Girls (and boys) just want to have fun (not kids)

A British poll shows sharply changed attitudes toward family and work.

Published May 2, 2006 1:56PM (EDT)

Wow. A new poll, published today in the Guardian, contains a bunch of really surprising statistics about attitudes in the U.K. toward work and family. Introduced in the paper by a couple of horrified paragraphs ("Britain's low birthrate is being driven by a generation of potential parents who would rather get rich and have fun than start a family") the Guardian/ICM survey of 1,006 adults from around the U.K. showed that, well, basically Britons would rather get rich and have fun than start a family.

The survey was in response to a declining British birthrate. The 2004 fertility rate was 1.77 children per woman, which is low, especially compared with the 1960s high of 2.95. According to the Office of National Statistics, 20 percent of British women are ending their fertile years childless, compared with 10 percent in the 1940s. All of this sounds familiar and not particularly surprising in a world that offers lots more professional opportunities than either the '40s or the '60s did for mothers who would otherwise be popping out huge broods.

But what's eye-catching here are the attitudes -- from both men and women -- behind Britain's declining interest in reproduction. According to the poll, 64 percent of men and 51 percent of women agreed "that it is more important for women to enjoy themselves than to have children." A majority of both sexes also said that doing well at work and earning money count for more than bringing up children. According to the Guardian, just 36 percent of women "believe that people [should] put children ahead of their career." And 32 percent of British men think women should put kids before work.

Now, it's tough to tell from either the story or the condensed version of the poll on the ICM Web site how those questions were asked. But still, I can't imagine getting results like that in the U.S., where we've been thoroughly steeped in the belief that putting anything ahead of children is tantamount to moral treason.

Also, 61 percent of people polled believed that "living comfortably" was more important than having children. Only 32 percent said that rearing kids should come before material success.

The poll is pretty interesting, though I think it's presentation in the Guardian is a bit sensational. After all, what's so scandalous about people wanting to have fulfilling lives before, or instead of, making sacrifices to have families? We're certainly not short on human beings on this planet. And speaking of that, what about other reasons for a lower birthrate? Do concerns about overpopulation and a sick environment play into the decision to bring new people into the world? In any case, it's still a fascinating documentation of shifts that our grandparents could barely have imagined.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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