Are we facing a future without families?

Blame the post-industrial, consumption-based economy and its demand on female workers

Nathan Denette/CP

 

Is the family history?

A sweeping new study by renowned urban theorist Joel Kotkin makes a depressingly convincing case for the decline of the family as the key decision-maker, growth engine and motivator for modern society; in its place is a world increasingly filled with self-indulgent singletons. Where can we go to change such a trend? Home seems like a good place to start.

The relentless tide of demographic change in the developed world is well documented. Fertility rates are down, populations are getting older and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see how our vast array of health and social welfare programs can be supported by a shrinking work force.

In new research prepared for the Singapore government, Kotkin takes this analysis back a few steps. Underlying the drop in fertility and the growing aging population, he observes, is a decline of the institution of marriage and the primacy of family in society. We now live in a “post-familial world.”

“The Rise of Post-Familialism: Humanity’s Future?” by Kotkin and several co-authors trace several important economic forces behind the rapid diminution in the urge to find a spouse and procreate. Chief among these is our post-industrial, consumption-based economy and the ever-growing demands it places on workers, and in particular women. This trend can be seen in every rich country, but may be most pronounced in bustling Singapore, where the fertility rate is nearly half what’s required to maintain a steady population level. “In Singapore, women work an average of 53 hours a week. Of course they are not going to have children. They don’t have the time,” says demographer Wolfgang Lutz in the report.

Kotkin further links the economic decision to skip children with a broader decline in marriage rates—driven by institutional change, diminished religiosity and a greater preference for a solitary, unattached life. Again there’s plenty of evidence to support his thesis: 70 per cent of women in Washington do not live with children, for example. And by 2030 it’s estimated one-third of Japanese males under the age of 50 will have never married. “You can be single, self-satisfied and well. So why have kids?” asks one Japanese researcher rhetorically. “It’s better to go on great holidays, eat good food and have your hobbies.” Children are no longer a biological imperative, but rather the perceived route to a less-appealing lifestyle.

These same broad trends are playing out in Canada as well. The 2011 census reveals the share of married couples to be declining as a percentage of total households. And couples without children now outnumber couples with children. Only Canada’s liberal immigration policies have insulated us from the worst of global depopulation trends. But these impacts will eventually be felt across the developed world.

Of course an unmarried and increasingly childless world shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. It’s largely our own creation. Given ample choice, many inhabitants of wealthy countries have opted to avoid the complications and expense of marriage and child-rearing in favour of greater personal freedom. Certainly no one is about to advocate less freedom as a solution to all this. And deliberate government policies aimed at artificially raising the birth rate or encouraging marriage are typically doomed to failure.

Kotkin, thankfully, is not entirely without hope. He points to international surveys showing significant interest among younger generations in being good parents or having a successful marriage. Aspirations of a family life are not entirely dead. Further, there’s scope for government policies to stem this decline in family formation without impeding freedom, choice or progress.

First, he advocates greater international migration to provide balanced population growth around the globe. And restoring faith in the future following the Great Recession will go a long way to convincing younger generations to start planning for tomorrow. But the biggest area for immediate policy attention lies in housing.

Within the subtle and complex calculations that go into the decision to have a family, the house looms large: a traditional home with a driveway and yard remains the preferred locale for raising a family. Yet government planning efforts inevitably push urban apartments over all other options, raising the cost of suburban homes to unaffordable levels. “The current obsession with promoting density . . . represents an assault on the aspirations of most families.” Kotkin writes. Without a suitable place to raise kids, many couples simply forgo having them.

Suburbs—widely reviled by city planners and the modern intelligentsia as depressing, unsustainable “sprawl”—are in fact the last refuges of family and fertility in Canada. “In Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver suburbs, the ratio of children per women of child-bearing age is roughly 80 per cent higher than in the urban cores,” Kotkin writes. Forests of downtown condo towers may present an impressive, modern and environmentally sensitive cityscape, but they’re largely child-free.

If we’re truly interested in the survival of the family in a “post-familial” world, we ought to be celebrating our unloved suburbs. And planning much more family-friendly sprawl.




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Are we facing a future without families?

  1. That’s a mighty large “if” you end the article with there.

    To me, that’s actually the much more interesting question. Are we interested in the survival of the family? If so, why?

  2. Population is going up to at least 9 billion before it levels off….do we need 9 billion people?

    And what’s a family? A nuclear family which is extremely recent in history? Like the 1950s?

    We’ll still have reproduction….and families….they just won’t be Leave It To Beaver style.

    • “… extremely recent in history…”
      Good heavens, where did you get that idea. The nuclear family has been foundational to every civilized society for millenia. How do you think that children were raised to self sufficiency and the elderly protected before the invention of the welfare state? Sheesh.

      • From history Zog….the modern nuclear family [mom, dad, coupla kids] is post WWII. Before that it was multi-generational families, extended families….all in one house, or close together.

        The nuclear family…..and especially ones hundreds or thousands of miles away from their home town and multiple relatives….. is recent.

        I have no idea what the welfare state has to do with it, but I gather that’s your partisanship creeping into a non-partisan topic

        • partisanship? That’s a pretty stupid comment. You don’t see the connection between the welfare state and shuffling family responsibilities off to the gummint. Jesus Christ!
          I guess that the community where I was raised in the 1930s was an aberration as everyone I knew (from my generation and the previous one) had normal families and, because the older generation had pioneered the district, many of them had relatives “hundreds or even thousands of miles away”.
          The ideas of voluntary childlessness, putting kids into daycare or warehousing old people in “special care homes” are very recent developments. How do you think people survived if not with the help of families.

          • I see some pretty stupid partisanship on your part, and I’m not interested in it.

            Just set, and rock, and misremember the past.

          • I’m only guessing here but, my guess is that, besides being a mannerless smart ass (that part is obvious and not a guess) you are a very young, egocentric Torontonian with little knowledge of the geography, history or social conditions of Canada and none whatsoever of the rest of the world. So, keep sucking on your bong, sneering at the basic institution of every mature society that has ever existed and telling yourself how hip and sophisticated you are.

          • Actually I’m 66, and live about 4 hours away from Toronto. Never used drugs either.

            Your childhood in the Dirty Thirties has nothing to do with the life lived by the 7 million others on the planet today.

            Now go be cranky with someone else, grandad.

  3. ugh. Promoting urban sprawl is a horrible idea. Unsustainable, bad for the environment, crappy transit, crappy commutes (even with a vehicle), and expensive utitlities/taxes/etc. Speaking as someone who currently lives in the suburbs, I cannot WAIT to get out of here (yes, I still live with my parents. Finally found a decent job that might actually enable me to save up money for a downpayment). As soon as I can, I’m moving into a condo as close to downtown as I can afford.

    Though, that being said, I’ve never wanted kids, and really could care less about being married. Someday maybe, but I’m not in a huge rush. So I suppose I’m not helping your ‘lets increase families!’ idea much. Even if living in the burbs was cheaper, it certainly wouldn’t change my mind about having kids.

    • And that, Madam, multiplied by hundreds of thousands like you, is the formula for societal suicide. Somewhere, somehow, we have killed the natural urge to procreate.

  4. No, we should not be planning for more sprawl. This is the most ahistorical and illogical conclusion this article could possibly finish with. We should be making more high-density building with designs that allow for families, including multi-generational and extended family living arrangements. Not because traditional nuclear families are the best, but because neighbourhoods with a mixed of ages, incomes and lifestyles are healthier and make more resilient communities that cities with neighbourhoods full of young single people and other neighbourhoods full of families.

    There’s nothing inherently “anti-family” about multi-unit dwellings: indeed, that’s how most of the world grows up and has grown up historically. We just need to design for more multi-bedroom condo and apartments, increase sound insulation standards and have more urban parks. There is nothing that says that ugly, unsustainable suburbs are the only way to allow for more families, or that herding everyone into a nuclear family arrangement is even a desirable outcome.

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