In a time marked by uncertainties, with looming economic crises, worsening climate change, and escalating social polarization, it is unsurprising that many young people point to the state of the world when expressing their intentions not to have children. What has remained somewhat less clear, however, is whether these narratives translate to actual fertility behaviors. To date, most of the research on peoples’ fertility transitions has focused on their own current or expected economic and social circumstances, as well as on what effect they expect children to have on their own lives.

Our objective in “Societal pessimism and the transition to parenthood: A future too bleak to have children?” was to explore whether the consideration of the future prospects for potential children played a role in the decision to become a parent. In other words: Is the transition to parenthood really affected by how people envision the future for forthcoming generations?

In order to answer this question, we need specific type of data. First, we need a way to assess how people imagine the future of the coming generation. Second, we need to follow these people over time in order to observe whether those who perceive the future more negatively are indeed less likely to become parents. In our new paper in Population and Development Review, we, for the first time, were able to address this research question by using unique data from the Dutch Longitudinal Internet Studies for the Social Sciences (LISS) panel. This panel provides the opportunity to capture what has been dubbed as “societal pessimism” in Social Psychology and Political Science—the generalized feeling that things are not moving in the right direction in society at large. Interestingly, while there is plenty of discourse on how societal pessimism affects our views on politics or social issues, its impact on personal life choices, particularly the decision to become parents, has not been explored as thoroughly.

We captured societal pessimism based on the answers which newly joining LISS panel members gave to 18 questions. Respondents were presented different areas of life (such as social relationships, financial future, wellbeing) and were asked to indicate on a seven-point scale whether they believe that the future of the coming generation will be much better or much worse than today. We then followed over time the participants who were still of reproductive age when they joined the panel but did not yet have a child. What we found is that those who scored higher on societal pessimism were less likely to have a child during the years in which we observed them (which ranged between two and 12 years in our sample).

This finding might seem intuitive at first—perhaps those negative about the future are influenced by their current predicaments. However, our research uncovered a more nuanced relationship. While personal circumstances were linked to people’s level of societal pessimism, this influence was not as strong as one might assume. For instance, although we found a correlation between societal pessimism and individuals’ satisfaction with their finances or mental health, these associations were too weak to suggest these are identical constructs. Intriguingly, people were clearly more optimistic about their own prospects than about the future of society in general (a phenomenon known as “optimism gap” or “optimism bias”). In other words, what we were measuring—societal pessimism—had a unique effect on whether people had a child during observation, separate from how this transition was shaped by their own circumstances.

Why does this matter? Currently, the overwhelming majority of countries in the Global North are facing dropping fertility rates. Amazingly, even forerunners in progressive family policies, such as Finland and Norway, face this challenge. Improving current living conditions of young adults is crucial. However, our study adds another layer to the complex puzzle of understanding declining birthrates, suggesting that the decision to have children is closely linked to the anticipated quality of life of those children, especially in societies where choosing not to have children is becoming more normatively acceptable. After all, people have children with the hope that their children will fare better than, or at least as well as, themselves.  As societal pessimism prompts young people to question the responsibility of bringing children into an uncertain world, fertility rates may continue to decline. Unless we address societal pessimism, efforts to reverse   declining fertility rates may fall short, as young people continue to question the responsibility of bringing children into an uncertain world.

About the Authors

Katya Ivanova, Department of Sociology, Tilburg University
Nicoletta Balbo, Department of Social and Political Sciences, Bocconi University