Consider the bigger picture. It starts so promisingly: girls outperform boys at school and university, get good jobs, start shinning up the greasy pole – and then, suddenly, they fall away. Across all professions, women’s careers take a nose dive the moment they reproduce. The full-time pay gap more than trebles for women in their thirties (from 3 per cent to 11 per cent), while the part-time pay gap increases from 23 per cent to 32 per cent.
Asher and Lewis should write a equivalent study on working class women, for a high birth rate is one of the many curses of the British working class. It’s almost impossible to get into higher education if you are a single woman toting a baby, and most employers will turn away lone parents because they don’t want people who have to arrange their workload around childcare. (I know there is legislation supposed to tackle the prejudice, but bosses can get around this as long as they do not explicitly state ‘We do not want to employ you because you are a single parent.’) If childbirth is bad for the bourgeois woman, for her working class equivalent it can be disastrous.
It still amazes me that people continue to have children that they can’t support. One day this is going to have to be addressed, at policy level. I’m not talking about sinister 1930s Fabian-style breeding controls. Maybe an information campaign, with dedicated advice workers attached to maternity units, whose job would be to ask people: ‘Are you sure you’re ready for this?’ Understand that I’m not coming from crank eugenicist ideas of population control and welfare. I’m thinking more of the life chances and quality of life of the child. As a society, we need to challenge the idea that reproduction is always for the best.
The biggest problem where I live and work is probably housing. Overcrowding is one subject that the romanticisers of working class culture never seem to get round to, and I am convinced that it is at the root of Britain’s culture of misery, resentment and self-pity. Contrary to popular belief, what humans need more than anything is not friends, family, togetherness – what people need and desire more than anything is space. We should understand that there are far worse things than loneliness.
The middle class Guardian columnist, who worries that he can’t get a girlfriend, will never understand what it is like to have to share a bedroom well into your teens, to not be able to guarantee yourself a good night’s sleep before a hard shift, to not have the space and time to read, to study, to discuss private things with people close to you. Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar opens with the eponymous supermarket worker gatecrashing a party in the expensive part of Oban. She falls into conversation with a housing design student, who asks her what her ideal house would be. Morvern replies: ‘One where you couldn’t hear the men go to the toilet.’
So that’s something that gets to me: the imbecilic selfishness of people who have children and then condemn their children to an environment that destroys their future. Conservatives would say that this is why we should cut child-related benefits, but why on earth should a child suffer because of the stupidity of her parents?
A lot could be achieved if we built more affordable homes – or at least developed the many void properties in every city – but that isn’t going to happen. I’ve worked in housing most of my adult life and it seems to me that, nationally, we are going backwards. Another thing that hacked me off this week was a local Lib Dem/National Government propaganda leaflet (fisked with style and vigour by the Political Scrapbook guys) in which my MP John Leech complains about the number of HMOs in Fallowfield, and promises legislation to do something about it. I live in an HMO. I work full time. Most people I know are in the same position. We can’t get a mortgage or live alone because practically no one under forty can. Why shouldn’t I live in Fallowfield? What does John Leech want to do, get rid of all the students and professionals and bring in another tranche of families on housing benefit? Now that’s what I call ‘regeneration’. Idiots.
End of rant.