Under-fives are spending more time away from their parents compared to previous generations, a study has found.
Analysis by the Nuffield Foundation found that today’s generation of under-fives is the first in which a majority are spending a large part of their childhoods in formal education and care settings and with both parents in paid work.
Compared with previous generations, under-fives today are also more likely to have older parents, fewer siblings and a greater chance of experiencing a variety of family relationships if parents separate and re-partner.
The Nuffield Foundation looked at over 130 research studies to see how social and economic factors are affecting modern childhood.
The employment rate for mothers whose youngest child is two years old increased from 49 per cent in 1996 to 66 per cent in 2018, meaning most children under five will not grow up in a household where both parents work.
An increase in state-funded childcare – with the number of free hours for three and four-year olds nearly doubling between 2003 and 2019 – has resulted in a steady increase in the proportion in nurseries.
Although most children still spend their childhood in families with married parents, this has declined from 71 per cent in 1996 to 61 per cent in 2019. Differences in family size by parental education level have also widened over time, with those with a higher level of formal education having fewer children at an older age. Teenage pregnancy rates have meanwhile decreased across the UK in the last 20 years.
The Nuffield Trust said Covid-19 was increasing financial insecurity and posed a threat to children’s early education and development. Thirty-seven per cent of families where the youngest child is under five are currently living in poverty, which the foundation said was “likely to increase” due to Covid.
A large proportion of children under five will also have missed six months of being in an early years setting or reception class, which is “already having an impact on children’s learning and development”.
Carey Oppenheim, early childhood lead at the Nuffield Foundation and the author of the review, said: “These changes are fundamental – impacting where children are looked after and by whom and how they are spending their time.
“The early years are such an important stage of life that it is essential we understand fully what has changed, the inequalities between families and what we should be doing to enhance the well-being and life chances of young children over and above the confines of early years policy.”