Three-in-ten young people want a small family for environmental reasons

14 May 2021

In the run up to International Day of Families on 15 May, a new UK opinion poll by Population Matters has found that almost three-in-ten people between 18 and 24 years old say concerns about the environment have made them want to have fewer or no children.

Almost a third say concerns about the environmental effects of having children make them want to have fewer or none.

However, the poll also revealed that the choice to have a small family can lead to negative reactions from others - despite the clear benefits of smaller families, both parents of only children and childfree women reported that they feel negatively judged for their choices.

Small family

Young people most concerned

Environmental concerns were most prominent among the youngest adults, likely due to the rapidly growing youth movement and suggesting that the age group which is mostly yet to decide on their family size may have a greater willingness to reduce their environmental impact by having fewer children. 81% of 18-24 year-old poll respondents are currently childfree. In the 25-34-year-old group approximately a quarter have the same views.

A 2017 study found that by far the single most effective measure an individual in the developed world could take to cut their carbon emissions over the long term would be to have one fewer child. It suggested that this action could reduce emissions by as much as 20 times more than any other action that it evaluated, including plant-based diets, being car-free and reducing flying. In addition, small families lead to reduced population growth, which relieves pressure on our already overburdened planet.

Negative perceptions of one-child families

The Yonder poll of more than 4,000 UK adults found that two children was the most common preferred family size (37%), while approximately a quarter of respondents want three or more children. Almost one-in-five said they don’t want any children, and only 7% said they wanted just one child, possibly due to the harmful myths surrounding only-children.

Shockingly, more than a third  of people with only one child said they felt that parents like them are judged negatively, despite their usually very positive parenting experience:

"Initially we made our one child choice for entirely environmentally sustainable reasons. We slowly discovered that our decision has allowed us the freedom to be more present for our child and in turn allowed her the freedom to be a child. To explore, to learn and to play without the ever-present rush from pillar to post demanded of modern society. It has meant that we have more of that most precious commodity with her – time. Now, even in a world with no environmental pressures, we wouldn't change a single thing."

– Gregory Hamilton (44), father of one

Childfree women feel judged

More than half of 18-35 year-old women who have chosen to be childfree feel they have been judged negatively for their choice (54%). Among men of the same age who have made the same decision, only a fifth (21%) felt they had been judged negatively.  

“My impact on the environment is something I care deeply about. We hear a lot about the positive impacts of things like choosing plant-based diets, giving up flying and cycling – that’s all really good but the impact of having children dwarfs these choices. I am so lucky that I have been able to make the very personal decision to be childfree without pressure from others, although being called selfish continues to baffle me. Expectations of women have come so far in the last century but I want every woman who wants to be childfree to be able to confidently make the decision without the fear of judgment and ridicule.” 

- Jenny Chapman, childfree

Woman sitting on rock

Commenting on the poll results, PM Director Robin Maynard said:

"The landscape of parenting is changing fast, and young people face personal and global considerations their parents never did. At Population Matters we talk with people who have chosen small families every day, but even we were surprised by how many young people are considering smaller families because environmental concerns. It is deeply disappointing to hear that the childfree and parents of one child still face criticism and negativity, not least because such personal, responsible choices are supported by the science. Having one fewer child, especially in a high consuming country like the UK, is the top eco action for taking the heat off our planet and securing a better future for children everywhere. The most depressing finding was seeing that in 2021, it seems there remains a societal expectation and pressure upon women to have children, and that they face judgement if they don’t."

For more detailed information on the poll, see our press release here.

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