The Natural History of the Only Child

Carl Zimmer:

Modern life means small families. Starting about two centuries ago, families in Western Europe began to shrink, and then — country by country, continent by continent — the rest of the world followed suit. The trend is so big that it may rein in the world population’s exponential growth, perhaps even causing it to stop growing altogether over the next century.
But exactly why families are shrinking is a mystery. Rising living standards seem to have something to do with it. It’s certainly true that as living standards rose in England — as children died less from diseases, as the country overall became richer — the size of the English family shrank. When other countries became wealthier, their families shrank, too. These days, affluent countries tend as a rule to have smaller families than poor ones.
But why should that happen? After all, the biological imperative to have kids is strong, and if people have more resources, you might expect them to have more kids. As a result, some demographers have decided that the link between more wealth and fewer children has nothing to do with biology — rather, that small families are more like fads that sweep through countries when they get richer.
Yet we shouldn’t abandon biology just yet. The idea that wealthy nations have fewer children than poorer ones is something of an illusion. If you look closer within the groups of people who make up those countries, it turns out wealthier people actually do tend to have more children. In one of the most extreme examples, scientists looked at Harvard graduates worth over a million dollars. Even among these highly successful people, the richest of them tended to have bigger families.

One thought on “The Natural History of the Only Child”

  1. As the mother of an IVF child (born when I was 35 after 3 years of treatment) and someone surrounded by only children (not only my own, but my husband, both my parents, and my stepdaughter from my husband’s first marriage)…
    I read stuff about only children all the time. The biology you can’t ignore is that as women in more developed countries have postponed marriage, childbirth itself has become increasingly postponed, and since 1 in 4 couples in their thirties will experience infertility issues and every couple’s fertility decreases with age, smaller families are going to occur naturally. When I married at the age of 31, I didn’t know infertility was in my future. But it definitely turned out to limit our family size.
    I have to wonder, too, when I read about wealthier people with larger families how many of those were people whose income levels gave them access to fertility treatments. My husband and I were relatively badly paid white-collar workers (librarian and musician) when we conceived our son, but that was in a state — Illinois — where IVF coverage was mandated by law for insurers over a certain size and in a city–Chicago–where access to assisted reproductive technologies was relatively good. This experience gave us a perspective on infertility that is lacking in states like Wisconsin where IVF coverage is not mandated and thus IVF parents are either those who can afford it, or those who have made tremendous financial sacrifices to do it. People of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds are affected by this.

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