Four Challenges Facing Children and Families in 2019

2019 is beginning with a partial US federal government shutdown, a change in control of the US House of Representatives, ongoing protests in France, a looming Brexit deadline, a Chinese moon landing, and more stories of natural disasters in Indonesia and Thailand, as well as a record-breaking heatwave in Australia. These events and more could drive 2019’s news for us all, but we want to draw attention to the big-picture challenges facing children and families. We must attend to these four challenges this year if we are going to make progress to ensure that all children and families flourish.

The changing nature of work

Plenty of ink has been spilled on the “future of work” and the necessary shifts that must occur to ensure that workforces remain competitive in the 21st century economy, but what does this mean in the lives of children? Growing dependence on flexible work arrangements — more than one-third of US workers — has the potential to produce even greater instability in the lives of families who seek to juggle unsteady work arrangements with child care, school, doctors’ appointments, and the other necessary, yet sometimes unpredictable, features of childhood. Part of reimagining the social contract and preparing for the future of work must include how we will better support children in the midst of this turbulence.

Declining fertility rates present both short and long-term challenges

In recent years, US fertility rates have followed western European trends and fallen well below the rates necessary to replace the population. This means that 500,000 fewer children were born in 2017 than were born in 2007. This decline will have long-term impacts on the social-welfare apparatus, but nearer term impacts on the systems that support children and families. Will we need as many child care centers? Caregivers represent a significant, if often underreported and undervalued portion of the economy; will they need to shift into other fields as the aging baby boomers pass away and as there are fewer young children who require caregiving? What will the social and emotional impacts of this be on children? Fewer siblings, fewer playmates, and much smaller extended families will significantly further change the experience of childhood in the decades ahead.

Climate change

While climate change is not generally considered a “children’s issue”, it is. Children — and indeed all persons — are not separate from the environment; we are part of the natural environment. Climate migration and displacement, diminishing air quality, and decreasing access to food and water limit opportunities for children today and compromise the futures of children yet born. Climate change creates new stressors which impact children’s healthy development and restrict opportunities for the future by leaving them an environment not conducive to their full flourishing. For example, according to UNICEF, nearly half a billion of the world’s children live in extremely high flood occurrence zones, and over 160 million children live in a region that is especially susceptible to severe drought. The loss of a safe and resilient home deprives children of a place to safely play or go to school, but also of the structures that shape cultural identity and community. The near extinction of the American buffalo on the Great Plains provides ample evidence of the loss of culture that is associated with failure to steward the environment entrusted to us for the sake of our children and grandchildren. Failure to act responsibly to slow the effects of climate change, protect our environment, and build climate resilience across all levels of society is a failure to act on behalf of the world’s most vulnerable people, including especially children.

Urbanization, especially in Africa, is an opportunity to build cities in which children and families can more readily flourish

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, more than half of the global population lives in urban centers; this is expected to increase to 75% by 2050. Sub-Saharan Africa is the fastest urbanizing region in the world with an annual urban population growth rate of 4.1%. Undoubtedly, this presents challenges for infrastructure, health, education, and climate, but it also creates serious opportunities to plan cities to better support children and families. We know from recent research by Raj Chetty and others that the neighborhood in which a child grows up significantly impacts their long-term economic prospects. Urban development that focuses on children and families would seek to mitigate the effects of toxic stress from crime, violence, pollution, traffic, and more while building places and spaces for children to safely play and learn, and fostering economic and social mobility. We must also find new mechanisms for engaging young children and families in determining the futures and design of the world’s cities. Projects like the Urban Thinkscape, which creates urban opportunities for playful learning in Philadelphia, and the Conscious Cities movement, which promotes people-centric environments based on neuroscientific insights will help us build urban environments that are more responsive to the healthy development of children and the well-being of families.