Is parenting scarier than ever?

When 37-year-old Heather Marcoux was expecting her son several years ago, she and her husband assumed it would be the first of multiple pregnancies.

“We definitely thought we’d have more than one,” said Marcoux, who lives in Alberta, Canada. But today, the parents are very clear that their now elementary school-aged son will never have a sibling. “We can provide our one child with a pretty good standard of living,” she says. “But if we add more children, it will decrease significantly.”

It is partly a financial decision; even with Marcoux and her husband’s income combined, child care is a struggle, and saving in any significant way is impossible. But it also has to do with a lack of support and doubts about the future.

“I feel like another child would be a burden we just couldn’t handle,” says Marcoux. “No one wants to think of their growing family as a burden. It’s confusing to even say. But some days we just think it feels so impossible what we’re trying to do with one. How could we make [our day-to-day lives] with more work? Some family members are disappointed with our choice, but the world is just different now.”

The global birth rate is falling. It’s not necessarily news; it has been declining since 1950, according to data collected by Washington, DC-based nonprofit Population Reference Bureau. But the decline in more recent years has been particularly sharp: in 2021, the global fertility rate is 2.3 births per woman; in 1990 it was 3.2. A new Pew Research Center survey found that a growing percentage of childless American adults between 18 and 49 plan to stay that way. In every single European nation, fertility in 2021 was below the 2.1 births per woman generally considered the “replacement rate” for a population. In a number of those countries, birth rates have reached record lows.

It is not difficult to imagine why young people hesitate to have large families. Financial stability is harder than ever to achieve. One in 10 non-retired Americans say their finances may never recover from the pandemic, and significant inflation could loom in Europe. In many places, home ownership is anything but a pipe dream. Political and civil unrest reign throughout the world, and the climate is in crisis. It is easy to take a gloomy view of the future.

“The central explanation is the rise of uncertainty,” Daniele Vignoli, professor of demography at the University of Florence, said in his keynote speech at a research workshop hosted by the European University Institute on Zoom. “The increasing speed, dynamism and volatility” of change on numerous fronts, he explains, “make it increasingly difficult for individuals to predict their future”.

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