The Existence of the Middle Child Is Being Threatened
Ah, the elusive middle child. Traditionally, they’re the ones who seem to always get blamed when things go wrong, who are frequently overshadowed by their older and younger siblings — and who are now going extinct, according to recent studies.
As fertility rates are dropping and people are choosing to have fewer children, the very existence of the middle child is being threatened. And while it may seem like an inconsequential thing to worry about — honestly, who notices the middle child anyways? — decreasing family size can have very real effects on parents and siblings, but also politically, as the problem progresses globally.
Meet the Middle Child
Not the perfect first-born and not the beloved baby, the middle child has long been deemed the black sheep of the family. Sandwiched somewhere in between siblings, they often feel overlooked, neglected and deprived of their parents' attention.
It's such a common theme among those of this birth order that it even has its own name: "middle child syndrome."
It Has Its Perks
But fortunately, middle child syndrome is not a real disorder — and being the center of the siblings isn't all bad.
"The assumption that middles are invariably 'hurt' by their birth order is false," Katrin Schumann, co-author of “The Secret Power of Middle Children,” told INSIDER. "People see only the negatives and overlook the significant positives for middles, such as the fact that they develop great negotiation skills, empathy and flexibility, and are often innovative out-of-the-box thinkers."
The History of the American Family
Middle children have been around for awhile. That's because, when it comes to family size in the U.S., bigger used to be better.
In the 1970s, 40 percent of women had four or more kids, while another 35 percent had three, meaning that 75 percent of families had at least one middle child.
Why They Were Common
Larger families were very common thanks to the fact that most women didn't work outside of the house, opting to be stay-at-home parents instead (think Carol Brady from “The Brady Bunch”).
This made raising multiple children much easier and affordable and a more attractive option compared to today's environment.
People Still Want Middle Children…
While the number of Americans who think three or more kids is the "ideal" family size dropped during the Great Depression, it has once again been on the rise.
And with 42 percent of people voting for a family of five or more, the number is actually the highest it's been since 1997, Gallup reports.
...and Here’s Why
The reason people are opting for larger families is mainly due to the fact that having more kids has become a marker of socioeconomic status.
Because of the increased cost of childcare, tuition and healthcare, people typically believe that the larger the family, the more affluent and financially secure the parents must be. In today's economy, a middle child is almost seen as a luxury that not everyone can afford.
People Aren’t Having More Kids Though
The number of Americans who aspire to have a larger family may be on the rise, but the number of Americans actually doing it is on the decline. Consider these statistics from Pew Research: In the 1970s, about 35 percent of mothers had two or fewer children. In 2018, that number increased to nearly two-thirds of mothers having one or two kids.
And on the other end of the spectrum, in the mid-’70s, some 40 percent of women had four or more children by the time their childbearing years ended. Today, only 14 percent of women of the same age have at least four in their brood.
More Kids Equals More Money
The No. 1 reason why parents are choosing not to have more children? Finances, according to a Pew Research study that reported 63 percent of Americans blamed their smaller family size on money matters. Their concerns are valid — a different study done by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the average cost of raising a child in 2013 was $245,340, up from $198,560 in 1960 (and that’s not including college expenses!).
It isn't just the price of childcare and schooling that's gone up either. Both student loan and credit card debt levels have soared in recent years along with healthcare and housing costs, so millennials and future generations are less likely able to afford kids.
Moms Are Getting Older
Second to finances, the other major reason that family size is shrinking is that women are putting off having kids until later in life. In 2016, the median age of a first-time mother was 26 compared to 23 in 1994. And the older a woman is when she has her first child, the less healthy years she has following that to give birth to more kids.
Whether the delay in motherhood is because of personal finances or because more women have careers today, the same result is true: It significantly decreases the chance that a woman will have a larger family, as fertility typically begins to decline in a woman's early to mid-30s.
Third Time’s Not the Charm
Even if women can afford more kids, it may not be worth it mentally and emotionally. Researchers at the London School of Economics found that, while parents experienced a boost in happiness after their first and second children, there was no noticeable change after the third child.
In fact, according to a survey of more than 7,000 moms done by TODAY in 2013, mothers who have three kids were significantly more stressed than those with one or two. Surprisingly, moms of three were also more stressed than those who had four or more, too.
A Global Crisis
Middle children aren't just endangered in the United States — they're at risk all over the world as fertility rates and average family sizes are on the decline in numerous countries. Take France, for instance, where the average household has gone from 3.1 people in 1968 to 2.3 in 2011. And in the United Kingdom, the average number of kids has just dipped below 1.9 per family for the first time in history.
As for the world as a whole, on average in 2017, women had 2.5 children. The only continent where the number of kids per household was above three was Africa. Europe had the lowest average at just 1.6.
Will the Trend Continue?
So, will this trend continue? The short answer is yes. The long answer? The average household size in the U.S. (and in many parts of the world) has been steadily decreasing for years. Currently, it's down 24 percent, or almost one whole person, from where it was in the 1960s.
And as more and more women enter the workforce (and stay in their careers for longer), smaller families are likely here to stay. That's especially true given that today's society emphasizes quality over quantity — aka parents would rather have fewer children and give those children the best of everything, from childcare to schooling, than have more children who receive average care.
The Dangers of Middle Child Extinction
If family size continues to decrease as it has, there will be very real consequences for society and the economy. The major concern is that, eventually, there will be more grandparents than there are grandchildren — which would result in a financial crisis, particularly in terms of healthcare.
Currently, the fertility rate in the U.S. is at a 30-year low, at just 1.76 births per woman, which is below the "replacement level." That means that Americans are not having enough kids to maintain the population, a trend that could lead to a depleted workforce, Social Security issues for future generations and higher government costs.
Weaker Family Dynamics
Getting rid of middle children could also have a profound impact on parents and other siblings. A lot of what defines the other birth orders, like the youngest and the oldest children, is partially due to the middle child.
The more siblings a child has, the more social interaction and exposure they'll get (like learning how to share toys or resolve an argument), which help them develop and mature quicker and more fully.
Other Benefit Losses
There have also been studies that show that kids from larger families grow up to have much better mental and physical health.
Dwindling a household down to one or two children would eliminate some of those benefits.
Affects on Business and Politics
The elimination of the middle child will affect more than just individual families — it could have implications for international business and politics, too.
"What few people realize is that middle children are actually more likely to successfully affect change in the world than any other birth order," psychologist Catherine Salmon explained in New York Magazine.
A Lost Generation of Leaders
Thanks to the independence and confidence that they develop from being overlooked, middle children have historically made some of the best leaders (in the U.S., for instance, 52 percent of the presidents have been middle children). So, by losing them, the world is also losing a slew of future heads-of-state, CEOs and commanders-in-chief.
On that note, can you imagine a world where the goofy, youngest children are the majority of leaders?