Our daughter, Aryana, was born in November. The experience of becoming a dad has been full of surprises, not least discovering the idiosyncratic subcultures of parenthood: the dads that size up Bugaboo pushchairs as if they were Porsches, the frenzied Facebook debates about breast milk, the claims that Aldi nappies are better than Pampers.
I also find myself relating to others in unexpected ways. There’s the changed connection to my own parents for one thing, and how complete strangers will tell my wife “congratulations” when they see our dozing infant in a cafe or shop. It brings home the instinctive kindness of most people, and how – regardless of political views – we all (or nearly all) share certain experiences: birth, work and growing older.
Then there is the deeper appreciation I have developed for single parents – because this can feel impossible for two people let alone one. Socialists believe humans are fundamentally cooperative creatures by nature, and few things make that more readily apparent than rearing a child. The right might agree, saying this is why the family unit is so essential, while the left would point to the need for greater state assistance for single parents. As someone raised by a single mother, I don’t think it’s an either-or.
Noticing these shifts in my perspective brings me to the key question. Has becoming a father made me more rightwing? Have I become that very thing so derided by Novara Media over the years – a ‘centrist dad’?
While I do have a newfound regard for John Lewis changing facilities, and just about anything made by JoJo Maman Bebe, the answer is no. If anything I’ve become more leftwing since Aryana was born. Not only do I feel even more strongly about the challenges facing society – from the housing crisis to dying high streets – but it’s also never been clearer that we are all part of a greater whole, stretching both back into the past and forward into the future. The idea of the atomised liberal individual has never felt more absurd.
The World Neither Starts Nor Ends With Us.
Alongside Aryana being born, 2023 saw my grandmother pass away. In imagining what my daughter might witness in her lifetime, I’ve reflected on all that changed during the 97 years of my grandmother’s life. After all, when Rudaabeh Bastani was born the British empire spanned a quarter of the planet, and the human population was two billion – it quadrupled during her lifetime. She witnessed not only the second world war, and the fall of Europe’s empires, but the cold war and the rise of China. She saw the jet age, the space race and the sequencing of the human genome.
Thinking about such events, and the kind of transformation that is possible in a single lifetime, brings to mind the adage of Roy Amara: that humans tend to overestimate technological change in the short term and underestimate it in the long term. This is worth remembering, given that Aryana will be around for 2120 if she lives as long as her great-grandmother. While it is impossible to predict what that will look like (Amara’s Law suggests our guesses will be painfully unimaginative) some trends are probable. The average person will be much older and, in all likelihood, the human population will be shrinking for the first time since the Black Death. The planet will also be warmer and more urbanised. Then there is technology. If my grandmother’s world was bookended by the biplane and reusable first-stage rockets, then Aryana will see something analogous in AI. In place of the biplane, think ChatGPT3 and generative AI. At some point in her life, she will likely live in a society where machines can do most tasks presently performed by humans.
That is my first criticism of the centrist dad – a figure who generally believes the world starts and ends with us and that the future can only resemble the recent past. Such a worldview emerged from a unique moment in history – the middle decades of the last century – and found its culmination in “the long 90s”. Wearing their Superdry gilets, and nursing that second Peroni, the centrist dad will assure you nothing really changes. History tells us that couldn’t be more wrong.
Starting a family in the 2020s feels like a process of radicalisation.
Beyond recognising change as inevitable rather than impossible, there is also the fact that the ‘centrism’ of centrist dads is an outgrowth of economic circumstances which have vanished. If the political economy of the 90s pushed them towards buy-to-let mortgages, Top Gear and a smug sense of cultural superiority – then becoming a parent today is more akin to a process of radicalisation.
Couples earning good money and renting a one-bedroom flat may never have been ‘Corbynistas’, but it’s impossible for them not to grasp the housing crisis. People in their late 30s and early 40s are now three times more likely to rent than twenty years ago. In 1990, 60% of 25-34-year-olds in the southeast of England were homeowners. Yet by 2017 that had fallen to less than 30%. In 1997 the most common living arrangement among 18-34-year-olds was in a couple with one or more children. Today, most people in their early 20s still live with their parents.
Even those who can afford to buy a home find themselves spending up to £2,000 a month on childcare. In one survey of more than 20,000 working parents, 97% of respondents said the cost of childcare was too high – with a third claiming it cost more each month than rent or mortgage payments. It’s no wonder millennials are breaking the cardinal rule of 20th-century politics and becoming more leftwing over time.
While the fertility rate in the UK is just over 1.5 (the lowest on record) it turns out that when asked about the ideal family size, respondents say they would like more children. Just 3% of Americans consider one child to be the ideal number (I write that as someone who was a perfectly happy only child). So it shouldn’t be surprising that larger families are becoming a status symbol among celebrities and the ultra-rich.
In response to all this, conservatives say there is no evidence to suggest more state intervention will help people start families. That’s true, but fertility rates being as low as they are is entirely without precedent. Half the planet is below replacement rate, and in Britain, the total fertility rate is plummeting. What is more, numbers are only likely to fall further still. Given what adults themselves report, it seems obvious that we need, and should try, affordable childcare, vastly improved statutory maternity and paternity leave, and solutions to the housing crisis.
Every parent and would-be parent tells me as much. The help is too little and the disincentives too high. To address that means a departure from centrist prescriptions. Something a growing number of dads know all too well.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.