Lost Parenthood: Modern Dilemmas of Promise and Prosperity

Today, Many Young People Direct Their Attention Toward Careers -- and Not Children and Family

In the EU, the sight of a pregnant is increasingly rare | Photo: Tom and Katrien

It wasn’t so long ago that women could be spotted sitting on a bench in the Burggarten or the Stadtpark, knitting baby socks with dreamy looks on their faces.

Not any more. With the low birth rates in Europe, chances are she’s working, or attempting to find work, and so is her partner. They might consider marriage, but not until their late twenties or early thirties, if at all. They are directing all their attention toward flourishing careers – not domestic life. A combination of rising lifestyle expectations and a need to provide children with more than previous generations would have dreamed of, the pressure is on to earn the big bucks, before marriage if possible. Average salaries aren’t enough anymore, so baby has to wait.

In Western and Eastern Europe, as well as the entire European Union, the fertility rate is in most cases below replacement – less than 2.1 children per woman – that is, too few births to replace the existing population. Austria’s fertility rate lies at 1.36 births per woman, according to Statistik Austria, and 1.47 for the EU as a whole. In Western Europe, rates are lowest in Italy and Spain, both at 1.28. In Eastern European countries rates are even lower, the lowest being Ukraine with 1.17.

These pressures are very much on the minds of students at Webster University Vienna, whose lives are caught up in the maelstrom of political, economic and social changes these trends reflect. What follows reflects the results of research carried out in October 2006 by students in their home countries and among their friends and colleagues in Vienna.

It is a question of “our evolving understanding of what constitutes ‘enough’,” said Croatian junior Dario Krpan. In the early 1900’s, he says, “having enough” meant having the means to survive — food, water, shelter —  and yet birthrates were much higher even though people lived in what would now be considered poverty. But, these basics no longer feel sufficient. We want what our friends have, what our successful millionaire uncle has, and as fast as possible. Being able to afford it all means work at any price.

“I have heard many young people saying that they couldn’t have children because of their bad financial situation or limited financial freedom…They want their children to have everything,” says Krpan.

Over the course of the 20th century, the playing field has evened out. The fight for personal rights and freedom has yielded equal opportunities, the pill, and the improved medical care and better nutrition that have increased life expectancy. Women are better educated and can make more informed decisions about their lives. Both men and women share economic burdens.

Young European men want quick career success before they start a family, or even before marriage, a sometimes unrealistic expectation. Maybe our expectations have risen, and we’ve morphed into career-driven workhorses, tossing aside values as quickly as we dump the packaging from frozen dinners in the trash.

Many couples drift apart when they feel the weight of financial realities. Junior Dragos Panait witnessed the divorce of two friends who decided to part ways because of financial hardships in Romania. Having dreamed of a life mirroring that of wealthier friends, they were unable to earn enough money, and their dreams shattered. They both went on to find wealthier partners to fulfill these materialistic ideals.

“The cost of living is high and people can only afford to worry about themselves,” says sophomore Hossein Nabavi.

Some couples dream of having children, but simply cannot afford it.

“It will take us too many years to put money aside to have a child,” lamented one  young wife in Romania, “and by that time I will be too old.” These unfulfilled wishes lead not only to strain on romantic relationships, but also on friendships. Some couples with children become estranged from those without, partly through incompatible lifestyles and interests. Sometimes it is simply socially uncomfortable for them to struggle, sometimes borrowing money from friends and family.

“Many women in Romania remain unemployed or can only get minor jobs, which makes them unable to afford a child,” says Panait.

Couples who do have children raise them in a family structure quite opposite from the idyllic picture many formed from American 1950’s television serials like Leave it to Beaver. Sitting down regularly together to enjoy family time has become an anachronism for many.  Nowadays when it comes time for family activities, dates must be first penciled in into the organizer, double-checked, and reminder alarms set.

“My grandmother always talks about the great dinners the  whole family had together at night,” remembers Hossein Nabavi. “I remember those dinners, but I have not seen one in so long. I guess they don’t exist anymore.”

As family constitutes increasingly less of society’s focus, and without a model from home, future generations may not have the same drive to have children. Alternative family constellations may make it more acceptable to remain single, absorbed in ones individual ambitions. According to the Statistik Austria 2007 Yearbook, the 2005 total divorce rate was up to 46.4% from only 13.8% in 1961.

Today we are far away from the lives reflected on black and white television. We live in color now – bright, bold, flashy, need-to-be-noticed primaries, in a constant state of social crisis. Professions come first, and when there is hardly room for the individual to shine, there is certainly little space in the spotlight for a baby.

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