The Cost of Conception: Careers, Parental Age and Family Size in Modern Day Britain
Published on 16 December, 2019 | Katie Welton-Dillon
There are, as the saying goes, “lies, damned lies and statistics”.
Whilst it’s true that figures can be shaped to fit anyone’s argument, some play a very important role in illustrating change in many facets of commercial and domestic life in contemporary Britain.
It’s one reason why myself and my colleagues at Hall Brown Family Law take such interest in the output of the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the body responsible for producing a raft of data which quite literally underline the state of the nation.
Perhaps most scrutinised by lawyers for its reports relating how family units in England and Wales are formed and, sadly, breakdown, the ONS has published a couple of illuminating reports in recent days focusing not so much on adults but the children within households.
The first spelled out how the size of families in the UK continues to shrink.
Women, concluded the study, are having fewer children than those in previous generations (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/conceptionandfertilityrates/bulletins/childbearingforwomenbornindifferentyearsenglandandwales/2018).
Furthermore, the proportion of women born in 1973 who reached the age of 45 without having any children at all is more than double the figure for those born in 1946.
The impact of those findings was compounded by a second piece of research which noted that the age of parents had increased for the tenth year in a row (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/livebirths/bulletins/birthcharacteristicsinenglandandwales/2018).
Now, just as with ONS’ figures on marriage formation and collapse, the numbers relating to how or whether couples are having children these days are not just the result of a single factor.
The real reasons might not necessarily even become apparent themselves to lawyers such as myself at all.
However, I believe that the experiences of clients over this and previous years might allow us to put the ONS’ outcomes into some kind of context.
Of course, a woman’s ability to have a child can be the result of fertility issues beyond her control.
Nevertheless, in my experience, it is certainly true that both the number of children in a family and when parents are giving birth has at least something to do with their finances.
Many men and women, whether married or not, choose to start a family when – and if – they’ve managed to establish themselves in a career.
They acknowledge how that is due in no small part to the fact that raising a child is not an inexpensive process.
For that, for instance, we can examine the calculations of the Child Poverty Action Group which, earlier this year, suggested that the amount spent by parents until an individual child reaches adulthood could be as much as £185,000 (https://cpag.org.uk/sites/default/files/files/policypost/CostofaChild2019_web.pdf).
Putting off parenthood naturally means that people are that bit older when they become mothers and fathers and, as organisations like the National Health Service have made clear, trying to conceive carries greater uncertainty as women age (https://www.nhs.uk/news/pregnancy-and-child/age-related-infertility-highlighted/).
Having sufficient good fortune and good health to be a parent does not guarantee that the relationships which bear children will last either.
The size of families can also influence what happens if marriage or cohabitation doesn’t last the distance. Suddenly, the pressure on finances becomes even greater as one household turns into two.
Having multiple children can have a significant impact on separation if siblings have different views about who they wish to live with or which parent might be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.
Although a series of rulings since the turn of the century have made more it likely that courts will take the role of women as ‘nest-builders’ into account when looking at divorce settlements, it can be difficult to resume careers (certainly at the same level of seniority) after taking time out to bring up children.
The affordability of children, therefore, is not simply a matter of feeding and clothing them over the course of their lives but the associated effect on parents’ careers and earnings.
With all that in mind, I think the latest ONS’ snapshot of family life is not entirely a surprise but it does confirm the presence of pressures which can not only make men and women parents but exes.