And why it matters to the rest of us.
Since the start of the millennium millions of parents across the globe have given birth to only children, and I'm proud to say, I'm one of them. Our reasons for stopping at one are as diverse as we are. Sure infertility, divorce or even death thwarted the plans of many, but stopping at one child was for a lot of people, a carefully considered decision. Some wanted 'the best of both worlds,' more time for their career or themselves. For others it was financial, an 'all eggs in one basket' decision to focus their limited resources on giving one child the very best. Many factored in the bigger picture such as the environment and an already overcrowded planet. Others got too old, lacked the energy or the space. I stopped at one child for many reasons but mostly because after my son arrived our family of three just felt complete.
The multitude of forces driving smaller family sizes around the world are powerful and compelling. In affluent countries like the UK, US, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia, birth rates have been falling for decades and one child families now make up one third to one half. In the UK one child families are expected to rise above 50% in less than seven years. In the USA, almost a quarter of families have one child and in the more urban affluent areas such as New York City it rises above a third.
In rapidly developing counties like India and Brazil one child families are the fastest growing family size and count for as much as one in ten families. In the big cities like Mumbai and Rio the percentage of only children rises dramatically. In China parents are now free to have a second child, but many in urban areas expect to stop at one. In Tehran the fertility rate has fallen to 1.5 per woman that's a lot of only children.
Globally, one child families already number in the hundreds of millions and yet negative myths about only children being somehow sad or dysfunctional are both persistent and pervasive. For only children this prejudice is potentially self-fulfilling, while for parents it creates a sense of guilt or failure.
The other day I asked my son (now 14) what it felt like to be an only child and his answer was interesting, "I don't identify as only." And why would he? In popular culture and the main stream media it's normal for only children to be defined by the two-sided negative stereotype, spoiled and lonely. Spoiled because their (over-compensationg) parents and grandparents have given them too much of everything and lonely because they don't have the one thing they really need, a sibling to play with. In truth they are neither, but the power of social profiling is myth not fact.
It's hurtful when I think that my son will be stigmatized for being an only child. It saddens me too that many parents are being 'guilted' into having a second child they often can't afford to 'save' the first from being a dreaded only.
This denigration of only children is both open and shameless. People feel free to malign and mock an only child in ways they wouldn't dare with other minority groups. And it operates at all levels from the directly personal "Oh you're an only child, that figures." right up to the highest echelons: policy makers, religious leaders, politicians and economists, all of whom are quite open about wishing they didn't exist. When the Pope recently called Europe 'A barren woman' apart from being incredibly sexist, the implication was that one child or none wasn't a good thing. Economists and politicians love to decry the low birth rates of countries like Japan and Germany predicting dire future consequences even when it is obvious that countries with burgeoning populations like Morocco and Nigeria are struggling with high rates of youth unemployment and the accompanying social unrest.
The fact is no good has ever come from negatively stigmatizing an entire minority group on the basis of flawed, old fashioned, out dated and prejudiced stereotypes. In the case of only children, their rising numbers make it counter productive.
Only children will soon make up a large percentage of the world's citizens. They will be employees, employers, community leaders, voters, entrepreneurs, teachers, political representatives and consumers. We want them to be at their best, their most dynamic, their most confident and productive, not cowering in the shadows, burdened by some sort of collective guilt for having been 'spoiled' or raised 'weirdly' without the normalizing influence of siblings.
Change is urgently needed in the way we perceive and label only children, not just because it's morally wrong, but because it's just wrong.
Historically the most effective way to fight large scale social prejudice is to overwhelm it with a positive counter message. In the case of only children this is easy, the research is on our side.
But first, only children need a label that they can unite behind, take pride in and identify with.
I suggest Generation Only. The word 'Generation' is an acknowledgment of sheer numbers but also their cohesion or 'oneness' and the fact that this generation of only children is very much defined by the era into which they have been born. The word 'Generation' too is the antithesis of the word 'Only' which typically implies a lack or paucity of something. The label 'Only' must be 'owned,' redefined and recast to reflect who these children really are.
So who is Generation Only?
Well unlike Baby Boomers or Gen Xers who are distinctly Western, Generation Only is truly global, spawned by demography not geography. They are a by-product of powerful demographic trends and mega-trends that swept the world over of the last decade: rapid development, urbanization, industrialization, globalization and the resulting growth of the middle class.
These powerful demographic forces have pushed down the fertility rate worldwide. In 1950 the global fertility rate averaged about five children per woman, today it's just 2.58. The link between rising affluence and falling birth rates is complex but well established so Generation Only is in many ways evolutionary. But it is also reactionary; a symptom of the fragility of the new middle class and the pincer movement of pressures bearing down on them from rising living costs and an increasingly globalised and competitive employment market.
Living in cities isn't cheap especially when you aspire to a middle class quality of life that includes the latest technology and appliances, cheap travel and designer clothes. And no one is more acutely aware than the hard working middle class just how critical a good education is to the future prosperity and success of your offspring. One child is cheaper to house, cheaper to feed and cheaper to educate but it is also less time consuming.
To many would-be parents, a lack of time is a major factor in their choice of family size. A highly competitive work place demands long working hours, less time off and increased mobility. One child is less time consuming, requires less energy, is portable and cheaper to outsource to childcare centers and babysitters.
Worldwide, the growth of the this urbanized middle class is staggering. The OECD predicts that by 2030 the middle class will more than double in size, from 2 billion today to 4.9 billion. The UN estimates that: “More than half of the world’s population now lives in towns and cities, and by 2030 this number will swell to about 5 billion.”
That's a lot of people being squeezed, pressured and incentivized into having one child. Generation Only is going to get a lot bigger.
The parents of all these only children are more than the product of demographic change. In choosing to stop at one child these parents are putting upward mobility and material progress ahead of the traditional value that placed family, in particular the big family, above everything else. In doing so they are defying considerable familial, social and religious pressure to reproduce in spades. You could say they are a self-selected group of risk takers and free thinkers. Yes, they want a family, but by choosing to limit it to one, in spite of all the negative stereotypes, they are doing it on their terms, defying convention and putting quality ahead of quantity. It's a radical idea.
Given the profile of the parents, and the unique features of one-child family life, this generation of only children will grow up with a unique set of values and life experiences that will shape and define them. Where ever they are, from Mumbai to Berlin, Beijing to Chicago, they will be different from their siblinged peers and from the only children that have gone before.
I don't claim to have all the answers to who Generation Only is. For a start they are still emerging. Much of the research into only children has focused on what they are not - spoiled and socially dysfunctional. And a lot of the research that dates back more than 15 years isn't necessarily an accurate representation of who they are now. Indeed, there is an urgent need for more research into Generation Only and I hope that will be forthcoming.
As the passionate parent of an only child I have made some observations, taken note of the research and drawn my own conclusions. I believe there are three key characteristics that define Generation Only.
1. Generation Only is socially sophisticated.
This sounds counter intuitive but it isn't, here's why.
Only children raised in the 70s, 80s or even 90s describe feeling like 'freaks' largely because of their scarcity, but also because of a sense of being an oddball or outcast. Locked out of the siblinged nuclear family that was the social hub, the unlucky only child could only look on in wonder at those lucky siblinged kids and the chaotic, fun-filled home life so vividly depicted in popular TV shows like The Brady Bunch or The Partridge Family. I can only imagine how lonely they must have been and how guilty their parents must have felt. In 1976 just one in ten families in the US found themselves with one child and it was almost certainly the result of an unfortunate biological or marital accident, or even a death.
Back then being a social 'freak' or 'minority' wasn't a lot of fun for anyone. Divorcees, LGBTs, feminists, communists, immigrants, dwarves, childless couples, spinsters, people who limped, stuttered or twitched, African Americans, Chinese, Italians, Jews, the list was long and the name calling vicious: faggot' 'spastic' 'retard' 'commie' 'slut' 'lady driver' 'wog' 'nigger' or 'chink' and if you were an only child you were a 'spoiled brat' or 'little emperor'.
Happily today there's no such thing as the 'stereotypical' family or child. Households, like children, proudly come in every shape, size, colour and permutation. Waves of social change have freed us all up to do our own thing and the basic family unit has not just reconfigured but shrunk. As luck would have it, this smaller family is a perfect fit for the more compact housing in the big cities where people are increasingly living.
But the driver of smaller families isn't just social change. In every city in the world demand for housing is so acute that prices have been driven up dramatically. One child is a solution to a physical and financial squeeze.
Given their numbers it's been easy for one child families to embrace the city lifestyle and make it their own; changing the way families interact with each other and the community to make it more only-friendly. By reaching out and connecting to others in neighbourhoods, childcare centres, cafes, dog parks, pools, sporting venues, places of worship and playgrounds inner city only children are spending less time alone. These one child families take vacations together, team up for holidays and special events, hang out together after school and on public holidays. Being the parent of an only child forces you out and the rewards are enormous. When the world is populated with one child families, it's easy to find someone who wants to connect right back.
Of course childcare is the other big factor in the lives of only children. Given their parents are more likely to be middle class and urbanized, the economics of one child are such that it makes sense for both parents to keep working. In childcare only children learn to share, to survive, to work in groups and to form deep friendships and connections.
As they get older, onlies connect to others on skype, social media and in games like Minecraft and GTA meaning their friends are a click away. None of this sounds like the sort of social deprivation and isolation that would make you socially inept, lonely or dysfunctional.
So does the research back up the demographics? How well socialized are only children?
Toni Faldo is one of the world's leading experts on only children. She is the Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas and has been studying only children for some 30 years in western countries and also in China. In the 1986 she conducted a meta-analysis of over 115 studies of only children focusing on achievement, adjustment, character, intelligence, parent–child relationships, and sociability. The conclusion was as follows:
"Findings indicate that only children were found to surpass all others except firstborns and people from 2-child families on achievement and intelligence. They also surpassed all non-only children especially people from families with 3 or more children, in character and they surpassed all non-only children, especially those from large families, in the positivity of the parent–child relationship. Across all developmental outcomes, only children were indistinguishable from firstborns and people from small families. Theories relating to only child deprivation were discredited by the results of the meta-analyses."
In 1987 Falbo conducted a study of 'Onlies' in Jilin Province in China. People had long talked about the generation of onlies in China being 'Little Emperors' and lonely. Surprisingly her results mirrored those from the western studies although the urban onlies were found to have higher academic scores than their siblinged peers.
A recent study from the University of Leipzig Psychology Department analyzed central personality traits of over 20,000 grown-ups from Germany, the USA, and Great Britain. They found that there is no difference between children born first, middle or last in certain personality traits "We found no birth-order effects on extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness, or imagination."
2. Generation Only is primed for success.
According to recent research from India entitled “Middle class dreams; India’s one child families.” one in four college educated women say they want just one child and it's no longer unusual to see urban middle class parents stopping at one child. In a country where big families have been the traditional norm, this is a remarkable development.
In Singapore where a majority of women work, the education system is so competitive that parents are stopping at one child because all of their resources, both physical and financial, are being exhausted on their first.
In China parents greeted the formal end of the One Child Policy with a groan, they're planning to stop at one child anyway thanks to the cost of living, and in particular the cost of the all important education.
Across the globe in both developed and developing countries the link between the rising education levels of parents and the fall of fertility rates is well established. Educated parents are more likely to value a good education having experienced first hand the benefits. It’s the “all our eggs in one basket” approach to reproduction.
In India the primary reason given by parents for having one child is to give them the educational edge in a highly competitive white collar job market and the results are there to see.
Research by the Delhi-based National Council of Applied Economic Research shows that only children received "more educational expenditure, were more likely to be enrolled in private school, and by the time they reached 11 years of age were more likely to be able to do basic arithmetic."
According to Toni Falbo explains why only children are more likely to go further and be more successful in education.
“When a college education, for example, has to be provided for one child as opposed to four, it’s more likely that the one child not only will get to go to college but also may be sent to a more prestigious, more expensive school. Everything from family trips to parental participation in the child’s school life may be enhanced because more resources and time are available.”
The educational advantage goes further than private schooling or top colleges, parental attention and involvement are a significant factor too. Natalie Portman once credited her acting success to her only child status which enabled her mother to devote herself entirely to taking her to auditions and screen tests.
Carl E Pickhardt PhD, a practicing psychologist and author of the book "The Future of Your Only Child" explains. "The only child gets the entire social, emotional, and material resources those parents have to provide. He or she is their sole beneficiary. Because parents typically make a high investment in nurturing and providing for the child, they often have a high expectation of return. In response, only children tend to want to perform well for their parents."
One study from Cardiff University reveals that first borns are twenty percent more likely to suffer from severe short sightedness (myopia) and that this is linked to intensive education from an early age. The only child is read to more, given one-on-one parental tutoring, cossetted and protected. They are being primed for academic success.
Recent research from Ohio State University suggests that parents may encourage only and first-born children to pursue interests that lead to prestigious careers like law or medicine and show a preference for professions with a cognitive and intellectual focus rather than artistic or physical careers.
Parents invest all their dreams in their one child and they will do what it takes to fulfill them. It's an attitude that understandably rubs off.
Pickhardt finds that “Growing up as an ‘only’ can be very empowering, creating very self-dedicated, strong-willed individuals who push themselves hard to achieve what they want.”
Research by Feifei Bu at the Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex found that first borns are more likely to enter the work force more ambitious and better qualified. "It could be that the parents simply devote more time and energy to them – it could be they are actually more intelligent."
And this is perhaps the most bizarre fact of all - first born children appear to have higher IQs. It's a phenomenon that no one can explain but has now been replicated in numerous studies.
In a Norwegian study, epidemiologists analyzed data on birth order, health status and I.Q. scores of 241,310 18- and 19-year-old men born from 1967 to 1976, using military records. They found that first borns have IQs as much as 3 points higher than later borns. These three points are enough to return higher grades. Higher grades and higher wages.
Sandra Black, an economics professor at the University of Texas, Austin has found that first borns are able to convert this educational advantage and higher IQ into better and more highly paid jobs. "When it comes to annual earnings for men, firstborns earn about 1.2% more than second children, and about 2.8% more than third children. For women the differences are even higher."
As each child is added parental resources are diminished, it's the quality quantity trade off playing out in an increasingly competitive world.
3. Generation Only is happy.
High self esteem, unlimited parental attention and educational advantage all sounds good but you can be sure some of this attention and expectation has a down side and it does - pressure. Only children not only feel pressure to perform, to fulfill their parents’ expectations and make them happy, they have the extra pressure of feeling solely responsible for their parents as they age. Understandably only children sometimes wish for siblings to help share their burden and play a little Xbox while they're at it. But if you think adding siblings will make an only child happier, you'd be wrong.
According to a wide ranging British study 'Understanding Society' which tracked the lives of 100,000 people in 40,000 British households: "Children are happier the fewer siblings they have, and the happiest of all are the onlies." The study suggests the reason; 31% of children reported experiencing some form of sibling bullying, either being hit, punched or kicked a lot or quite a lot by a brother or sister.
In fact as more studies peel back the secrets and taboos of sibling life, they are raising serious questions about the benefits and benevolence of this most fraught relationship.
In one study conducted by the Clemson University, lead by psychology Professor Robin Kowalski, the incidence of sibling bullying was recorded in as many as three quarters of families. "It's a phenomenon that has been very much overlooked," according to Kowalski.
Whether the aggression was mild or severe, bullied kids had significantly worse mental health than children who were not bullied.
Research conducted by the Universities of Oxford, Warwick, Bristol and UCL, suggests childhood victims of sibling bullying are twice as likely to be depressed by the time they reach 18 and twice as likely to have self harmed. Dr Lucy Bowes, the lead author of the study, explains that, “Victims of sibling bullying are offered little escape as sibling relationships endure throughout development."
Sibling sexual abuse is another taboo subject that is rarely discussed and yet some research suggests that 15% of adults have had sexual encounters with a sibling in childhood and it is estimated that in as many as 4% of children force or coercion is involved.
Parental favouritism is apparently so rife as to be normal. Psychologist Jill Suitor a Professor of sociology at Purdue University suggests that favouritism occurs in up to two thirds of siblinged families. The negative effects are serious, eroding sibling relationships and causing long term psychological damage. Unfavoured children suffer depression, low self esteem and anxiety long into adulthood. Favoured children can buckle under the pressure of unrealistic expectations and all children suffer in an environment they perceive as unjust.
Far from being spoiled and lonely, Generation Only is growing into a social force for good; a group of happier, better educated, well socialized, well adjusted, confident adults. Wherever they are numerous they will boost economies and benefit communities.
And then there’s this.
If one billion well educated, urban, middle class parents who are due to start a family in the next ten years choose to have just one child instead of two or more, that’s as many as 500 million fewer mouths to feed and water, billions of tons less waste, less plastic, less carbon pollution, less pressure on the earth’s overstretched resources.
And that's 500 million places in affluent parts of the world that could be filled with those fleeing conflict, violence and poverty.
Rather than fearing Generation Only we should welcome, embrace and celebrate them.