If the chattering classes of Europe need a cautionary tale, they can look further afield than Japan. Michael Deacon’s recent column casts a dire portrait using a simple formula: fewer babies in Japan equals societal collapse, and by that logic, Britain’s increasing childlessness threatens to do the same. But this logic is flawed at its core, and to assume British millennials’ choices stem from mere selfishness is to misunderstand the situation entirely.
In a nutshell, comparing Japan’s stark demographic challenges with Britain’s situation is apples to oranges. Japan faces distinct cultural and economic headwinds. Historically, Japan’s workforce thrived on stable employment, enjoying consistent benefits and job security until retirement. A seismic shift has occurred: about 40% of Japan’s workforce navigates a precarious landscape of temporary and part-time jobs sans benefits. From 1995 to 2008, the count of these ‘regular’ workers dwindled by 3.8 million, while ‘irregular’ workers surged by 7.6 million. Thus, overlaying Japan’s distinct labour and demographic trends onto Britain oversimplifies the narrative.
Next, let’s talk about British millennials. Before we assign them the blame label, it’s worth diving into some history. The birth rate in the UK has declined since 2013, and this decline isn’t floating in a vacuum. Its roots trace back to the austerity measures implemented post-2008 financial crisis. These cuts have deeply affected social care, welfare, and local government. Between 2010 and 2017, private rents soared by 24%, while social housing options dwindled. Adults, particularly young ones, found themselves either stuck with rising rents or moving back in with their parents. Combine this with the growth of precarious employment, and you get a generation deeply impacted by retreating state support and a daunting economic landscape.
The Tories have had a defacto housing policy encouraging housing shortages, further exacerbating the problem. Such entrenched inequalities have integrated into everyday life, shaping family, finances, and future decisions.
In this context, arguing that millennials choose childlessness to “focus on themselves” seems almost myopic, if not perplexing. Instead, they often face a slew of economic challenges — from student debt to housing crises — that make delaying childbearing less a choice and more a result of financial imperatives.
But there’s a glimmer of hope in the rise of remote work, primarily driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. The shift to Working From Home (WFH) arrangements has shown promise in creating conditions conducive to family formation. The American context indicates that such arrangements could positively change fertility rates, and Britain might be close behind.
Beyond Britain’s borders, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Israel offer lessons. These countries have managed to increase fertility rates by introducing pro-natal policies — a combination of cash incentives, subsidised childcare, and housing assistance. They present evidence that nations can stabilise and potentially reverse falling birth rates with the right policies in place.
Pointing fingers at millennials who are missing the forest for the trees. For Britain to address its demographic challenges, it is paramount to recalibrate policies that consider the hurdles young adults face. Proper solutions emerge from systemic change, not criticising a generation navigating a demanding landscape. If this isn’t addressed, it’s evident that millennials aren’t the ones to shoulder the weight of the concerns voiced by Michael.