The myth of young people being too self-centred to have children – “They see all major decisions as threats”

Although young Finns would still like to have as many children as previous generations, the fertility rate is falling. Social psychologists are trying to explain the phenomenon.

Why do we no longer have children? Rasmus Mannerström, Lecturer in Social Psychology at the University of Helsinki’s Swedish School of Social Science, is trying to find out.

He is involved in the multidisciplinary project Family Formation in Flux – Causes, Consequences and Possible Futures, or FLUX, which is exploring the reasons for Finland’s dropping fertility rate. Funded by the Strategic Research Council and coordinated by the University of Turku, the six-year project focuses on demographic perspectives on fertility and the birth rate in Finland.

Representing the University of Helsinki is a team of psychologists and social psychologists who focus on the psychosocial reasons for the decline in the fertility rate. The group is led by Professor Katarina Salmela-Aro from the Faculty of Education. 

“We’re interested in how personal identity and values are connected with becoming a parent and which discourses concentrate on parenthood. We were asked to participate in the project because sociodemographic factors traditionally explaining fertility, such as education, income and employment, no longer explain the phenomenon as well as before.”

The matter is of considerable topical interest because Finland’s population is expected to shrink in the long term. This can make funding the Finnish welfare state more difficult in the future, as there are too few young people to care for the large ageing population.

Inaccurate media portrayal

Mannerström notes that he often encounters claims in the media that young people today are too individualistic and self-centred to want to have children. He believes this is a myth.

“Annual surveys conducted in Finland show that the number of children people would like to have hasn’t dropped – the majority would still like to have two children.”

Mannerström believes this indicates that the decline in the number of children being born is not about a lack of willingness to have children, but about other obstacles.

A major reason that researchers are aware of is that many couples wait too long to try to have children. But why this is the case is unclear.

“Research indicates that young people today are in a relatively good position; many researchers point to the economic safety nets available and the good job market situation as examples. And yet the fertility rate is falling.”

This is why Mannerström and his colleagues in the FLUX project have decided to examine the phenomenon from another perspective.

“We’ll investigate the more subjective factors influencing relationships and the number of children born.”

Consumer society increases instability in relationships

At present, the research team is working on two articles in the project and intends to collect data next autumn.

Their hypothesis is that the drop in the fertility rate is partly about a feeling of subjective insecurity among young people today.

Much results from the norms and expectations of our consumer society.

“We have this mantra about our society being in constant change, and we live with the idea of free individuals capable of self-fulfilment who must continuously change, improve and optimise themselves.”

The change has taken place over the past 20 to 30 years. Previously, people were expected to follow the paths laid out for them. Mannerström says that, back then, people had to fit into predetermined roles and make decisions accordingly. In today’s society, we have to make our own, individual choices.

“The problem is that as societal expectations take a backseat, we’re left to make choices on our own. We feel constantly uncertain about the choices we make and what we actually want. At the same time, the expectations of what we should become are not clear, other than that we should be successful.”

Mannerström notes that all this means that relationships today are more fragile and that it is more difficult to find a partner.

“We’re in a situation in which it’s difficult to see the consequences of our decisions; all choices are perceived as major threats, which is why we’d rather not make any choices or commitments. This in turn means that we don’t end up with partners, and our relationships are more unstable than before. And this leads to the fact that people don’t get married and that they have fewer children.”  

“If we don’t have the courage to make choices, we will never find our way”

So, if much depends on the Zeitgeist, how should the problem of increasing insecurity and a declining fertility rate be resolved?

Rasmus Mannerström says that it is difficult to address structural problems at an individual level. The researchers nevertheless intend to develop interactive material for adolescents to highlight the significance of making choices.

All human learning occurs through experimentation and exploration.

“At present, young people steer clear of making choices because they’re afraid of the consequences. But we need consequences to learn something about ourselves: what we like, what’s good for us. If we don’t have the courage to make choices, we will never find our way.”

Mannerström advocates for teaching young people ‘societal literacy’ as part of their upper secondary education.

“I think it would act as an antidote to the excessive, omnipotent belief in our own abilities which we’re constantly being fed: you are who you create yourself to be, and you can be whatever you want to be!

“No, people can’t be what they want to be. Our hopes, desires and opportunities for self-fulfilment depend entirely on social expectations and the societies we live in. We’re not the free individuals we would like to think we are.”