The myth of the childless middle class

There seem to be ever more articles about the demographic decline in the whole of Europe (including the UK) and quite often this gets linked to ‘selfish’ career women. Middle class women are supposedly choosing to have careers rather than babies, while the lower orders are still reproducing away merrily. I had always presumed that the basic facts were correct, even if my view of motives was rather different. Then I saw a passing mention in an article that the number of middle class children actually wasn’t declining. So I headed over to the Office of National Statistics section on birth (http://www.statistics.gov.uk/statbase/Product.asp?vlnk=5768) and found some surprising data:

In 1990 there were 230,000 births to women from non-manual social classes (46%), 254,000 births to women from manual social classes (50%) and 21,000 to ‘others’ (4%). By 2000, there were 199,000 births to women from non-manual social classes (55%), 148,000 births to women from manual social classes (41%) and 18,000 to ‘others’ (5%).

There are a few caveats on this data. First, though there’s more recent data on births and social class available, it’s not comparable, because they’ve changed the definitions of class. Secondly, the data is based on a 10% sample of births, not all births, so the errors in the data are larger. Finally, the class statistics are based on the father’s occupation. This means there is some extra uncertainty, because of the possibilities of the parents of a child being from a different social class or the father not being known/recorded (these are presumably covered under ‘other’).

Even so, it shows that while the number of births dropped steeply between 1990 and 2000 (from 506,000 to 365,000) the really big drop was in the number of working class women having babies. The age profiles for women having their first babies are also interesting (though only given in broad age groups):

1990
Manual social classes:
Under 20: 6%, 20-24: 37%, 25-29:41%, 30+:16%
Non-manual social classes:
Under 20: 3%, 20-24: 19%, 25-29:46%, 30+: 33%

2000
Manual social classes:
Under 20: 4%, 20-24:20%, 25-29:38%, 30+:38%
Non-manual social classes:
Under 20: 1%, 20-24:10%, 25-29:35%, 30+:54%

What this suggests is that middle class women tend to start having children later than working class women, but also that both groups now start having children several years later than they did a decade ago. (That alone probably explains a lot of the overall drop in birth numbers: there is just less tiem to have children before fertility declines). This rather knocks on the head the idea of it just being career women who are delaying children, unless you’re going to include working on a supermarket till as a career. Instead the delay is more likely to be either financial (couples are saving up first) or simply that women are taking longer to find suitable partners.

Whether demographic decline is really something that governments should be worrying about and trying to influence is a different matter. But if they really want to change things, maybe they need to start a few new tacks. What about, say, if when you have your first child your student debt gets wiped out? Now that’s something to get future middle classes breeding early again!

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3 thoughts on “The myth of the childless middle class

  1. It’s good to question the statistics whose accuracy we normally assume – after all in the 1930’s Sir Cyril Birt actually falsified results in his work on intelligence.

    I’m sure your suggested reasons for the delay in having children are correct. I think there’s another factor – being influenced by the behaviour of contemporaries. When it was more usual to start families in one’s early 20’s there was something of a rush to become pregnant then – delay seemed rash.

    Like

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