With American Families Shrinking In Size, The Middle Child May 'Go Extinct'

Jul 12, 2018
Originally published on July 12, 2018 7:59 pm
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Where do you fall in your family lineup, and do you match the stereotype? Are you the hard-driven oldest child, the peacemaking middle child, or are you the coddled youngest child? Family dynamics are always fun fodder in novels, online quizzes and of course sitcoms.


EVE PLUMB: (As Jan Brady) Well, all I hear all day long at school is how great Marcia is at this or how wonderful Marcia did that - Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.

CHANG: You got that that's Jan Brady, the most love-hated middle child of the 1970s. With families in America shrinking in size, one of the unintended consequences is that the middle child may go the way of the dodo bird. That is what contributing editor for New York Magazine and very proud middle child Adam Sternbergh says in his piece "The Extinction Of The Middle Child." He joins us now. Welcome.

ADAM STERNBERGH: Thank you so much.

CHANG: So you talk about how there's this demographic shift happening all over the United States. People are having fewer children. That's why the middle child has become this endangered species. How many fewer children are people having compared to, say, "The Brady Bunch" days?

STERNBERGH: Well, this is one of those ideas that started anecdotally. I noticed that among my peers who have kids, people seem to be having two children and then stopping there. And that had become the norm. But it's one of those things where you want to see if this is actually statistically true as well. And it turns out that it is. In the 1970s, the most common family configuration was four or more.

CHANG: Yeah.

STERNBERGH: And that was about 40 percent of families. And then about 20 percent had three, 20 percent had two, and about 10 percent had one child. And now those numbers have essentially reversed. Two children is the most common at about 40 percent. And then 20 percent have one, 20 percent have three, and only about 10 percent have four or more. So right now, far and away, about two-thirds of families consist of either two or one child, i.e. no middle child.

CHANG: And why are people having fewer children these days?

STERNBERGH: You know, there's a number of sort of evident factors. One is people are waiting longer to get married. Two is women are waiting longer to have children and to start families. And also, I think just generally there's a societal change in sort of what people's idea of an ideal family is. You know, when you turned on the TV in the 1970s, it was very rare to see a family with less than three children.

CHANG: All right, so you are a middle child. And full disclosure - I'm the younger of two children. Are you more of a Jan Brady, or are you more of a Madonna, another famous middle child?

STERNBERGH: (Laughter) I like to think of myself more as an Abraham Lincoln...

CHANG: Oh, yes.

STERNBERGH: ...Who's also a middle child.


STERNBERGH: I was a very sort of performative kid, a little bit starved for attention. I loved to put on funny hats and, you know, jump around on the couch and things like that. If you have multiple siblings, there's usually one person who acts as kind of the family peacemaker. And that's definitely me among my siblings. Middle children also are said to have certain traits. Like, they tend to be more private than other kids because they kind of go off into their own world and make their own fun. And that certainly applies to me as well.

CHANG: I know that you've been talking to a lot of smart experts, as you say, who study the psychology of middle children. What do they think we would lose as a society if there are fewer of you walking around America?

STERNBERGH: Well, there's actually been a sort of concurrent movement among psychologists fairly recently to re-evaluate the traits of middle children and to not necessarily contend that they're not accurate but to say that we might have been thinking about them the wrong way, that what we think of as middle child weaknesses or burdens such as, you know, feeling overlooked or looking for attention might actually be a kind of secret strength.

CHANG: Well, how about you? Do you want more kids?

STERNBERGH: That is an open question. I definitely can say this. I don't think there will be a middle child in my family. I think it'll either be one or two. And so I'm not doing my part in propagating my own ilk.

CHANG: (Laughter) Adam Sternbergh, peacemaking, eager-to-please middle child and contributing editor for New York Magazine, thank you very much.

STERNBERGH: Thank you.