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Commentary: The only child is becoming the norm

There are 83 countries, home to nearly half the world's population. where fertility rates are below replacement levels, says Camilla Cavendish.

LONDON: As people all over the world ponder the news that the past two decades have included the 10 warmest years on record, the UK royal family has taken an unusual stand against climate change. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex say they plan to have only two children, “maximum”, to show their concern for the planet.

Predictably — and unfairly — they’ve been accused of virtue-signalling and hypocrisy. But in fact, this very modern couple may already be behind the curve. Outside of sub-Saharan Africa, we seem to be heading for a world of only children.

With millions hanging on Prince Harry and Meghan’s every word since their fairy tale romance, the climate is a good cause over which to shake a bit of celebrity dust. 

“I’ve always thought this place is borrowed” mused the Prince in an interview with the conservationist Jane Goodall in the latest issue of Vogue, controversially guest-edited by Meghan. 

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex with their son Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor. (Photo: Pool via ReutersDominic Lipinski//File Photo) Surely, being as evolved as we are supposed to be, we should be able to leave something better behind for the next generation. FAMILIES WORLDWIDE ARE ALREADY SHRINKING

That seems unarguable. The good news for the planet is that, globally, families are shrinking. 

In 1964 the average woman had just over five children; by 2015 she had only 2.5. There are now 83 countries, home to nearly half the world’s population, with fertility rates below replacement rate (roughly 2.1 births per woman). 

Some governments are paying substantial baby bonuses to try to bribe their citizens into procreating but the trend seems unstoppable, outside sub-Saharan Africa, even in nations we think of as deeply traditional.

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On Thursday (Aug 2), the Office for National Statistics announced that the birth rate in England and Wales in 2018 fell to 11.1 live births per 1,000 members of the population, the lowest rate since records began in 1938. 

Italy, once the home of romance and big Catholic families, has hit its lowest birth rate this century, accentuated by record emigration. 

Japan’s population shrank last year, with a total fertility rate of 1.42.

Japan's population now stands around 126 million and is continuing to decline despite government efforts to boost the birthrate. (Photo: AFP/Behrouz Mehri)

READ: Be concerned about unhealthy mindsets about dating and marriage, not fewer babies, a commentary

In the latter two countries, women are throwing off the shackles of family duties. “I wouldn’t mind having a child,” one successful Japanese executive told me in Tokyo. 

But I can’t imagine putting up with a husband.

Male reluctance to share the burden has come up repeatedly when I have interviewed women in different countries about why they are turning away from motherhood. There is also the tragic problem that some women who really want children can’t find anyone who will commit.

READ: How do you know if it's time to get married? A commentary

As we live longer, our desire to study for longer, pay off debt and settle down later is coming up against the hard deadline of the biological clock — with painful consequences.


Worries about affordability also play a big role. It is perhaps no accident that some of the lowest birth rates are found in some of the world’s most expensive cities - including Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. 

Child-rearing is costly; and some modern couples are very aware of the sacrifices, especially when so many are dual-earning couples with career ambitions.

(Photo: Unsplash/bady qb)

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One consequence is that only children are becoming the norm. 

In the UK, 40 per cent of married couples have only one child and, among unmarried cohabitating couples and single parents, the share is even higher. 

In the US, around 23 per cent of families now have only one child. (In 1976, four in 10 American mothers aged 40 to 44 had four or more children). 

Japan’s new emperor epitomises the new normal: He and his wife have only one child, a daughter. You don’t need to impose a Chinese-style “one-child policy” to end up there.


Will this new generation all be little emperors? As an only child myself, I’m sensitive to the charge that we are a self-absorbed and needy bunch. I was certainly protected from the conflicts that my (three) sons experience daily. 

Watching them argue about who gets to sit in the front passenger seat, negotiate over which film to watch or concentrate amid hellish noise, I feel envious of their resilience. I do wonder if schools may need to teach the art of compromise, if the number of onlies keeps growing.

On the other hand, onlies benefit from undivided parental attention. 

(Photo: Unsplash/Steven Van Loy)

As a result, Lauren Sandler, author of One and Only, has argued that they are more mature and intelligent. 

Frank Sulloway, in his seminal work on the effects of birth order, found that only children tend to act like firstborns, benefiting from the same high parental expectations and often doing better at school.

A shrinking world will challenge us to redefine our notion of “family”, and to build different support networks for old age. But it should also be positive for the planet — if we can tackle the continuing population growth in Africa.

In seeking to help the environment, Prince Harry is implicitly questioning the traditional royal desire for an “heir and a spare” (usually male), to continue the line. But if he and Meghan really want to be pioneers, they should perhaps embrace staycations and veganism. 

Having a little brother or sister for baby Archie won’t be remarkable, in a world of only children.

The writer is author of ‘Extra Time: Ten Lessons for an Ageing World’

Source: Financial Times/nr(sl)


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