The figures are all the more surprising, since they were masked by the rise of a highly visible baby culture. Throughout the first half of the 1990s, babies began appearing where they had never been seen before: in women's magazines, from Cosmo to She; in men's conversations; in Volvo ads; at parties, on the shoulders of thirtysomething, first-time fathers. But beneath the visible baby boom, something deeper has apparently been pulling in the opposite direction. So, what is it?
It could be that a culture's readiness or reluctance to have children fluctuates with levels of optimism or anxiety about the future. We live in uncertain times, hence a proportion of us are reluctant to have children. Politicians on both sides acknowledge that, as a nation, we are increasingly anxious about being part of a flexible workforce, hopping from job to job, with likely periods of inactivity in between. Home ownership no longer confers capital on children as an automatic head start in life, destabilising assumptions about the future still further. Partly as a result, the post- war expectation of continued, gradual economic improvement for all has vanished from the public's minds.
If all this sounds too speculative, it can be backed up with sound demographic evidence. That is the view of Fiona McAllister of the Family Policy Studies Centre, who is trying to discover the reasons for the current blip in the figures. The last time in our history when such levels of reluctance to have children were reached was among women born in 1920. This group grew up through the Depression and reached child-bearing age just as the world was sliding towards war. McAllister has only recently started analysing the possible causes behind the current drop in those planning to have children. "It's likely that uncertainty about the future plays its part," she says.
"Why have children?" is about as fundamental a question as you can get, cutting to the heart of what we are here for. As such, it figures heavily in both political and religious debate. "The point of our lives is to raise children who are smarter, healthier and nobler than us," said the Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, responding to Bill Clinton's state of the union address, recently. Closer to home, the Bishop of Birmingham took up the pro-natalist cudgel last year, announcing that it is the duty of every married couple to have children.
Political attitudes here are by no means clear-cut. Most notable, in terms of its influence on recently formed public policy, is the Redwood- esque assumption that one sector of the population - those on council housing waiting lists in general and young, single mothers in particular - have children in order to jump the housing queue. Measures to discourage this putative practice have been written into the latest Housing Bill, despite new research from the Economic and Social Research Council exposing it as an urban myth.
When you move from the macro down to the personal level, those who have children are often deeply suspicious of those who won't. Liz Davies, the manager of a Marie Stopes Clinic in Buckhurst, Essex, was sterilised 12 years ago at the age of 30, having always known she would never want children. She has grown adept at shooting down the arguments put to her by her peers who have chosen parenthood, who commonly react with hostility to her refusal to join their club.
"Their classic argument," she says, "is 'Who will look after you in old age?' - but you only have to look at full geriatric wards and old people's homes to realise that argument is redundant. Adult children no longer have an obligation to look after ageing parents, or may be unable to. There's also an assumption that childless people are lonely, but I have more of a social life than friends with children, some of whom are cut off from adult company."
Women who use Liz Davies's clinic bolster the theory that uncertain times lead to a drop in childbirth rates. "The women I have spoken to about it say that in this time of uncertainty, when jobs can't be counted on in the long term, they don't feel confident about being able to look after a child," Davies points out.
Psychologist Raj Persaud puts forward another theory for the fall in fertility levels, which we might dub the Larkin proposition (as in "They fuck you up, your mum and dad"). "Research suggests that people who are very keen on having children had very positive experiences of childhood themselves," he argues, "and felt that their parents enjoyed parenting. If people are rejecting the idea of having children, it suggests they may have had negative experiences of family life as children themselves."
Liz Davies feels this may be a factor, but not with everybody: "I didn't have a particularly happy childhood myself, but I don't feel that was a contributory factor in my not wanting to have children. I have friends who had perfectly happy childhoods who don't want kids either. Our basic reason is that we don't want that 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week responsibility for someone else for 18 years and more. I can't see the point, and I never have."
Sheila Nash, a counsellor who has run "Should I Have Children?" workshops, is also unsure of how widely the Larkin theory applies. "People analyse their childhood much more than they did, but I don't feel this is what's behind the fall in people wanting to have children. It's more about work patterns, the role of women and perhaps the breakdown of the family as the fundamental social unit."
The focus on individualism that has characterised the past decade and a half may indeed have undermined the idea of "family" and the otherwise unchallenged assumption that having children is the only choice. Liz Davies has got used to being called selfish for her decision to remain childless. The en vogue social Darwinists, however, would say it's the selfish gene, not the selfish individual, that makes the decisions. The urge to continue the flow of genes from one generation to the next is overpowering compared with the attempts of a minority of aberrant humans to decide otherwise, according to this analysis.
"The only problem with that is, it doesn't allow for people being spiritual and emotional beings," observes Sheila Nash. "If you're uncertain whether or not to have children, you need to be able to imagine yourself at 80, looking back on your life. The fundamental question is 'Which decision would you regret having taken?' There's no easy answer for some people."
There is a compromise position, however. A video company in Minneapolis has developed a product called Video Baby, a 30-minute tape of two infants crawling around, gurgling and taking bubble baths. No mess, no sleepless nights, no worrying about money and the future. They could be on to something. !