It is a truth universally acknowledged that in every millennial’s life there comes a time in which their social calendar is transformed from a varied round of holidays, family commitments (parental), family commitments (sibling), parties, festivals, perhaps some sort of convoluted reformer pilates subscription – and becomes one thing and one thing only: weddings. At some point in your late twenties you look at your diary and from March until the end of September you’re going to weddings every Saturday. It happened to me and it will happen to you, too. When it did happen I predicted that once weddings thinned out my social calendar would be populated by the logical next step: baby showers, christenings, first birthdays. But that never happened. Plenty of people I know bought flats and rings together, fewer of them have populated those flats with screaming bundles of joy.

This is not, as I might have first imagined, specific to my social circle. Figures released this week show a startling trend across the country, (not just in London, where birth rates are down 17 per cent), in which people stay perpetual teenagers and wouldn’t dream of having children in their twenties anyway, unless they’re phenomenally rich or phenomenally stupid. Britain is in a “baby bust”. Fertility rates are at an all-time low, experts say, and we’re all sleepwalking into a babyless slow-burn crisis that could cripple the already pretty cripplied economy.

Thirty years ago, the generally accepted legend of having children in London was that it was so difficult to get places in schools you practically had to register them while in utero and spend the next four years praying. Now, so few of us are having kids that primary schools across the city are shrinking, merging or closing entirely. London councils say 15 per cent of school places in the city are now going unfilled, and it’s set to get worse. By 2027, a further decrease of seven per cent is predicted, the equivalent of about 243 classrooms.

These harbingers of primary school doom say the falling birth rates in England are thanks to a cursed convergence of factors, from pandemic overhang to the ubiquitous cost of living crisis and the impact of Brexit. ONS figures show fertility rates fell to 1.49 children per woman last year, far below the rate needed to maintain a steady population without significant immigration (2.1). Is it any wonder that in the week when newspapers were lamenting our low fertility, Britain was also named the second most miserable country in the entire world? The world!

Fertility rates are at an all-time low, experts say, and we’re all sleepwalking into a babyless slow-burn crisis

To me, falling birth rates aren’t a sign of zoomer and millennial selfishness but more like a symptom of existential angst about the end of the world, a looming apocalypse we’re constantly told is right around the corner. Millennials are the most deeply class-divided generation in recent memory, with some set to inherit more than the rest will ever earn. Most look forward to a vision of domestic bliss in which they might never own the flats they’ll raise their future children in and will be too skint to take those kids on holiday. Still, at least we can rely on climate change to transform grey, drizzly middle England into a destination that’s hotter than the sun. Perhaps unsurprisingly, on the subreddit “antinatalism”, over 215,000 posters subscribe to the view that having kids nowadays is philosophically, unjustifiably and morally wrong.

There’s no way to obscure the fact this is… a miserable picture. It’s so bleak that the general reaction to “antinatalists” online seems to be an even split between “cheer up” and “touch grass”. I am inclined to agree with these arguments. I understand why older generations lament our lack of urgency and reticence to become parents and I also understand why people are not having kids. I understand that it is a sensible decision, when the world and the future look so bleak.

As a child I was annoyingly sensible, but also anxious. I always wanted to know what would happen tomorrow, the next day, the week after. I wanted my mum to tell me nothing bad would occur on any of those days, and we would all be happy forever. I worried and equivocated, rarely took risks, and assessed situations for possible harms and hurts before I went anywhere near them. When I got stuck in an anxiety spiral, my mum would give me surprisingly useful, if slightly insane, advice: “Róisín, you could go out and get hit by a bus tomorrow.” Intense, yes, but she was right that no matter how pragmatic and cautious we are, life has a way of throwing us curveballs; the true skill lies not in trying to avoid the unexpected miseries in our lives, but learning to deal with them with grace. To accept that it’s all a bit random anyway.

So yes, you might not have children and you might spend the next eleven years of climate catastrophe using paper straws while Taylor Swift refuses to give up her private jet. Some things are out of our control. It’s not the end of the world. Yet.

Róisín Lanigan is a writer and editor based in Belfast and London

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April 2024, Main Features

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