Penalising the childless won’t fix Britain’s ageing population

Ben Cope

July 11, 2022

Should anyone feel sorry for Paul Morland? As a Senior Oxford academic, a leading demographer, and author of the acclaimed Tomorrow’s People, he can’t be used to the pillorying he’s received this week.

Responding to last week’s census which showed Britain’s population continues to age — which means growing pressure on health and social care with fewer workers to pay for it — Morland set out policy suggestions for how Britain should address its inverted population pyramid of doom in The Sunday Times. Among his proposals was an idea for families to receive a telegram from the Queen if they have a third child and an introduction of a “negative child benefit tax” for those that do not have children.

It’s fair to say this did not go down well. “This is absolutely terrifying,” read the most liked comment underneath the article. And that was tame compared to journalist Ian Dunt’s response to the article, which received more than 16,000 likes on Twitter:

“This can get in the f****** bin. And then we can kick the s*** out of the bin, set fire to it and throw it over a f****** cliff.”

The Guardian’s Zoe Williams captured the mood with her column titled, “Tax the childless! Encourage ‘our own’ to breed! What an asinine, inhuman way to tackle a population crisis”.

Morland appears to have clumsily stumbled into a minefield of taboo. Don’t get me wrong, the hostile reaction – bar the obscenities – was wholly justified.

Pro-natalist policies are associated with the authoritarian right, and a woman’s right not to have children is one of the major successes of the feminist movement. In the wake of the US Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe v Wade, one should be wary of suggesting policy that could come out of a Margaret Atwood novel. And lastly, as climate change reaches the top of the political agenda, arguing for people to place a greater burden on the planet by having more children is incomprehensible to many.

It must be tough to spend your life studying at university, before eventually leaping out into the spotlight with what you believe is your ‘gift to the world’, to be promptly crucified. But as Morland is finding out, such is politics.

To get your point across in the marketplace of ideas, you have to win the argument. For all his academic credentials, members of the public sent Morland packing. This is because his ideas reduced people to the inhuman calculus of demography. In politics, whenever someone talks about statistics more than people, you know something has gone awry.

Morland should be rightly praised for waving the red flag and making more people aware of Britain’s coming population collapse, but without better policy ideas he’ll only turn people against his life’s work.

The campaign to solve Britain’s population crisis should focus on creating an environment where people want to have children. Simple ‘incentive’ schemes won’t work. At the moment, people are having less children than they’d like. The modal answer to the question ‘how many children would you like to have?’ is two. Yet Britain’s fertility rate hasn’t been that high since the early 1970s. There are structural societal reasons for this. Here’s a 5-point plan to address them:

1. Fix the housing crisis: Young people are having less children because they don’t have the space and security home ownership provides. The Affordable Housing Commission estimates the housing crisis is stopping two million people from having children. Building more houses would help them get on the housing ladder.

2. Flexible working for young people: People shouldn’t have to choose between having children and having a career unless they want to.

3. Affordable childcare: The cost of childcare in this country is prohibitively expensive, and it’s only rising. People must not be priced out of having children.

4. Social mobility: Worsening social mobility means it makes economic sense to have less children to streamline your resources. We must reverse this trend.

5. Climate: Young people state climate anxiety as a primary reason why they won’t have children. The UK must work internationally to reduce the impact of climate change, while using climate science to reassure young people about the quality of life awaiting future generations.

People consistently say having children is one of the most rewarding things they do in their lives. So no, we shouldn’t tax the childless, we should be working to create a society where people feel able to have children.


Written by Ben Cope

Ben Cope is a Young Voices contributor. Twitter: @BenHCope

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