September 12, 2004

The new status symbol: Children

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Why do French villages shut down at 9pm? Have you ever tried to get a drink in rural France after dark?

This is one of the problems with going on your holliers in France: the place is such a bore. Beautiful it may be, but it’s dead boring.

So why are so many Irish people buying second houses in deepest France? Why are the French selling them? And why are they so cheap? The reason is demographic.

Sometime around the 1970s, the French stopped having babies and replaced them with dogs. So France is being progressively denuded of humans.

Despite all the talk about peasant culture being at the heart of France, the peasants who are left in the countryside are getting older and will die out by around 2020 leaving vast tracts of the French countryside empty.

A similar process is happening all over Europe.

The opposite is happening here. We are bucking the European trend and are experiencing our second baby boom since the 1970s. Our post-war baby boom peaked in June 1980 – nine months to the day after the Pope kissed the tarmac at Dublin Airport in late September 1979. Cause and effect, anyone?

The first Irish baby-boomers might be called the `Pope’s Children’ and we are now seeing their demographic echo. All the little John Pauls are now having babies and, as a result, the Irish population is back above four million for the first time since 1871, according to Central Statistics Office (CSO) figures released this week.

However, it is immigration which is changing our complexion rapidly. Others are replacing John Pauls; for example, already 2 per cent of people in Ireland are Chinese. This is quite an extraordinary figure and the process is ongoing. Last year, 9 per cent of all immigrants came from China.

The population increased by 65,000 in the year to April 2004. Some 33,000 of these were new babies, but 50,000 were immigrants who came last year. Had 18,000 Irish people not emigrated, the population would have gone up by even more.

So is this baby boom normal? Well, by European standards, it is a perversity. In all other European countries, populations have declined in tandem with the rise in wealth.

The rule on the continent appears to be that the richer the country, the fewer babies are born. It is as if at a certain level of take-home pay, a car or a second house or a holiday replaces a baby in couples’ aspirations.

In Ireland, the opposite has occurred.

Our least fertile period in recent decades coincided with relative poverty.

The most dramatic fall in our birth rate occurred between 1981 and 1988 when we were getting progressively poorer and the place was a basket case. The emigration of thousands of young people contributed, but those who stayed had fewer and fewer kids.

Once we started making a few quid we started having babies again. This is a trend first evidenced in the US in the 1990s when progressively affluent Americans started having babies.

This trend, together with car ownership patterns, suburbanisation, credit growth, house price inflation and an aversion to personal taxation, suggests we are much closer to the Americans at a fundamental, day-to-day level than might otherwise be revealed by political straw polls and the like.

The sort of people who are having large families in the US and Ireland are very similar. In the US and here, it is mostly the very rich and the very poor who are still having big families.

This class pattern is also evident in England, where I was always amazed at the size of very posh families – there always seemed to be loads of little Hectors, Philippas and Crispins.

In the Ireland of 2004, like in the US, the other groups having large families are immigrants, although this may be explained by cultural factors that would not be tolerated here generally, such as the lack of female emancipation.

However, the really fascinating question is why are the new Irish rich having so many kids? The mere fact of having lots of children is itself a sign of wealth (because only the very rich can pay for childcare or buy houses large enough).

There is also the idea that kids are the ultimate possession, a precious commodity that make a serious statement about who you are.

For example, have you noticed the large families among high-flying, well-educated and highly cultured barristers?

Why is this? Maybe it is simply old-fashioned tribal behaviour. The new Irish elite needs to brand itself with something exclusive – not simply the size of one’s wad.

In a world where money is plentiful, cash and credit are easy to get, there has to be something that can distinguish the truly genteel from the merely rich. Anyone can own a fancy car or a fancy house, but to be really posh, something more must be evident.

So such distinguishing factors have to be very subtle and cannot simply be the result of something so crass as a purchase, but must be worthy, meaningful and most of all must require hard work.

For this theory to hold any water, Irish women should be having more children older. This is indeed the case. Many professional women who have proved themselves in the corporate world in their 20s are taking to the fertility game with the same competitive gusto and are popping out four in a row beginning in their 30s.

This would have been unheard of in their mother’s generation or in the 1980s when large families were seen by many women to epitomise the type of “pregnant, bare-foot and chained to the kitchen sink” life they were desperate to avoid.

But today, when professionals are told they can have it all, what better expression of perfection than lovely and plentiful sprogs and a successful career?

This puts you in a different league. It allows you to use buzzwords like community, values, tradition and that awful expression a “sense of place” with real conviction that could never be understood by the childless.

But above all else, for children to be the ultimate expression of achievement, they must be hard work. They will be the gynaecological equivalent of 40-year-old Dad running the marathon. It wouldn’t be worth it if it wasn’t hard work – it reveals stamina and, crucially, discipline.

The psychological virtue of six kids, hair-tied back, messy car, empathetically rolling your eyes in face of other genteel parents – these are the signs and secret codes of the new posh as opposed to the new rich.

The economic implications of the new posh having big rather than small families are enormous and will be initially felt in the children’s services game.

This column has written before of the bouncy-castleisation of Irish suburbs during the summer months, where parents try to out-bouncy castle their neighbours. No bouncy castle is too big for little Finn.

This type of behaviour will extend into the exuberantly fertile genteel, resulting in an explosion in demand for pre-teen notes of recognition. Expect redundant violin teachers to make hay, while children’s cookery classes will be a winner.

Such cookery classes will enable the genteel family to hit two birds with one stone: health and hard work.

When they have finished their cookery classes, the multitude of kids can come home and descend, through the very tastefully appointed Victorian house, into the huge ultra-modern kitchen that is now a feature of all properly civilised homes.

In the past, the rich never saw food being prepared, now nothing more defines a swanky family as its kitchen with its “work triangles”, its condiments and its recipes. This also explains the explosion in demand for huge, walk-in fridges, which are now de rigueur in every self-respecting home, complete with instant icemaker.

Bilingual creches with optional Pilates on a Thursday will be upon us before we know it, while the price of private schooling will continue to rise. If you can, you should put a child’s name down and pay monthly instalments now because by 2012 fees will be exorbitant.

The present baby-boom is profoundly different to the Pope’s one because of who is being born, where and to whom.

The Pope’s Kids of 1979 and 1980 were born to families of six children typically living in lower middle class suburban estates. These families have now completely disappeared.

Following earlier trends in the US, only the very rich are having more than four or five kids. In place of the families of the Pope’s Kids, is the large family of the aspiring immigrant.

Taken together, these massive changes in our society which are captured in this week’s CSO figures, suggest that, unlike rural France, the Ireland of the future will be full of children of all backgrounds, races and languages and will never be boring.

In fact, many of the kids of genteel Irish families will decamp to empty rural France for the summer where their rich parents have bought a traditional stone farmhouse.

The farmhouse will be tasteful, functional and rustic, never flash, tacky or vulgar and, above all, every holiday will involve some achievement, like redirecting the stream at the bottom of the orangerie, because to be really posh it must involve at least some hard work.

  1. eoin


    Your statistics on the French are wrong. Their birth rate is 1.9 per couple,
    higher than Ireland ( but a bounce from a low level). Other countries, like
    Italy, are low – about 1.2.

    The French bounce is to be expected. After a generation has a low birth rate
    you would expect a bounce as the progeny of the low birth rate generation
    are from that part of that generation who did have kids, and sometimes lots
    of them. In short there will be environmental factors, or genetic factors, why
    this population is more likely to have kids, like it’s parents did. Conversely
    the people less likely to have children in the modern age didn’t, and there is
    that genetic perversity out of the running, never to be seen again.

    Generally this is because a birth rate of 1.5 does not mean that all couples
    have , on average, between 1 and 2 children: but that a lot of couples have
    none at all, often for ideological reasons; and the rest have families of 2 or 3.
    Or more, of you are from a certain social background ( as you said – the very
    rich, or very poor). Since these sub-populations have managed to resist the
    reduction in family sizes despite the availability of contraception, and are the
    only antecedents of the next generation, it is to be expected that the next
    generation will have an environmental and/or genetic propensity to do the
    same and will have lots of babies.

    An extreme example: Lets say in a modern environment with easily available
    birth control we have a birth rate per couple of 1.5 per couple for a
    generation, and that the propensity to have large families is 100% inheritable.
    Lets also say that the 1.5 rate is divided amongst couples who didn’t have any
    children ( 50%) and couples who had 3 children (50%).

    In my admittedly extreme example you would expect the birth rate to
    increase to 3.0 in the next generation. You can argue about how inheritable
    having large families is, of course, but it is probably not insignificant (
    remember that both generations will be in a time of readily available
    contraception. In fact fertility treatments will improve in generations to come)

  2. Paul Rux, Ph.D.

    David, your article reminds me of Patrick Buchanan’s
    recent book “The Death of the West.” As always, you are
    creative, insightful, and worth reading!

    Paul Rux, Ph.D., Mount Horeb, Wisconsin

  3. David Mc Williams

    Fair points eoin. paul, thanks for your comment. david

  4. helena

    contraception may have given people more choices and this
    now means children are viewed as a consumer item. Woemen
    talk about wanting 2 children ( aboy and a girl). What
    would happen if they had 2 boys or 2 girls? also women who
    have jobs outside the home be they lawyers,doctors,
    teachers seem to be doing most of the wok in the home and
    this has implications for family planning and family size.
    I myself come from a big family.

    what surpises me that so called educated intelligent women
    seem to be not to be able to communicate with their
    partners but decide themselves – no more kids. It much
    easier moan about it to other women especailly single
    women about how hard it is to bring up children, then to
    talk to the person at home in the arm chair . The rich or
    richer can bu help, be it cleaning, house keeper, child
    minding at night, gardeners, maintainance odd-job men etc.

  5. karen

    Its funny to see the actual decisions i have been fretting over this past year – discussed as a matter of ecomonics!! I have just decided to try for our fourth with a view to having a fifth to follow. We luckily are in a monetary position to accomplish this since an investment returned positively. However it is almost a radical thing to do in the present climate and viewed by some of my peers as insane!! I almost feel like a rebel again!!! The reasons why we have decided to have a nice big family is we want our children to have built in playmates and company for themselves when they themselves are parents coming as we do from an only child family on his side and a completely emegrated 1980s family of 3 sibs on mine. – what can i say its boring to not have grown up sibs around. the working background is tech and manage/admin (dont know if that is professional) however i am a happy stay at home mom presently- and loving it.
    David – will our children be nice to their olds – or stick us in a fancy retirment village – get out your crystal ball and have a look for me.
    Happily riding the wave of new ireland Mommy

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