BRITAIN’S BABY SHORTAGE – what businesses should be doing about it

BRITAIN’S BABY SHORTAGE – what businesses should be doing about it

I read about Britain’s baby shortage in The Times this week.  It seems that Britain is running out of babies which could lead to economic decline, so sooner or later we’ll have to talk about what to do about it. 

The birth-rate in England and Wales peaked in 1964 when the number of children per woman averaged 2.93. Last year it was 1.58, well below the 2.1 replacement level needed to keep the population rate stable, and in Scotland it was even lower at 1.29.

The greying population means there will be more pensioners and fewer workers, but the economic consequences of this could be addressed so long as we’re all prepared to do more work until later in life. I doubt people would enjoy that prospect!

More concerning are the social and political dimensions of demographic change.  A country with fewer children inevitably allocates more resources and power to the older generations – spending on healthcare has risen whilst spending on education has been flat for the last 20 years, and economic policy over the last 15 years has prioritised the assets owned by the old.    This could lead to deep seated grievances and a less cohesive society.   

It’s a difficult dilemma and a government that tries to solve this problem by telling us we all have to work longer or how many children we should have is not likely to be popular. 

James Kirkup, writing the The Times, talks about ‘important things politicians neglect’, not least because they go beyond our short electoral cycles.

Alongside the article in The Times I also found an interesting SMF (Social Market Foundation) report:

So if government isn’t going to take the problem seriously, what can businesses do about it?  .  Women are taking their education and careers seriously, but this does not mean they don’t want to become parents.  We need to make it easier and fairer. 


I’m going to start off by talking about ‘parenting’ here, and purposely not ‘motherhood’.  That’s part of my mission to change the dialogue.  Having a child is a joint responsibility.  For women to achieve equality in the workplace, they need men to take equal responsibility (the joy and the pain) for parenting and in the home.  Statistics show that when men have children, their careers soar, but when women have children their careers at best plateau and more often regress. The Motherhood Penalty vs. the Fatherhood Bonus. is an interesting read.

We need to change the bias.


This is not to be confused with paternity leave – the 2 weeks men can take off around the time a baby is born.  Sadly, research has revealed that only a quarter of eligible fathers took time off following the birth of a child in 2021.  While the amount of money paid to new parents is a factor in the uptake of paternity leave, the larger issue is that of ingrained bias.  A survey of more than 600 men found that three-quarters felt there was stigma attached to taking paternity leave, with nearly all agreeing the workplace culture needed to change.

You can read more on the uptake of paternity leave in this People Management Report.

So if it’s that difficult to change the stigma around paternity leave, championing the up-take of shared parental leave is even more challenging, especially as the policy is currently complex and needs a drastic overhaul. 

Despite the difficulties, some enlightened companies are making it work successfully.  The Guardian article cites Aviva as a company that has successfully introduced shared parental leave and it’s a win/win all round.

Aviva offers its UK staff the right to a year off work including 26 weeks on full pay, regardless of their sex, after they have a baby. In 2020, 99% of new fathers at the company took parental leave, with 84% taking at least six months – three weeks more, on average, than in 2018.

“Dads love it. And actually, the thing about equal parental leave is that it just changes the conversation about who is the primary and secondary carer; it changes the mindset around hiring. It nudges people away from some of the bias – and I think it’s probably great for families and communities as well.”

Danny Harmer, Chief People Officer at Aviva

Harmer says that in meetings with executives she gets asked about the “return on investment” for the scheme.

 “It’s a bit lazy, we should be beyond that now. Yes, it costs money. But surely if it evens out the playing field for talent and is more likely to keep talent, it is good for business. But I think you also need to be in an organisation that’s willing to say, intuitively, we just know it’s the right thing to do.”

Danny Harmer, Chief People Officer at Aviva


Smart employers should be thinking about what they could do for parents (women and men) as provision and cost of childcare is a major issue that needs addressing and is a barrier to parenting.  The OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) calculates that 30% of the typical double-income couple is spent on childcare.  That compares to 18% in Finland.

I was surprised as 30% is lower than I expected, but that’s probably because I anecdotally hear many women talking about most of their wages going out on childcare and many questioning whether it’s worth it (especially once they have their second or third child).  That’s ONE thing we need to change – the perception that childcare comes from the mother’s wage, rather than the joint income. 

“Polling for Vodafone found that one if five 18-34-year-olds have quit a job over poor parental leave.  25% said they had decided not to apply for a job because an employer’s parental policies were inadequate.  Enlighted self-interest is driving companies to offer more, otherwise they’ll miss out on talent and run out of workers.” 

James Kirkup, The Times

The Harvard Business Review argues that childcare is a business issue and shouldn’t just be left to government policy:

Childcare is not a family issue, it is a business issue. It affects how we work, when we work, and for many, why we work. Moving forward, employer-provided childcare could also influence where we work. Employers that provide high-quality childcare will not only differentiate themselves from the competition but will also create a “sticky” benefit that fosters retention. Employees are less likely to move to a new job if it also means moving their childcare from an environment they love and trust.

When it comes to keeping good quality staff, who can be hard and expensive to replace, having creche and childcare facilities or nannies can be a small expense relative to the potential benefits of keeping the employee happy and productive. Companies (to name but a few) that have benefited from this approach include:

  • Cisco whose U.K. head office offers an on-site nursery for children within the age ranges of 3 months to 5 years.  In addition to this, members of staff are also offered discounted back-up care, which can be spent on either the on-site nursery or any other nursery/childcare service outside of this. Employees are allotted up to 10 days of this back-up care a year.
  • Next, the fashion and homeware retailer has an on-site nursery “Next Steps Nursery” that currently holds an “Outstanding” Ofsted rating.
  • Toyota’s nursery is available to all staff with children, up to a maximum age of five. The nursery also accommodates employees’ shift patterns, open during the same hours of a production day shift so workers can drop their children off before starting work.
  • Saga’s Apple Nursery, located in the heart of the company’s Sandgate site, has been marked ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted for the second time in a row.   

4. EMBRACE FLEXIBLE WORKING – for men and women

Flexible working has become a hot topic during the pandemic as people have been working from home and there’s now a reluctance to go back to the office full-time, with most people opting for a hybrid working model.  A global survey of more than 9,000 workers found that 83% want a hybrid work situation, in which they combine remote and on-site working.

I spent most of my career working flexibly – and very successfully.  I was a parent of four boys and managed to develop my career by having a very flexible approach to where and when I worked. I was always 100% committed to my work, always met deadlines and never let anyone down.  I often cite how I’d leave the office to pick the boys up from school at 3.00pm, but settle down to work again at 8.00pm when they’d gone to bed.  I also had good childcare cover (with multiple back-ups) which meant I was well supported. 

So I’m a massive advocate for flexible working – and it’s easy with today’s technology.  I’m also a great believer in measuring productivity rather than time in the office – establishing metrics based on outcomes. 

Flexible working is a massive benefit, not just for parents, but for all employees who want to enjoy work/life balance. 

Here’s a link to a Forbes article on how to embrace flexible work with 5 easy steps.

5. BROADEN YOUR NOTION OF FLEXIBILITY – help women return to the workforce

Experts say the best time to get pregnant is between your late 20s and early 30s. This age range is associated with the best outcomes for both you and your baby. One study pinpointed the ideal age to give birth to a first child as 30.5.

Unfortunately, this often coincides with the time when women are peaking in their careers, making the decision about whether or not to have a child really difficult.  Many feel that having a baby late 20s/early 30s would be career suicide.  So more and more women are leaving having a baby until later, but the risks for women over 35 significantly increase. 

I have a personal view that we should be enabling women to have children at the best time for their own health and for the health of their child.  Career breaks without penalties should be considered, improved back to work opportunities and training.

I have known many extremely talented women drop out of the workforce because they have taken time out to have a family and struggle to get back onto the career ladder.  Why can’t women have children earlier, return to the workforce when the kids get to school age and continue to forge ahead with their careers? 

Women returning to work often feel as though their career break has put them at a disadvantage and this is borne out by the stats. Out of the 427,000 women in the UK on a career break, around 249,000 are likely to re-enter the workplace in lower-skilled roles.

The amount of lost revenue in neglecting to help women return to work in the UK is approximately £1.7bn.  So, are companies missing out on when they marginalise women coming back from a career-break? Apart from practical skills, there is a wealth of life experience that parenthood and a career break can bring; confidence and maturity that comes from experiencing life events, strong organisational skills, increased desire to succeed – and many more. 

Organisations who introduce policies and initiatives to accommodate returners back into work will benefit hugely. Last year the Times showcased the top 50 employers who are striving to help women returners back into work, offering ‘Returnships’ to help professionals back into senior and corporate roles.   Supporting returners broadens your pipeline, strengthens your brand and is a cost-effective way of recruiting.  The key to success includes: a simple recruitment process as applications can be daunting for those who have been out of the workforce for a number of years; creating a supportive organisational culture; visible role models and mentors; return to work assessments; flexibility. 

A supportive and inclusive approach will offer women returning to work the opportunity to feel valued and inspire them to take their career to the next level. All of which will contribute to your company’s growth and success. 

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