a zero-sum element to this. If you have an only-child, you are, by definition, denying society – and yes the economy – a middle or eldest child. Birth order theory (a dependable branch of child development sociology in spite of all those articles about how eldest children are disproportionately astronauts, presidents, CEO’s and the like) tells us that kids born down the birth order bring something else to the party.
Flip it might sound, but that middle-child does actually tend to be more anarchic and counter-cultural. That’s a nightmare for some parents, but a boon for the creative industries. And imagine all those boardrooms or shop-floors, suddenly filled with only (and therefore eldest) children who have never had to succumb to any of the conforming pressures of birth order subordination. Never had the corners knocked off by abrasive contact with a sibling.
Part of the problem is, quite simply, that – outside of China until recently – the decision to have the size of family we want is seen as beyond the purview of wider society. Certainly, nothing to do with economics or productivity.
I think this is folly and, as I never tire of telling my six children, everyone else will eventually wake up to the fact.