Fertility trap: The £500,000 question - should you gamble with your body clock

A new study shows that the choice faced by women is increasingly stark: a family or a career?
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Britain is on the brink of a fertility crisis, with record numbers of women either delaying motherhood or remaining childless, a new study warns.

This "baby gap" is being blamed on the fact that young mothers stand to lose hundreds of thousands of pounds over their lifetime for taking time out to have babies and losing their place on the career ladder.

Women are being forced into late motherhood rather than face a "fertility penalty", while others are opting to remain childless, a report published today by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) finds. The annual birth rate falls short of thenumber of children that women actually want by 90,000, the think tank has calculated .

An educated woman who has her first baby at 24 stands to lose as much as £564,000 in earnings over her lifetime compared with a childless woman who is single, the IPPR estimates. The figure drops to £165,000 if a woman delays motherhood by only four years.

Other couples are falling into a "fertility poverty trap", with those on lower incomes choosing not to have children at all because they feel they are unable to afford the £180,000 that some estimate it costs to bring up one child in today's society.

Exorbitant childcare costs and poorly paid part-time work are also deterring women from having children until they feel they are financially secure, often in their mid to late thirties - which puts them at increased risk of infertility. Women who have put a great deal of energy and time into achieving career success may be caught out later on by problems conceiving.

Emma Thompson, the award-winning actress, sought psychiatric help after the failure of attempts to conceive a second child through IVF - an experience that she described as "brutal". She was 40 when she gave birth to her only child, Gaia, in 1999.

The IPPR says that a fall in fertility levels will have consequences for the country. Its report focuses on the generation gap, which will grow as more women postpone childbirth until later in life.

Its study, called "Population Politics", urges the Government to appoint a minister with responsibility for tackling Britain's "baby gap", and to increase state-backed childcare, improve family-friendly policies and renew efforts to tackle the pay gap between the sexes.

Nick Pearce, the director of the IPPR, warns that politicians must take action now to prevent a fall in the nation's fertility and "serious long-term consequences".

"Britain is now facing a demographic fork in the road and is in danger of taking the wrong direction," he said. "A fall in fertility would make it harder to earn our way in the world and to pay for valued public services."

Childbirth rates have more than halved among 20- to 24-year-olds over the past three decades, but have risen by more than a third among women aged from 35 and 40. This new trend may be down to many educated young women fearing that employers will penalise them for taking time out to have children.

The result is that increasing numbers are resorting to fertility treatment. There have been huge breakthroughs in medical science which have boosted the chances of couples who have problems conceiving. But medical experts warn that they cannot achieve miracles, and that women who put off motherhood until their mid thirties are at increased risk of infertility.

Professor Alison Murdoch, former chair of the British Fertility Society, said there is a misplaced assumption among couples that they will be able to have children later because of advances in IVF, whereas, in fact, many will never become parents.

"A lot of people are ignorant about making an informed choice early enough," said Professor Murdoch, head of Newcastle University's Centre for Life fertility clinic. "By the time people come to see us [for treatment] they are infertile. A lot of the emphasis now from the NHS is on funding contraception and abortion rather than on fertility treatment."

Delayed motherhood and infertility have led to a dramatic increase in the age of the nation. There are now more than nine million people over the age of 65 in this country; this number is expected to rise to nearly 13 million by 2021.

The IPPR report paints a bleak picture of the impact of Britain's ageing population. The effects of Britain's "baby gap" will be felt by as early as 2030, when today's babies are reaching their own fertility peak, the think tank suggests.

If overall birth rates fall, the IPPR estimates that the basic rate of tax will have to rise by 2p by the middle of the century to keep services such as healthcare and education at current levels. As retirement homes fill and nurseries empty, there will be increasing conflicts over how much of the nation's wealth should be spent on pensions and how much on childcare.

The fertility trap, which is the cause of thousands of instances of personal heartache, is of increasing concern to Britain's policymakers. For decades, any discussion on promoting having a family has been off-limits politically because successive Governments have feared the label of "nanny state".

But as Britain's population ages, the IPPR warns, and fewer children are born to share the burden of looking after the older generation, the issue can no longer be left to nature - or individual choice alone.

Other countries have already brought in population-boosting measures to counter the effects of women delaying motherhood. Japan and Italy, considered to have some of the most pressing demographic problems, offer generous cash incentives to couples who have children. France and Singapore have unashamedly adopted policies decades ago to boost population and they are now stepping up their efforts.

In Paris, for example, it was announced last autumn that the government would pay couples as much as £685 a month for a year to have a second or third child. And in Austria, there is discussion about giving parents with children extra votes in a bid to counter the growing heft of older voters.

In Britain, ministers are still nervous about offering explicit "bribes" to couples who have children. Instead, they are edging towards universal free childcare to help more women negotiate the fertility trap.

However, equality campaigners are still far from satisfied. They say that greater flexibility is still needed in the workplace at all levels so that women are not penalised financially for taking time off to have children.

The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) said that it was "truly sad" that so many women still feel they have to choose between a career and having children 30 years after laws were introduced to outlaw sex discrimination.

"We need to think about how we can truly help women, and the growing numbers of men who say they want to be more involved at home, and better balance work and family," said Jenny Watson, who chairs the EOC.

THE EARLY START

Sara Rogers, 26, from Plymouth teaches English to foreign students on a part-time basis and has three children under five. She became pregnant with her first child in her final year at university. She says that money is a struggle and that paying for childcare is a particular burden.

Mrs Rogers's husband, Simon, 35, has offered to look after their children Jake, Carrick and Annabelle, but she feels she should stay at home until the youngest child is in full-time education. "My husband has been very supportive. I'm very lucky," she said. "He's always been there inspiring me to work. I potentially could earn more than him and be the breadwinner. And he is willing to stay at home but it's hard for a mother emotionally going out to work. People judge you."

Mrs Rogers studied information technology and public relations at university, but says that not going straight into full-time work may have affected her confidence. "I went on in life feeling like I had failed," she said.

"I did some part-time teaching and then decided I wanted to be a secondary school teacher. We were on income support while I was studying at the Open University.

"Childcare is phenomenally expensive - I wouldn't earn the amount it costs in a day."

She now wants to complete a qualification that will allow her to teach in secondary schools, but says she will have to wait until her youngest, Annabelle, is at school.

THE CAREER BREAK

Sarah-Jane Harper has two children and is due to give birth again in six weeks. As a teacher, the 34-year-old considers herself fortunate because her employers have been understanding. She says her profession is ideally suited to child-rearing breaks.

Ms Harper's full-time earnings are around £20,000 a year, but her husband's salary has been enough to cover their living costs during her maternity leave. "Long hours in the City wouldn't work with children," said Ms Harper, who lives in Putney, west London and was 30 when she had her first child.

"I was definitely able to balance children and my career. When I had my first child I was settled and happy in my relationship. It seemed the right time, and even the headmistress at the school I work for was completely supportive and didn't try to dissuade me, even though it meant a lot of shuffling classes around when teachers were off on maternity leave."

Other friends have not been so lucky. One friend, a solicitor, decided not to go back to work immediately and her career suffered as a consequence. "She is still at home seven years later," said Ms Harper. "It was not a hard decision for her to make but it was detrimental to her career and if she went back she would have to backtrack a bit into a lower job."

"I have a group of 10 or 11 close friends around the same age and five of us had a baby within six months," she adds. "It is great at this age because I have more patience and don't get personally involved or upset when faced with a screaming toddler having a tantrum on the floor."

THE MISSED OPPORTUNITY

Hazel Hodge earns more than £60,000 a year as a senior finance manager. She would also like to be a mother, but the 49-year-old from Coventry says she and her former husband were too focused on work and social life to talk seriously about parenthood.

"It was not a conscious decision not to start having children but I was very busy with work and had a good life socially so I was distracted by other things really," she said.

The reality of being childless only hit her when doctors discovered that she had serious health problems and might need a hysterectomy. Her advice to other women who are planning to delay motherhood in favour of their careers is that they should think hard about the potential consequences. "One day it will hit you like a brick. If you are 30 or 35 and you haven't addressed whether or not you want to have children, you may no longer be able to," she said.

"They [young women] should consider what the rest of their life would be like childless. Being childless now is great, with independence and money, but they should think about never having children, or grandchildren. If this brings up some questions, they should stand back and look at how they are living their life."

In her industry, few women have so far reached the top and those who are married with children have tended to end up in administrative posts.

Although Ms Hodge says that only a "superwoman" can juggle family with a high-maintenance career, she worries about young women in her industry who are putting off motherhood.

"My career was very absorbing. It took mental and emotional energy to be successful. Now I can see that I didn't get the balance of my work life and the rest of my life quite right."

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