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“I do not want to bring a child into the world when I believe the world is in a worse place compared to when I was born,” explains 23-year-old Anders. He says that looking at the climate crisis, along with worsening financial insecurity, put him off wanting to ever have children. “It would maybe feel less bleak if I could put my child into a world where I was confident that they would have a happy and bright future,” he says. “But it’s discouraging seeing politicians and big businesses failing to put away their short sightedness and greed for the sake of maintaining this fluke of a reality that we live in.”
It is often seen as the ultimate biological imperative to have kids. It’s at the centre of pretty much every religion, the driving force behind evolutionary biology and supposedly explains huge swathes of human behaviour. But in the midst of a pandemic, climate collapse and deepening inequality, more and more young people like Anders are choosing to defy that imperative and avoid having children.
For 17-year-old Nadine*, the decision not to have children first occurred to her at work. Her job involved interacting with families, and seeing them made clear the downsides of parenthood. “It’s just an unnecessary stress and financial burden that can be avoided so easily,” she explains. “I want to be able to maintain the life I’d live; a lot of time and energy would have to be devoted to children.”
Nadine and Anders are part of a rising surge of Gen Zers embracing the prospect of a childless future. One in eight 18 to 24 year olds have already decided to never have children. Increasing numbers of under 24 year olds have also reported wanting to delay having children to some point in the future.
While for some it is a material choice, for more and more young people, the opposition to having children runs deeper, manifesting as ‘antinatalism’ – the philosophical belief that having biological children is morally wrong. Huck has already reported on the rise of online antinatalism, but even since that piece was written at the beginning of the pandemic, the membership of the r/antinatalism subreddit has shot up from 46,000 to 118,000 – an almost 250 per cent rise.While much of the traditional members were millennials or older, the forums are seeing more and more posts from or about Gen Z with thousands of upvotes, from resharing TikToks and Youtube videos about why they’re never having kids to jokes about wishing they hadn’t been born and the boomer obsession with having children.
In the aftermath of the recent IPCC report, which delivered the most severe warning on the climate crisis yet, users mourned for new children. One redditor referred to them as the “poor unfortunate souls whose first breath will be full of wildfire smoke and/or air pollution”.
On one level, that young people are choosing not to have children is just part of a wider trend. “For the last 200 years we’ve been having fewer and fewer children… as you improve the health of women and offer education they decide to have fewer children,” explains Professor Sarah Harper, Director of the Oxford University Institute of Population Ageing and an expert in falling birthrates. “They’re now really in control of their childbearing in a way they weren’t for so many generations.”
In the past, having children wasn’t a question at all, but an enforced expectation: as recently as the 1960s and ’70s, there was a legal marriage bar in a lot of industries, banning married women from working because they were supposed to be at home having and raising kids. In the decades that followed, it has become a choice for more and more people – and when people are given a choice, some people are going to say ‘no’, or at least delay the decision until they’re older.
But the reasons go a lot deeper than those wider trends. Young people are far more likely to have low-paid work and increasingly face worse pension opportunities. Millennials and Gen Z have thousands of pounds more household debt than the UK average as a result of rising student, housing, and personal debt (not to mention buy-now-pay-later sites like Klarna).
They’re also twice as likely to work in the gig economy than the UK average. “Economic uncertainties affect the ability of young adults to make transitions to adulthood – to leave the parental home, form partnerships, and start a family,” explains Ann Berrington, Professor of Demography and Social Statistics at Southampton University. And it’s not like having a child is a small financial commitment. Often, it requires you to sacrifice a career or spend exorbitant amounts on childcare – parents pay an average of over £7,000 per year for just a part-time nursery place. And that is often too much cost for households to bear, which are increasingly reliant on having two incomes to survive – or what was labelled by Senator Elizabeth Warren in her book of the same name, ‘the two-income trap’.
Even if many members of Gen Z are too young to have felt the brunt of these economic impacts, they’re certainly aware of them, and aware that most of them are only getting worse. Both Anders and Nadine say that money and the risk of financial instability played a huge role in choosing not to have children, not only because they were unsure about whether they could provide for a child long-term, but also because choosing to have one felt like a huge economic burden. “If you choose not to have children you have more freedom in life, especially financially,” Anders explains.
Then there’s housing. By recent measures, homeowners are almost twice as likely as social and private renters to have children. At the same time it’s almost impossible to escape the constant headlines about the inability of young people to afford housing: 90.4 per cent of homes are owned by those aged over 35, far higher than at any point in recent history.
And the fact women and non-binary people have more control over whether they will have children means those economic issues actually matter. The impoverished Victorian-era working class may have still been expected to have children even if they couldn’t afford to, but now it’s a real factor when planning your future.
Then there’s the environment, and concerns about it differ with respect to child bearing. On one level, many, like Anders, are opposed to bringing children into the world amid all the uncertainty and instability caused by the climate crisis. But more than that, there are many who see not having children as a way to fight the climate crisis. One Swedish study found that having one less child per family can save an average of 58.6 tonnes of carbon every year. By comparison, going car free saved 2.4 tonnes.
Of course it’s worth acknowledging that it’s not simply population but consumption that drives climate change – the US produces the same amount of CO2 as 89 countries across South America, Africa and much of the Middle East and Central Asia, an area with well over six times the population. As Professor Harper argues: “It’s all about consumption… have children if you want children, but make sure your family and your household is low consumption.” However, many people living in Western countries like Britain or the US point out that not having a child in the first place is a surefire way to reduce emissions, even if not a total solution to the crisis in itself.
The experts Huck spoke to suggested that it’s not necessarily a bad thing that less people want children. While feeling unable to have kids when you otherwise might is undeniably a problem, people having a choice over whether they have children is far better than the alternative. More than that, many who are against having their own children have said they’re far more open to adopting children. Given that there are twice as many children waiting to be adopted as families to adopt, more adoption can only be a good thing.
While younger people aren’t the only ones to have grown up with uncertainty – many older generations grew up in the Cold War amid the constant threat of total nuclear annihilation – all the experts Huck spoke to agreed that younger people face more economic, social and environmental insecurity than their predecessors, and are more aware of that fact themselves. It’s also worth acknowledging that many of these issues affect younger millennials as much as they do Gen Z – typically, a big social crisis doesn’t tend to follow the arbitrary lines we draw across generations.
The fundamental problem is that having a child is the ultimate investment in certainty, in the belief that you, your society and the world itself will all be functional enough to provide for the couple of decades or so it takes to become an adult. So as economic and environmental insecurity seems to only worsen year on year, it’s not hard to work out why very few young people are unsure of what the future holds for themselves, let alone any potential children. As one member of r/Antinatalism put it, having children is “short-sighted, because we are fucked”.
*Name changed to protect identity
Follow Andrew Kersley on Twitter.