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Millennials & Gen Z: Climate Change Biggest Reason Not To Have Children

Climate more important than the economy in regards to birthrate decline!

A climate crisis, a flagging economy, and generational trauma have made the prospect of parenthood unappealing for many Gen Zers.

The biggest study yet on climate anxiety and young people – published last year in the English journal The Lancet – found that 40% of Gen Zers surveyed worldwide are hesitant to have children because of the climate crisis. Other surveys have found that a similar number of millennials feel the same way.

And they’re not wrong to worry: The decision to have kids has a greater impact on your lifetime carbon footprint than anything else you do in life.

In the last couple years, the U.S. has seen its lowest birth rate in American history. Typically economic uncertainty is a leading cause, thanks to things like a global pandemic or high student debt. It can be a result of good news too, like greater access to female education or lower infant mortality rates. Increasingly, climate change has also started to show up in these statistics.

“Climate change is one factor, among others,” says UC Riverside Gender Studies Professor Jade Sasser. “Young people really are starting to feel like they don't have a choice about whether they can have the families that they want, because climate change is such a crisis now, and will be such a crisis in the future, that morally and ethically it doesn't feel right to bring another person into that who didn't choose to be here.”

But the decision not to have children (according to an article in the Washington Post) in the face of crisis is nothing new. In fact, the impulse can be traced not only to our human ancestors but also beyond the human species. The anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hardy has observed that mothers of all kinds, human and otherwise, make choices about how many children they will raise and when, based on ecological and historical circumstances. Primates have been seen to abandon babies born in moments of food shortages or environmental distress, the pressure to survive in their given habitat overriding any reproductive instinct or maternal bond.

It's not just the US that is facing this problem a project that received European Union funding to explore how fertility across Europe is changing and being shaped by multiple anxieties in people. Called EU-FER also reflects this attitude, the six-year initiative is wrapped up in August 2023.

The study exposed that angst about the future is causing more and more people in Europe to delay having a child or to decide against having any at all, according to researchers.

In the 1960s, Italians had 2.4 children on average. Today they have 1.25, below the EU average of 1.53. In Italy, the average age at which women have their first child is 31.6 years – among the oldest in Europe. These figures are below what demographers term “replacement level” – the average number of births required to keep the population size stable in the absence of migration. In 2023, more than half of Europe’s population was older than 45.5 years and more than a Quarter was over 60. ‘Ageing doesn’t just mean having an increasing share of the elderly,’ said researchers. ‘Ageing also means having fewer and fewer younger people around able to have and raise children.’

The researchers also found that people were more likely to endorse childlessness in countries with higher levels of gender equality, such as in Scandinavia, than in countries with lower gender equality, such as in Southern and Eastern Europe (see figure 1). They explain this fact by pointing out that countries with high levels of gender equality place a greater emphasis on individual autonomy and decision-making, emancipation and modernization. Interestingly, the highest disapproval rates toward childlessness were found in Eastern European countries, even though these countries have seen an immense decline in fertility since the collapse of communism and the transition to a liberal market economy.

The researchers suggest that, although fertility behavior might have changed, people may want to retain their traditional values, including a positive attitude toward children, to help create a feeling of security. In contrast, a country’s wealth in terms of its gross domestic product (GDP), and the level of childcare provision didn't appear to influence attitudes toward childlessness.


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