We put a bid in on a house on Wednesday. We didn’t get it. Our bid was forty-five grand above council valuation, it sold for eighty grand above. I’d read an article the day before talking about how young people can afford to buy property if we put our mind to it, hilariously clueless in tone. I’m not that bothered about our own situation, we’ll find a place eventually, just have to wait and save more. I am bothered, though, by the suggestion that delayed childbearing is the solution to every financial conundrum (so, um, Facebook and Apple are now covering the costs of employees freezing their eggs). Graduate high school, get a tertiary education, get a job, work long hours, pay off your student debt, save furiously, buy a house, pay your mortgage down to a manageable level, and only then may you responsibly bring new life into the world. Children are luxury goods!
My grandmother had two kids by age 24. It was 1962, this wasn’t considered unduly young, it was the norm, regardless of social class. That’s not true anymore. Everyone gossips when someone who went to a high decile school has a baby at 21. There is a whopping great class difference here. On average, educated women are having babies much later; but the teen pregnancy rate has stayed pretty much the same for the past four decades (source: MSD). There is research which suggests absence of economic opportunities leads to teen pregnancy, not the other way round. If you don’t think you’ll ever have a stable job, you’ve got no reason to delay having children.
Sawhill wants the left to pick up a “new ethic of responsible parenthood.” That means urging women to wait until they are a little more settled and can sustain a stable relationship before they have children. “The old social norm was: ‘Don’t have a child outside marriage,’ ” she writes in her New York Times op-ed. The new one needs to be: “Don’t have a child until you and your partner are ready to be parents.”
Ready to be parents – lol! You can’t be serious, ain’t nobody ready for that ever. Ready to be pushed off a cliff? “Ready” could theoretically mean anything, but we know it’s code for a stable job and savings in the bank. I’m really uncomfortable with the idea that abortion (and even contraception) is a social good because there’s a universal right time to have a baby and a universal wrong time, and the wrong time is when you’re short of money (this link is amusing though). Abortion is a social good because women deserve bodily autonomy. That’s a watertight case right there, we don’t need extra reasons. If abortion is available, some unplanned pregnancies will be terminated, for reasons wholly personal to the pregnant woman; but it is not a pro-choice argument to think this should be the default. There will still be people who have babies before they have savings. Intimate relationships are warm and cosy. Sex is fun. Contraception is a hassle (even the much touted long acting reversible contraceptives have side effects, and won’t suit everyone). Besides, babies are lovely – even if they’re hard work too.
The right blames the parents, the left wants to give them more money but still tut tuts about teen pregnancy. Both wring their hands about families trapped in “inter-generational poverty”. This grates on my nerves – you just never hear the opposite, you never hear about “inter-generational wealth”. Poverty is an absence, so there must be something missing: money.
Our slowly growing house deposit is a mixture of money I got from scholarships while at uni, money we’ve saved while working, money to be withdrawn from KiwiSaver, money from my husband’s parents (it was meant to be for his student loan but we put it in a savings account instead), and money from my parents. On my Facebook feed, friends are starting to buy houses, and every time I see an announcement, I wonder how much money came from parents or a family trust. I know talking about money is considered gauche, but complying with that rule means privilege is invisible. Bad enough that society is stacked against the poor, we should at least be honest. Honest about how our parents are trying to mitigate inequality between the boomers and the millennials by giving us money for our education and home ownership. Honest about what this means for people whose parents are not in a position to provide the same. Honest about the non-financial assistance we receive as well, right into adulthood, in an array of different forms. I don’t mean godawful helicopter parenting, I mean things that friends might also do for each other – but your parents are friends with extra wisdom and life experience, and that counts for a lot. Damn straight my mum looked over my first job application; damn straight I’m sure her feedback helped me get the job.
Most of all, we need to be honest about what would have happened if we – middle class people who had jobs first, babies second – had fallen accidentally pregnant before being financially set up, and decided to keep the baby. Our parents would have bailed us out. Life would have been tough, really tough, but it wouldn’t have been a permanent setback. Our parents would have made sure that we finished our education, they would have supported us financially. It’s a given, that’s just what every parent would do if they could. I’d do anything for the little dude, even when he’s a big dude.
People who have kids early and lack parental support aren’t a different breed of human being, they’re not a anomaly or a puzzle, and we shouldn’t treat them as such. To put children first, start with the parents – what do they need in order to be good parents? Conversely, what sort of parenting do you expect someone to provide if social assistance tacitly assumes that they won’t do a very good job? Children can be a catalyst for getting your life together, but they also make it harder to plan long term, because their needs change quickly. I don’t want to suggest glib solutions, as the problem goes to the core of how society is structured, and the way we view babies as hobbies or liabilities for their parents, rather than the most important people in the world. The way we expect young adults to be independent from the state, but dependent on their parents. The way we talk about social mobility in glowing terms, but don’t really mean it, because we would never countenance the possibility of our own kids swapping places with someone further down the ladder. Which brings us back to the real problem: inequality.