Baby, I just can't afford you

Women are saying no to motherhood. But government action could boost the family and equality
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How much does having a baby cost in Nineties Britain? More than your job's worth seems to be the answer for women.

A recent study by Jane Waldfogel of the London School of Economics found that the ratio of women's earnings relative to men's falls from 82 per cent for all woman aged 23 to 71 per cent for all women at the age of 33. Childless 33-year-old women keep pace with male peers, but working mothers of the same age earn just 64 per cent of a man's wage. Little wonder that more and more women are postponing pregnancy.

Indeed, the Central Statistical Office's Social Focus on Women report published this week showed that there are now more women having babies in their thirties than in their twenties. Many opt out of the baby race altogether in preference for securing a place in the rat race. And more than 20 per cent of women born in 1967 are predicted to be childless at 40 compared with just 13 per cent of those born in 1947.

Why work if you're still going to face discrimination 20 years after equality legislation was passed? The simple reason is that young working women today have better opportunities than ever to get on. There are more women than men under 30 who are solicitors (perhaps in a generation's time we'llhave a majority of female judges). My analysis of the British Household Panel Study's latest survey, to be published next month by Demos, shows there are now more professional women who are under 35 than over 35. By contrast, there are twice as many male professionals over 35 than under. Thus the typical professional woman of today is young while the typical professional man is old. There's also clear evidence that women's disadvantage in pay and promotion almost disappears among the youngest age groups.

The long-term trend is clear. Despite the barriers, women's earning power is rising rapidly And better-educated women are likely to look at the trade-offs between work and family in a different way from in the past. Of course, some countervailing forcesmake motherhood more attractive than before. Whereas having a baby was almost a sackable offence 20 years ago, now it means just a brief spell out of the labour market. In 1979, only a quarter of women returned to work within nine months of giving birth; by 1988 this proportion was 50 per centand by 1989 it was two women in three.

But as younger women's relative pay continues to rise, the cost of having a child will go in terms of salary forgone will go on going up. For some professional young women, the price of a baby simply won't be worth paying - particularly if women increasingly fear they're not spending enough time with their children.

In the short run, a declining birth rate won't matter. Governments will probably even welcome a demographic downturn if it means less competition for scarce jobs and fewer teenage criminals. But looking ahead 50 years or so, a failure to keep reproducing could have disastrous effects, with insufficient workers to pay for the escalating care and pension costs of an ageing population.

In the past, many governments made it a top priority to get their women breeding. France saw it as a matter of national virility, in competition with the fecund British. The Soviet Union gave medals to Stakhanovite reproducers. But while policies of this kind feel incredibly old-fashioned, smacking of the view of women as breeding machines, in many ways they are still present in some of those countries, albeit in a form that now fits a culture in which women's equality is taken for granted.

Take France, for example, which has for some time subsidised working mothers in a variety of ways through an extensive childcare network and other policies designed explicitly to boost the birth rate. In Sweden, too, there are generous parental-leave policies for up to two years - taken up largely, though not exclusively, by women - with an explicit commitment to protect jobs for their return. Sweden now has one of the highest rates of population replacement in Europe. Norway, too, has explicitly recognised the value of caring work and since 1993 has given parents 42 weeks of paid leave on the birth of a child at 100 per cent or 52 weeks at 80 per cent of pay.

And where once policies for encouraging the family might have been in tension with feminist demands for equal rights at work, in these countries there seems to be a synergy between the two. Such policies can help not only to improve the quality and status of parenting, but also to improve equal opportunities for women at work. In America, by contrast, it's still difficult to be a successful career woman and have a family. The best maternity provision American mothers can expect is 12 weeks' unpaid leave and even that was only introduced in 1992, and doesn't apply to firms with fewer than 50 employees.

Of course, no scheme can guarantee that having a baby won't still affect your career or your wages. Being out of the labour market for a time inevitably carries a cost. But policies of this kind do at least expand choice, and they do at least acknowledge the double burden that women still face. Perhaps as important in the long run, they can help to encourage the idea that parenting is a joint responsibility. Although progress has been slow, the Scandinavian schemes have led to greater cultural acceptance of men taking time out to parent too, and the numbers of men taking leave have slowly but surely crept up.

Many will object that policies of this kind must be prohibitively expensive. But there's no need for them to be a huge burden on the taxpayer. Although some subsidy is needed, we could take the best of the models on offer and redesign them, for example, by making it easier for people to borrow money from government for periods off work and pay it back through the Inland Revenue when they go back. A kind of life-cycle mortgaging system, perhaps with the same incentives we now give to bricks and mortar, could ease our transitions in and out of the baby market.

Of course, this is all still a long way from the agenda of most politicians in Westminster. Few have really adapted to the speed with which women have gone into the jobs market, and the tenacity with which they want to hold on to what they've won. Recent surveys show that women's commitment to work has increased sharply, a trend which seems to be accelerating. For example, according to the British Social Attitudes survey, 76 per cent of women in 1993 said that they would still work even if there was no financial need, as opposed to 63 per cent in 1984.

But work on its own can't keep a society going in the long run. That the baby-boomers may turn out to be harbingers of a baby bust is a real cause for concern because, ultimately, societies that fail to reproduce are dying - literally. Meantime, in the absence of government action, more and more young women are sitting tight, waiting and wondering whether the time to start a family will ever be right.