The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Is City Life Hostile to Children?

Another reason for returning to the land

How important is the right to reproduce? We may soon find out. The most advanced cities, such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and New York are now so hostile to childbearing that many women have stopped getting married or having babies.

Anuradha Shroff, a senior researcher at Civil Service College in Singapore describes a social environment in which it is preferable to stay single and avoid having children. Instead, many of the young women of Singapore maintain friendships through electronic networking rather than through their families. They are preoccupied with careers and material success to the exclusion of having children.

A letter to the women of Singapore

According to Shroff (1, p. 17), “The high cost of living, high cost of education, uncertainty about the economy, and the norm that women juggle both family and work are reasons why you delay marriage or do not have children altogether.

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It seems as though an ecosystem has been created where childlessness is the preferred option.”

In other words young women are not so much choosing to be childless as having the choice thrust upon them by harsh economic realities.

Interestingly, Shroff is herself married and has three children – albeit with considerable trepidation about the financial costs, and other responsibilities of parenthood

An ecosystem hostile to childbearing

As one of the most developed states in the world, Singapore has an extremely high cost of living. Part of the problem is that it is a densely populated city where competition over prime real estate drove home prices to astronomic levels.

As a result of high costs of housing, education, and virtually everything else it takes to raise children, the expenses faced by parents have turned children into a luxury good in the sense that they can be afforded only by the very wealthy or the extremely hard-working. Indeed, the bill for raising a child to age 17 years is $515,000 approximately twice what it costs to raise a child in the U.S. (1).

Admittedly, the Singaporean government offers fairly hefty subsidies aimed at boosting fertility (up to U.S.$135,000 over the first seven years of the child’s life). Yet, that is only about a quarter of the cost of raising one child and it has not had much of an impact. Fertility is currently only half of what it would need to be to keep the native population constant. Interestingly, fertility in the U.S. is about twice as high reflecting lower costs of raising kids.

Singapore is just an extreme case of the economic challenges of raising children in developed countries. The staggering sum required to raise a child in a high-density modern city contrasts with the much cheaper cost of raising children in agricultural societies.

In sub-Saharan Africa, women still produce large families despite having minimal monetary resources. Families are wealthy in terms of owning plots of land and being able to build dwellings from cheap (or free) locally-available materials. Instead of being a monumental drain on family resources, children actually contribute to the household by providing free labor for farm work, as well as child care and other domestic duties.

Indeed, many farming communities equate the number of children in a household with its true wealth. That is a far cry from the ecology of modern cities like Singapore, where children are perceived as a financial hemorrhage.

The financial incompatibility of modern cities for raising children is just one area where the ecology of cities is hostile to youngsters. There are also problems with crime, including child trafficking, poor air quality to which youthful lungs are particularly sensitive, and a distressing absence of safe places for children to play.

1. Kotkin, J. (2012). The rise of post-familialism. Singapore: Civil Service College. http://www.cscollege.gov.sg/Knowledge/Pages/The-Rise-of-Post-Fami...

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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