We are becoming two nations - the childbound and the child-free. Celia Brayfield reports on the state of the modern British family
The death of the family?
The facts about the British family are frightening. The most frightening thing about them is that we're so used to shock statistics we're not hearing them any more. The highest divorce rate in Europe. A quarter of all families headed by lone parents. Two million children growing up in one-parent families.
Yeah, yeah. It takes a real atrocity report to get our attention: £400 million a year of public money spent on legal aid in divorce cases; or the keynote speech by the chairman of the annual conference of independent school heads in which he said that family breakdown was a worse threat to school discipline than either drink or drugs.
The Prime Minister is determined to put family life at the heart of domestic policy, and a Green Paper on the subject is due next month. The kites are flying above Westminster - how about flashing up the register office and training the registrar in prenuptial counselling? Maybe health visitors could do more to support young mothers? And family-friendly employment policies, they'd be good, wouldn't they?
The mess we're in is supposed to be the consequence of piecemeal policymaking instead of "joined-up thinking" about the issue of the family. So let's join up the dots and look at the big picture. The story of the modern British family is a saga of terror, greed and stupidity spanning at least three decades. We're now approaching the climax which, if we can't fix the ending fast, will be the Armageddon of our basic instincts.
First of all, family - what family? We have never had so few children. Census figures show the lowest birthrate ever recorded at 12.5 babies per 1,000 of the population. Correct that for the baby boom, which gives us a large proportion of people still at childbearing age, and you get our fertility rate: the number of births per women aged 15 to 44. This is very much the lowest on record, lower even than during the chaos of the Second World War.
Note that those figures exist only for women. Statistically, fatherhood is a big black hole. Hang on to that fact, it's going to be important.
In round numbers, we have a lot of children, a lot of Renault Espaces cruising out to Toys R Us on Sundays and huge benefit bills for our poorer families. The fact is that we also have increasing numbers of childless people: couples who are childless by choice or couples who are childless but don't want to be; heterosexuals who are single by choice and heterosexuals who can't find partners; and people who have chosen a homosexual lifestyle. It is estimated that a fifth of today's children will choose not to have children in their turn. We are becoming two nations, the childbound and the child-free.
Ahead of us lies a demographic switchback ride up to a population peak of 61.2 million in 2020, after which all the graphs crash and our children's heritage will be empty roads, empty schools, empty playgrounds and maybe also empty lives, because the families we're creating now aren't doing what families are supposed to do: they are not making people who can and will give love, care and commitment to each other.
There are people who take the Darwinian view, and see this as just an evolutionary check-and-balance. This is a minority view. Most people are not happy with the way things are. The Government's plans have been prompted not only by massive welfare costs but also by the insistent demands of a huge and heterogeneous lobby embracing such disparate interests as the police, the National Childbirth Trust and three of the big five high street banks. Our institutions are concerned to the point of panic.
Married people are clearly not happy, especially men, who are going off marriage in a big way. Single people are not happy either. Between the childfree and the childbound there is little understanding and a toxic level of resentment, since the last Budget obliged singles to fund families through the tax and benefit system. The child-free feel excluded and exploited.
John Miskelly, chairman of gay and lesbian lobby group Stonewall, argues that: "If you look at it from the gay or single person's viewpoint they are paying huge amounts of tax and getting very little back - the system isn't for us."
Meanwhile, parents are uneasy at the increasing roles which the child-free, with their uncommitted energy and time, are taking in running our society. With the greatest respect to those who have chosen not to reproduce, if you haven't been there you don't know what it's like.
Everyone agrees that the family is a complex issue and most agree on the three things which threaten its existence.
The first is men: men behaving sadly - but for good reasons. The commitment-phobic male, that women's magazine cliché, is a reality. Clare Hershman, an Islington counsellor, reports that her practice has been swamped by men in their late thirties or early forties trying to keep their girlfriends without having children.
"They're terrified," she says flatly, "and I can see why. They've got no career security, they saw their fathers lose their jobs in the recession or got into negative equity in their first home, they're looking at a world economic crisis and they've got no confidence that they can support a family financially." She also reports what could be called a post-feminist mother complex - men from two-parent families who identified strongly with their unhappy mothers. Now they fear that getting married will force them to make their girlfriends as miserable as their mothers were.
Relate, now seeing more and more unmarried couples terrified of taking the plunge, reports that these feelings are not unique to Islington man. Men are increasingly unable to make the transition from lad to dad. The very simplest happy family material - kindness, tolerance, consistency, commitment - are interpreted as being stupid, soft, pathetic and boring. Instead, men seem able to think of children only in terms of money.
"It's very sad," says Maeve Sherlock, director of the National Council for One Parent Families, pointing out the correlation between single parenthood and male unemployment. "Men think they have nothing to offer their families except their earning capacity."
This is after a decade in which fatherhood has been an obsession throughout Anglo-American culture, from literary fiction to rap songs. In the role-model industry, Bill Cosby, Bruce Willis and Robin Williams have made careers of acting the dream dad, but it seems that men have screened out the message. Instead the parable of Mrs Doubtfire - shape up, fella, or you'll lose your kids - seems to have convinced men that fatherhood is a challenge at which they are bound to fail.
Before we decide we're looking at an ineradicable gender trait, notice what little account is taken of fatherhood outside the dream factories. It is an absent concept in all official thinking, hence the lack of statistics.
The failure of the Child Support Agency is really a failure to conceptualise fatherhood. Single mothers are blamed for their children's suffering, not the fathers who have abandoned their families. At least 1.5 million British men have left their children but the civil servants drafting the Crime and Disorder Bill, which will make parental responsibility legally enforceable, have not considered how that responsibility should be extended to absent fathers.
Clearly, as the Will Carling affair shows, there is a robust moral consensus about fatherhood, but there is virtually no effective legislation to support that, no commercial interest in exploiting the pleasures of fatherhood, and no social conventions for rewarding the good father. Instead, the whole question of the family is repeatedly framed as a "problem" for women. It is as if at some point in the Seventies we took the scissors to the family photo and cut dad out of the picture.
The second great threat to the family is parenting panic, which affects both sexes, because raising a family is a vanishing skill. So many parents are ignorant of the most elementary techniques of nurturing children that some local authorities have pre-empted the Government and set up their own parenting classes.
Sue Chasen, of the charity WATCh (What About The Children), sees this as the effect of a 20-year trend towards smaller families and decaying communities: "If you are the only, or the youngest, child in a family, and you don't see your cousins, you never watch babies being handled or experience children as part of everyday life . . . People are growing up thinking of children as alien beings."
Finally, money. It is an undeniable fact that having children will seriously damage your wealth, particularly if you haven't got much in the first place. In only ten years, the number of two-parent households receiving family credit has more than doubled, a much bigger benefit drain than the smaller increase in payments to single parents. The benefits system is a minefield of poverty traps. Cohabiting parents can't afford to get married, lone parents can't earn enough to afford childcare, and two-parent families can't earn enough to make up for the benefits they lose by working.
With the child-free enjoying much larger disposable incomes, a family, which once conferred status, is now just uncool. When the National Magazine Company researched its new magazine for parents it assembled focus groups to help choose to the title. The words mother, family, children and, especially, kids were found to be dull and personally diminishing. The magazine was enigmatically named M.
High incomes don't solve the problem because big earners are in a competitive and unstable employment market. This is universally nominated as the disaster which has damaged families more than anything else in the past decade.
Employers now want to hire literate, skilled and cheap labour but expect their present employees to create that high-quality young workforce in their spare time, instead of polishing the Porsche. It is striking that nearly all the organisations with something to say on the subject are reduced to arguing on cost-benefit lines, pleading that children are worthy of "investment" because they are the workers, taxpayers and pension-providers of the future. Is it really possible to cost love?
We seem to doubt that there is anything inherently good, valuable or miraculous about a child. A baby has become something which you can get brewed in a laboratory when you like and keep on ice until you've got enough money to enjoy it. The idea that life is sacred seems to be in question when that life is human.
There are some signs of hope. Younger couples are much more flexible about gender roles and more willing to share both parenting and breadwinning. Young men are becoming more insistent about spending time with their families - a recent survey of young managers, 70 per cent male, showed this was their primary concern.
Women are increasingly opting out of corporate jobs to start their own businesses - in Britain, 30 per cent of new companies are set up by female fugitives from unfriendly workplaces; worldwide this is the fastest-growing economic sector.
The threats to the family are stubborn. They have already persisted long after they were first identified and will not be solved without the assertive and co-ordinated efforts of many people. We can't treat the family as a welfare issue, an equality issue, an employment issue, or a law and order issue. It's way bigger than that. Families make people. In a family, we express our love and care for one another, our interdependence and our instinct to cherish life. If the family breaks down, it will be because the majority of us can't find those feelings any more
Burn them or bury them: you can't beat books
In the Gay Sixties when Western Youth set out to change the world, the students of Paris re-enacted the Revolution and many adults feared it was not just a farcical rerun of history but a brand new ideological revolution which would indeed change the world to the sound of pop music. The word revolution became part of pop music and was frittered away, much as the word Classic has been over the last decade or two.
Intellectual graffiti appeared on Paris walls in those days and one famous exchange ran " 'God is Dead!' Nietchze". Underneath in white paint just as bold appeared the counter blast " 'Nietchze is dead.' God". The 20th century talk of the book reminds me of that. How often have books, especially poetry and novels, been declared Dead? And, looking back down the long avenue of this century, you count the graves of the doomsayers but the book drives on into the third millennium.
It is a triumph of fact over theory, of the empirical over the abstract, and as such it must give a particular pleasure to the British, because, in theory, the book has not stood a chance, not a hope, not a prayer. And yet in this empirical country it thrives.
One quick way to defend the health of books today is to point out that a great number of very bright people are still choosing to write them. But if you are a theoretical reader of the century and take notice of all the convergent runes and believe in systems and processes and progressions and such, then indeed the book ought to be dead, cremated and buried.
Films ought to have cut the book off at the knees. By "book" here I'm talking about fiction and biography in particular, and of the act of reading. For the act of communal seeing which until very recently films always demanded would surely take away the time necessary for private reading. While, it was also argued, the films themselves told stories, adventure stories, detective stories, war stories, romances, comedies, histories, tragedies, musicals - a bigger range than Polonius ever dreamt of. And these, projected magically across a darkened theatre, the beam of light infiltrated by cigarette smoke, brought us all our dreams 40 feet high in a way surely books could not match.
And if films did not deliver the death blow, then there was radio, which swept into the mid century and on certain channels provided alternative books - drama, documentaries, discussions. Happily moored to the wireless, the mid-century generations could be given direct access to words and speech as direct and dramatic in the public sense as at any time since Periclean Athens, and as compelling as any tale told by an Indian story teller.
Then came television: surely that would finish off the book. Television, the great collective hearth of the second half of our century where millions warmed their imaginations and pleasure buds, and it too soaked up time. It too delivered stories - into your lap.
Finally comes the Internet, with John Updike, no less, starting a chain novel on this new threat; and there's the talking book with another taste-setter, Tom Wolfe, using it for first publication; and there will be more invaders: meteors of potential destruction hurtling in from outer darkness attempting to destroy Planet Book.
Yet the book goes on. If we add to its direct threats the other enticements of this century, the CD, video games, the video itself, then the persistence of the book's demand on the time and energy and intelligence of so many people becomes rather a puzzle. Because the theories are clearly right. The book ought to be dead, or at least withering on the vine. Why does literature not show proper respect for the reportedly less literate 20th century and its imperatives and hang up its books?
There is more than one answer. Starting at the outside - as leisure time has increased, and in many countries seems set to increase further - and as health improves and age lengthens, there is more time to do more, including reading books. There is also tradition. In Christian Judaic and Islamic cultures we are children of the Book. The Book - the Sacred Book - though an empty volume to many is still considered the source of authority.
In print is truth. In books a contract is made. By words we live and books bind the words together forever. We are dismissive of many traditions now but they have a deep pull and the book will not be given up lightly, if for no other reason than it has served so well for so long.
There is also the portability of the book, its unequalled mobility, its capacity to be revisited, to be utterly personally scheduled to be the easiest of references. Were it to be described in late 20th-century jargon it could be made to seem a brilliant late 20th-century invention.
Crucially, though, it is unparalleled as a work which brings the distillation of one single imagination to the attention of another single imagination - in order to set off that most astonishing chemistry called reading, which is a small word for an awesome enterprise. Reading in which, through these books in this world of words, one human being can trigger off, precisely, ideas, emotions, laughter and tragedy in the heart and mind of another human being, many miles, many centuries, many cultures away.
It has been and is now and will continue to be a unique vehicle for art, thought, human contact, and the most profound sense of connection between two individuals, the one reading in solitude what the other in solitude has created, while between them worlds are reborn.
Ode to the book
A book begins as abstract
Marks upon a page
And then makes the mind
Its sovereign stage.
What you find within
Depends on your latent light;
A book's power is the mirror
Of your mental might.
A mirror wherein the world dreams.
The freest country. The only place
With an open border
And infinite interior space.
This miraculous touch from heart to eye,
This binding of love that can make us whole,
A good book may be the best
Surviving aspect of our living soul.
Ben Okri, April, 1998