The British nuclear family is in meltdown. Given that new research shows nearly half of all families are one-child affairs, you could even say that we’ve fallen victim to China syndrome. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number has increased by almost 700,000 in 15 years to 3.7 million, and one-child families are likely to be in the majority within a decade.
Are we to become a nation of little emperors and empresses? If so, we’re certainly not making the demographic change alone. In the US, there are now 20 million only-child households, representing 22 per cent (and climbing) of American families. In Canada, 43 per cent of families now have singletons.
In Spain and Portugal – which have traditionally celebrated the large family – a third are now one-child units. India, too, is following the trend: the Delhi-based National Council of Applied Economic Research reported that 10 per cent of households are opting to have only one child, and nearly a quarter of college-educated women say they would prefer to have a singleton.
Ironic, then, that China, where the one-child policy has been law since 1978, is at last softening its stance. Two weeks ago, the government body that ran the country’s population control policy was stripped of its power; a move, Sinologists say, that signals a phasing-out of the much-criticised scheme.
So why do so many other nations appear to be instinctively reducing the size of their families? The ONS points to financial pressures; larger families, it warns, face “the greater challenge of combining work with childcare with three or more children compared with one or two”. Bear in mind, too, that the cost of bringing up a child to the age of 21 has reached £222,458, according to a report from insurer LV earlier this year. To that can be added rising household bills, wage freezes and recent cuts to child benefit, as well as the mixed message sent by last week’s Budget, which proposed to make childcare more affordable for women who go out to work but did nothing for mothers who want to raise more children in the home.
Yet in New Delhi it is not recession that is driving the trend, but economic explosion. Researcher Sonalde Desai of the University of Maryland explains that competition for jobs in a fast-growing economy is the greatest determinant there. In the drive to attain white-collar jobs, single children benefit from more education expenditure, are more likely to be enrolled in private school, and by the time they reach 11 are more likely to be able to do basic arithmetic.
In Britain, another factor influencing the trend is women marrying and starting families later. “Those who wait until they are older often face infertility or secondary infertility,” says Susan Newman, a social psychologist. “Age limits for parents can be a significant impediment to adopting a second child, too. And adoption costs and infertility treatments are expensive.” It is also true that while IVF used to be a ticket to twins (or more), IVF doctors increasingly offer a single embryo transfer as being safer to mother and child, and just as successful.
Only two groups buck the trend: those curious bedfellows the very rich and the very poor. On one side are the “superwomen” – the bankers and lawyers whose salaries enable them to pay for the childcare to support multiple children; on the other are those families who, in the words of Iain Duncan Smith, fail to “cut their cloth”, and continue to have children they can’t afford to support without the help of the state.
But log on to the mothers’ forum Mumsnet, and the reasons for having only “the one” sound simple. Mothers talk of first-borns so boisterous that they couldn’t face a second (surely an evolutionary trick all babies use). Others talk of feeling naturally complete with one child. “Given the many pressures on parents today, more and more feel that they can be better parents to one,” Newman says. “For them, one child is the desired, happy choice and is fast becoming the new traditional family.”
For green groups, this propensity towards smaller families should be a good thing. Long-time campaigner Jonathan Porritt points out on his blog that a larger population “means a lot more overcrowding, a lot more pressure on housing, on water supplies, on our trains, on our already congested roads and so on”. Sir David Attenborough, who is patron of the Optimum Population Trust, turned hairs when he warned: “Either we limit our population growth, or the natural world will do it for us.”
But if the 86-year-old naturalist were living in Beijing, he might feel differently. There he might be part of the “4-2-1 problem” – one of four grandparents, and two parents, supported (often financially as well as socially) by one child. It is hard to correlate this overworked generation of only children with the “Little Emperors” of legend, who are always thought to be over-indulged due to their lack of siblings.
Economics aside, should we worry about British mothers turning out a generation of spoilt singletons? Everything comes down to the quality of parenting, says Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood and a mother of one. “If children are growing up without siblings, they need more opportunities to go to nurseries and to mix,” she explains. “Otherwise they don’t learn sharing or other social skills.”
Holding on to your singleton tightly can be detrimental to their development, too, she says. “All parents are reluctant to let children out of their sight these days or allow them any independence. That’s even truer when your child is the only egg in the basket. Children need freedom.”
Palmer points out that, like all children, singletons need “unproductive” playtime, too – not the extra piano lessons and maths coaching that can be the lot of the only child who is the sole repository of two parents’ aspirations and hopes. “There can be a lot of pressure for the only child to do well, and to make their parents happy.”
But would a nation of only children be so bad? Many seem to thrive, like youngest children, as performers – think of Robert De Niro, Daniel Radcliffe (not to mention Harry Potter), Natalie Portman or Frank Sinatra. And they don’t need to grow up in a snake’s nest of sibling rivalry to develop a competitive edge – look at Tiger Woods, Maria Sharapova and, however flawed, Lance Armstrong.
Psychologist Catherine Salmon, co-author of The Myth of the Middle Child, who has studied the effect of birth order, suggests that only children tend to be responsible as well as mature. “Many grow up more quickly than kids with sibs, thanks to how much time they spend with adults,” she says.
“Only children get lots of time and attention when young, which is terrific for social, linguistic, and emotional development,” Sue Palmer says. “There is a good chance of them being confident and secure, and of doing well at school.”
And then, perhaps, of getting a good job and earning enough to support their doting but impoverished parents, doomed to live until 100 on an inadequate pension.