It has long been known that women are not having as many children as they would like. But what are the barriers to having larger families? And how many children do women actually want? Recent polling commissioned by the New Social Covenant Unit helps answer these questions.
92.4% of UK young women hope to become mothers. When asked how many children women would like to have once barriers are removed, 18 to 24 year olds average wanting 2.25, and 25-35 year olds average wanting 2.41. Only one in ten women (13% of 18-24 and 12% of 25-35) said that they would ideally have no children, despite 88% and 49% respectively in each age group currently not having any children at all.
In fact, the desire for large families is not as uncommon as perhaps imagined. As many women want 4 children (11% of 18-24 and 12% of 25-35) as the number of women who want no children (13% of 18-24 and 12% of 25-35). And among the 25-35 age bracket, it is as common to want zero or one child (20%) as it is to want 4 or more (19%).
But women currently have far fewer than their desired number of children. The ONS estimates that the fertility rate for England and Wales in 2021 was a mere 1.55 children per woman – well below the replacement rate of 2.1, and falling short of most women’s ideal which averages 2.35. Not only does this leave women’s hopes unfulfilled but it leads to ageing societies with economic ramifications for all. In Britain, the median age has risen from 33.2 in 1970 to 40.7 today.
So what prevents women from reaching their ideal number of children? To a large extent, economic concerns stand in the way, whereas concerns about career prospects feature less heavily than might be imagined.
Of those not wanting or unsure about having children in the future, four out of the top five issues that would need to be resolved for them to have a child were dependent on the economic impacts of having children. 44% cited needing to feel as though they could afford enough childcare, 41% cited wanting to move into a first or larger home, and 41% said they want to become less economically vulnerable. Although 38% said they wanted to advance their career more before they considered having a child now or in the future, only only one in five (21%) women said that children harming their career was a reason behind not currently having children, implying that it is the financial incentives associated with advancing careers that pose a barrier to having children rather than sacrificing professional clout.
Despite economic factors playing such a significant role in women’s decisions not to have children, there is a strong perception that it is not the Government’s place to help correct for the mismatch between the number of children women want and the number they end up having. 84% agreed that ‘it would feel insulting for the Government to tell women they should be having more children’ and half of women (49%) selected the statement ‘it is not the Government’s role to encourage people to have children’. The exception to where women think the Government could take on a greater responsibility as concerns fertility pertains to education, with 78% of women agreeing that there should be better fertility education in the UK’s secondary school system. Only a fifth of respondents agreed that ‘the Government should be finding ways of promoting parenthood generally and motherhood especially’.
Instead, more women perceive society at large to be at fault rather than the Government per se, with little acknowledgement that the Government could play a role in changing the societal attitude. Almost three quarters (72%) of women believe that ‘society doesn’t value motherhood as much as it should’. And yet these same women are likely to harbour views that are not the most welcoming to new mothers. The number of respondents who selected ‘lower numbers of children being born in the UK would either not matter or lead to mostly positive consequences for society’ was almost double (30%) that of those who selected the opposing statement (18%).
Despite almost three quarters of respondents thinking that society doesn’t sufficiently value motherhood, of those who said that they would probably or definitely not have children, four out of the top five reasons behind their choice touch on the lifestyle and reality of motherhood and children. 62% think it would affect their lifestyle too much, 57% say they have never had the desire to have children, 54% think motherhood is a deeply unappealing prospect, and 45% say they do not particularly like children. The very societal attitudes that lead to devaluing motherhood are present among those young women who say they do not want children.
We should also not ignore the real challenge women face in finding a suitable partner, and the barrier this poses to having children. Of the 34% of women surveyed who hadn’t found a partner, only 6% wished to remain childless, with the remaining 94% wanting 2.2 children on average. The lack of partner poses a fundamental problem for most childless women – other reasons like the environmental impact may be a concern until Mr. Right comes along and suddenly children become desirable.
There is a strong case to be made for improved fertility education, both within school and beyond. Polling on infertility awareness produced alarming results. More respondents selected ‘don’t know’ (37%) than the right answer (34%) on how many couples infertility affects. And only a quarter of women knew that waiting to start a family until you’re over 30 means women face a 50% chance of never having children. 69% of young women believe waiting until age 35 is not too late to start a family, and 61% of young women believe that scientific advances means that women can have a baby at almost any age up to the menopause, which is typically between age 45 and 55. Only 16% of the women surveyed knew that most childless people had planned to become a parent one day, with 40% of women planning to remain childless believing that most childless people are childless by choice.
Regardless of the reasons women give for not wanting children, more focus should be given to educating women about fertility. Only when in full possession of the facts can women make informed decisions about their fertility choices. Although women don’t want the Government telling them to have more children, women would welcome extra attention given to the topic of fertility through the education system. Perhaps there is a place for the Government to help counteract the birthgap, afterall.
Whitestone Insight surveyed 1502 women aged 18-35 living in the UK online between 21st and 25th September 2023. Data were weighted to be representative of all UK women aged between 18 and 35. Whitestone Insight is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Full tables available at www.whitestoneinsight.com.