How Britain turned its back on its young

Soaring rents, punitive tax, and the cost of living crisis risks making the country into a version of the dystopian novel The Children of Men

This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

For a day or two last month, we had a brief throwback to 2012: suddenly, everyone was talking about student loans again. The news that Keir Starmer wants to walk back from Labour’s pledge to scrap university tuition fees provoked a flare-up from the under-30s, who pointed out that the current system functions less like a loan and more like a graduate tax. Payments are deducted automatically from income, and interest rates are set high enough that most graduates will never clear their debt, though they may end up paying back more than the initial loan amount.

A letter in The Times describes the current loan system as part of a “demographic protection racket”, and it’s hard not to agree. If we entertain the view that student loan repayments are functionally a tax, then a 25-year-old graduate earning £28,000 per year faces a marginal tax rate 9 per cent higher than a 65-year-old graduate whose salary is almost twice as high at £49,000 despite both having benefited from the same university education.

On top of this, while around three-quarters of over-65s own their home outright (so have no rental or mortgage costs), young graduates typically see almost half their post-tax income disappear paying for a temporary place to live. There is now not a single London postcode where the average rent for a single room in a flatshare is less than £700 per month, excluding bills. The rest of the country isn’t much better.

It isn’t only a question of money

It isn’t only a question of money: it is routine now for prospective renters to have to make bids above the asking rate, agree to pay a full year’s rent up front, or submit application letters and CVs to compete for a place to live. Every young person will have stories of landlords who neglect to repair homes with no hot water, that are damp, mouldy or literally falling apart; a friend was telling me just yesterday about the months he spent living with a sizeable hole in his flat’s ceiling, which the landlord did not see fit to address.

Landlords act like this because the market will bear it: demand for housing so far outstrips supply that any home, no matter how grotty and no matter what the asking price, is almost guaranteed to be snapped up. Almost every week there’s a new example of some utterly grim living situation being advertised for an eye-watering rent. 

These include the right to sleep on a “real mattress” in a stranger’s kitchen in Teddington for £1120 per month, or the many so-called studio flats that are just a cramped kitchenette with a bunk bed taking up most of the floor space. One such property with no private lavatory was recently listed for £1240 per month, described as “suitable for a couple”.

The young are stuck endlessly treading water, with very limited ability to save for a rainy day or to provide for dependents; the permanence and stability of home ownership is out of reach to most. The average first-time buyer in London now needs a deposit of £132,685: an impossible sum even if you aren’t having to pay a thousand pounds a month to live in a shoebox. Unsurprisingly, therefore, nearly a third of those aged 35–44 are still living in private rentals, up from 10 per cent in the 1990s.

Popular advice to spend less on Netflix and avocados is inadequate. Yes, cutting expenditures might enable some to save enough to get onto the housing ladder, but it’s a solution that doesn’t scale up: high prices are caused by laws of supply and demand, so if there fundamentally are not enough homes to go around then some managing to clear the deposit hurdle only raises the bar for others.

It wasn’t always like this. In 1997, house prices in England and Wales were two to five times the average income, depending on area. By 2021, this ratio had increased to an average of nine, rising to an absurd almost 20 in some parts of London. Planning laws that restrict building have created a market failure in which supply cannot rise to meet demand, meaning the value of existing homes is pumped up artificially high. 

Therefore, by virtue of having bought a house in the 1990s, our 65-year-old graduate not only avoided the years of rental hell that younger people currently face, but may now be sitting on an asset worth a million pounds or more. To top it off, as another perk they are entitled to free off-peak travel on London’s tubes and buses with a 60+ Oyster card, because well, why not?

Against this background, it should come as no surprise that birth rates have plummeted. Brits have not had enough children to replace themselves since 1972, and fertility has been in decline ever since.

Various factors contribute to decreasing fertility. One of them is the financial pressure that today’s would-be parents are experiencing, since the point at which people feel secure enough to provide for children is coming later and later. A study of American women found that those with student debt were less likely to become parents in a given year, compared to those who had been to college but did not have debt. And a research paper by the Adam Smith Institute estimates that rising rents in Britain prevented the births of 157,000 children between 1996 and 2014.

The Children of Men is a novel by P.D. James, set in England in 2021. In this book’s universe, the human species suffered a catastrophic, unexplainable loss of fertility in the 1990s. The youngest people on Earth are now 25 and the whole of humanity awaits imminent extinction.

For a book written in 1992, The Children of Men is astonishingly prescient about the practical and ethical issues faced by an ageing society, from concerns over the humane treatment of imported foreign workers to the state-organised mass suicides of the elderly.

But while individuals’ personal sorrow over not being parents is present in the novel — phantom pregnancies are common, as are obsessive interests in dolls — the Church of England is embroiled in debates over whether kittens and puppies can be baptised. What is striking is that this pales in comparison to the overwhelming society-wide nihilism and ennui at the knowledge that there is no future for the human race.

Roads and buildings crumble, since it’s not worth starting any repairs — they’ll just about last for as long as they need to. All around the world, architectural wonders will soon be seen for the last time by human eyes, before they are overtaken by weeds and wild animals. 

Our protagonist, an Oxford don, is asked in passing about his plans for a “drinking-up programme” for the wine in the college cellar, there being of course no point keeping any bottles to enjoy later. When there is no future, there is little use concerning yourself with anything but immediate security and comfort. So: batten down the hatches and drink up.

Arguably, James does not go far enough in considering the implications of a society that knows it is in terminal decline. By and large in The Children of Men, the human race undergoes an optimistically tidy winding down of its activities; villages and small towns are to be vacated in stages and remaining residents moved to “scheduled population centres”. Government bureaucracy is still thriving to an implausible degree. Details such as characters drinking coffee suggest international trade still takes place.

…the entire world’s infrastructure depends on confidence

In reality, the entire world’s infrastructure depends on confidence — or at the very least, hope — in the future. If our species were to end tomorrow, then all currencies and investments would become instantly worthless. By that logic, if we knew that there was a set date by which we would certainly be extinct (and that as the date approached, our population would grow exponentially smaller and older), then working backwards from that date would almost inevitably lead to a financial crash. 

Very quickly, money would be worth less than the paper it was printed on, institutions would collapse, and we would be reduced to small-scale bartering for our immediate needs.

People in The Children of Men universe haven’t quite given up hope that fertility might be restored. But even if the cause of global sterility were discovered, and a possibility for treatment glimpsed, are we really meant to believe that what remains of humanity would now grind back into life and pull out all the stops to fix the situation? They’ve already resigned to hunkering down and waiting to die; they’ve already made a start on their claret reserves. 

The Children of Men illustrates a vicious cycle that traps ageing societies. As populations grow older, the average person’s interests become more bound up in the short term, and it becomes harder to gather political willpower for investment in the future. As a result, fewer children are born, worsening the situation.

This is not to say that the old are more selfish than the young. Anyone of any age can have a hypothetical interest in the good of humanity; in addition, everybody has an interest in their own wellbeing. It just happens that the younger you are, the more your self-interest will automatically line up with the long-term investments needed for a flourishing society.

An analysis of voting trends across different countries found that older people are less likely to support measures protecting the environment, improving transport, or promoting energy efficiency. 

By contrast, older voters were willing to spend public money on health systems. “It is difficult,” wrote one of the researchers, “to find a singular explanation other than generational self-interest, which would explain why older voters tend to be generally less supportive of … projects that have positive expected effects in the long run, but costs in the short run.”

We see this illustrated practically every week in Britain. Homeowners — overwhelmingly older rather than younger people — vehemently resist some plan to build much-needed housing in their area, in one recent case on the grounds that it would involve the demolition of one of Bristol’s most scenic multi-storey carparks; in another case development was opposed on the site of a disused gasworks in Barnet.

Hostility to housebuilding and other necessary infrastructure makes sense from the perspective of local homeowners. It is understandable not to want the area in which you’ve built your life to change, especially if it risks decreasing the value of your home. In protestors they are supported by their local councillors and MPs.

If a population has lots of children, it is likely to produce a culture that is relatively child-friendly, and by extension, friendly to parents. By contrast, if the number of children in a society dwindles, those that remain may find themselves pushed to the margins, making life harder for parents and making it even less likely that more children will be born.

South Korea is an extreme example of this. The country has the lowest birth rate in the world: as of last year, the average South Korean woman can expect to have just 0.81 children in her lifetime, meaning that without immigration, the population is set to decrease by more than half with each generation. South Korea is also notorious for its punishing working culture; its government recently tried to increase the working week to an exhausting 69 hours. 

With this so-called work-life balance, it is hardly surprising that children are increasingly absent from public life, with many cafes and restaurants declaring themselves to be “child-free zones”. These schemes are popular enough that several cinemas reportedly held child-free screenings of Disney’s Frozen 2, a film beloved by toddlers around the world. On a Korean news site, a mother is quoted as saying that she always has to check whether venues allow children or not before going anywhere.

In May, a South Korean MP, Yong Hye-in, gave a speech in favour of banning these policies, with her two-year-old son in tow. “Children are our fellow citizens,” she said. “All of us are, or once were, children. The society we want is not one that is only made for people who are quick, skilful, and experienced, but one where it’s okay to be slow, clumsy, or inexperienced.”

Any way out of this trap will likely involve structural changes to ensure the interests of the young are better represented in politics. Reforms such as lowering the voting age to 16 or, more radically, having no minimum voting age (and asking parents to vote on their child’s behalf until they are old enough) ought to automatically ensure that, all else being equal, long-term growth and prosperity is given greater weighting in political decisions. Alternatively, restricting the ability of local residents to veto development in their area would tip the scales back towards much-needed housebuilding.

One way or another, it is vital that we do something to put the brakes on the “Children of Men spiral”. If we want to protect and nurture the children of the future, we must start by looking out for the children of today.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover