Is Kirstie Allsopp right about prioritising finding a man?
Published 04/06/2014 | 02:30
She caused uproar by saying young women should build a family before a career. But is she right?
No says Colette Brown
Maybe when you're the daughter of a baron, having babies in your 20s makes sense, but most of us plebs can't afford it.
Self-professed feminist Kirstie Allsopp, last in the news proclaiming that women find housework therapeutic, is back with more pearls of wisdom for the sisterhood.
Women, she said, should forget all that silly college and career stuff and instead devote their early adulthood to finding a man and having a family.
If she had a daughter, she would sit her down and say: "Darling, do you know what? Don't go to university. Start work straight after school, stay at home, save up your deposit – I'll help you, let's get you into a flat. And then we can find you a nice boyfriend and you can have a baby by the time you're 27."
Now, I don't know what planet Allsopp lives on, but back on planet Earth, finding a job, even for graduates, is actually quite difficult, which is why the youth unemployment rate is 26pc.
Allsopp may profess her feminist credentials but following her advice would result in a generation of young women either on welfare or working in minimum wage jobs.
I'm no financial expert, but counselling young women to save for a flat when they're unemployed or earning €300 a week, doesn't appear like the most cogent advice.
And the prospect of young men rising through the ranks while women serve them fast food doesn't sound like a feminist nirvana to me.
Perhaps Allsopp is unaware of it, but going to college results in quite a large financial dividend – a lifetime 65pc difference in earning power between graduates and those without a degree.
So advising women to start university aged 50 is akin to telling them to set fire to a big mountain of cash.
Unsurprisingly, the broadcaster's bad advice is based on bad science.
According to Allsopp, fertility "falls off a cliff" once women turn 35 and if they really want children they should be willing to sacrifice a professional life to have them.
She may have based her claim on one ubiquitous statistic, which states that one in three women aged between 35 and 39 will not fall pregnant after a year of trying.
This alarmist figure can even be found on the NHS website – but what you won't find as easily is the source of the information. It doesn't come from a study of contemporary women, but from an analysis of French birth records from 1670 to 1830 – before modern medicine was invented.
Actually, what recent research has found is that the decrease in fertility for women aged over 35 is relatively marginal. One study of 2,820 Danish women, published last year, found 78pc of 35-to-40-year-olds got pregnant within a year, compared to 84pc of women aged between 20 and 34.
Misleading, scare-mongering claims, that women are dried-up old crones by age 35, are not just stupid – they're dangerous and are being blamed for a 15pc increase since 2001 in abortion rates in Britain for women aged over 35. Having been repeatedly told by people like Allsopp that they have no prospect of becoming pregnant, an increasing number are ditching contraception – and coping with unplanned pregnancies.
It's also worth noting that it's not just women who have fertility issues – an equivalent number of men also have them. So you could sacrifice your career, have your mother find you a nice man, shack up in your flat and still end up with no children – unless, of course, your mother's background checks on your husband include medical tests.
Instead of advising young women to live in poverty and raise children, maybe Allsopp could spend her time more productively and use her profile to champion measures that make it easier for mothers to work.
For many women, the decision about whether to have children has nothing to do with fertility clocks and everything to do with money. It was recently estimated that raising a child in Ireland costs between €250,000 and €300,000 – not easily achieved if you're in a minimum wage job with no hope of career advancement. A large portion of this comprises childcare costs, which devour up to 40pc of average wages in Ireland – compared with just 12pc in the rest of the EU.
Instead of berating women for concentrating on their careers in their 20s, why not do something to change the issues that make it so hard for mothers to work?
Yes says Allison Pearson
The day I was born, my mother was about to turn 24 and my grandmother was 46. When the Daughter was born in 1996, I was 35 and my mother was 58, still full of vim and ready to lend much-needed practical help to her career-minded daughter, who had been working so hard since she left university that she had seldom seen her own house in daylight.
I confess it; I was a stranger to my own Kenwood mixer.
If the Daughter follows my timeline, I will be at least 70 when my first grandchild is born – if she finds time to fit in babies at all, that is. Hardly a given in an era when one in four female graduates on this side of the Atlantic will never have children.
I really, really want to be a wonderful, active grandmother, not least because I feel that I missed out on too much of my own children's precious, talc-scented babyhood, being back in the harness faster than you can say: "File by 5 o'clock."
So, recently, I have taken to saying the unsayable to my girl. "If you find a lovely man in your early 20s, you can have your babies then, darling. The rest can wait."
This is heresy for a feminist raised in the 1970s on the gospel of Having It All. It pains me to know I am a traitor to the cause.
My generation of female graduates just knew that we would have a career first, get ourselves established, then marriage and children would show up at some indeterminate point – quite possibly delivered by a stork in a premium time slot booked at our convenience.
Certainly that time would not be before our mid-30s. So firmly embedded did this new template for reproduction become that women who had their babies before they were 30 began to be regarded as mentally deficient child brides.
Sophie, who works in PR and got pregnant at 26, told me recently that she was treated as an object of curiosity and sympathy.
A couple of Sophie's friends actually asked her if she was going to have an abortion, assuming that the baby was a mistake.
When Sophie said that the pregnancy was planned, her professional women friends shook their heads in amused astonishment and told her she must be mad.
Yet, according to human biology, it is Sophie who was sensible and her friends who are the crazy ones.
Most hit puberty in their early teens, which meant the eggs they were born with had been ready for action for around 13 years.
That's a long time to leave eggs on a shelf. By the time those women planned on starting a family, say at 35, the eggs would have been waiting to be fertilised for at least 20 years, and getting pregnant would be twice as hard.
It's an extraordinary idea. Millennia of evolution have been overturned in a few short decades in order that women can succeed in a man-made hierarchy.
So three cheers for Kirstie Allsopp. The robust, plain-speaking presenter of Channel 4's Location, Location, Location said this week that she believes women are being let down by the system. "We should speak honestly and frankly about fertility and the fact that it falls off a cliff when you're 35," says Allsopp.
"At the moment, women have 15 years to go to university, get their career on track, try to buy a home and have a baby. That is a hell of a lot to ask someone."
She's right, isn't she? I'd never thought of it quite like that before – though, on any occasion when I find myself addressing a group of women in their late 20s, I tell them that, if they have a presentable male on the premises, they should go home that same night and have unprotected sex.
My crusade came from the sense that, like Kirstie Allsopp, I was extremely fortunate to be a mother at all, having left it late in the day. Friends were not so lucky.
"I only whistled in there by a miracle," says 42-year-old Allsopp, whose sons are aged seven and five. Her honesty is as refreshing as it is rare.
Kirstie Allsopp, through her willingness to share her mistakes, is at least trying to spare the next generation of women the heartache she has seen among friends who have struggled to have a child.
Yet postponing mother-hood grows more popular, not less, with the number of mothers over 50 doubling in the past five years.
Where I disagree with Allsopp is when she says she would tell a daughter of hers not to go to university.
Now that really is the voice of privilege talking through its trust fund. Education remains the best springboard to equality that we have. Besides, university is a top place to meet a suitable mate.
The conundrum is that the higher the education and the steeper the career path we put our girls on, the farther they get away from what Mother Nature intended, with often devastating results. We need companies to come up with creative solutions to help women combine work and motherhood more effectively.
We need a revolution in our thinking about the right time to start a family. If Kirstie Allsopp can track down a property to suit any budget or taste, then she is just the woman to lead the campaign. Now, Kirstie, if you could just find a well-appointed young man with great potential and outstanding views for a certain daughter of mine ...