Joel Kotkin and some associates recently released a study they did for Singapore looking at changes in family dynamics in the modern era. Called “The Rise of Post-Familialism: Humanity’s Future?” it examines the data around the decline of the family – the nuclear family with children, along with extended kin groups in some societies – as the fundamental ordering principle of society. This is because large numbers of people are not having children or not getting married at all. This trend has potentially profound implications for our future. In addition to the raw study, Joel wrote an article with an overview of the findings.
As Kotkin notes, “For most of human history, the family — defined by parents, children and extended kin — has stood as the central unit of society.” Today, that is increasingly no longer true. The decline of fertility rates has gotten a lot of press in terms of what it means for the aging of society, paying for entitlements, etc. But there’s been much less press on what it means for the structure of society as a whole not to be organized around families. This is an interesting look at some of what’s going on and some of the potential futures.
The statistics are interesting. Now nearly 20% of women aged 40-44 in the US have never had children. This means they likely never will. The percentage of people listing “children” as an important factor for a successful marriage has declined by 37% just since 1990. 30% of German women say they never plan to have children. Almost half of middle-aged German men say you can have a happy life without children. The data are even more stark in East Asia, where some project that a quarter of all women will still be single by age 50 and a third may never have kids. By 2030, a third of all men in Japan may still be unmarried by 1950. These changes, though still representing a minority of people, still represent a huge change from just a generation or two ago.
One primary outcome of this has been the collapse in fertility. Many who view overpopulation as one of the key challenges facing humanity or the global environment may cheer this. But many advanced societies now have total fertility rates in the low 1’s. This is the so called “lowest low” fertility rate that leads to civilizational collapse. It means that natural demographics are halving the population with every generation. As right-wing political commentator Mark Steyn has noted regarding this, the family tree has been turned upside down. Four grandparents have two children who have just one grandchild. Asian countries have been particularly affected by this, including Singapore (with a total fertility rate of just 1.15, hence their interest in the subject), Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong. But European countries like Spain, Italy, and Greece are also advanced in fertility declines. Even the developing world – Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East – have seen huge declines in fertility.
What has caused this? Kotkin offers a few answers including a decline in traditional (especially religious) values; equal rights for women, especially in the workplace; and urbanization. These changes have not only had an objective impact in the numbers above, they have also changed society’s expectations around family life, which used to be normative. The unmarried or childless person in the 1950’s was an anomaly, maybe even a freak, and probably assumed to be gay at a time when that was not socially accepted. It was a choice with consequences to not have a family. That’s less true today. As Kotkin notes:
Societal norms, which once almost mandated family formation, have begun to morph. The new norms are reinforced by cultural influences that tend to be concentrated in the very areas — dense urban centres — with the lowest percentages of married people and children. A majority of residences in Manhattan are for singles, while Washington D.C. has one of the highest percentages of women who do not live with children, some 70%. Similar trends can be seen in London, Paris, Tokyo and other cultural capitals.
Social norms are set in the cultural capitals. They drive media portrayals of the good life, journalism, think tank research, etc. What these places do matters. Their changes could serve as a vanguard for what others will become soon.
New social norms have major implications for public policy. Among other things, a population of people who don’t have children is less likely to be concerned about the well-being of future generations, and thus unwilling to sacrifice for it. Per Kotkin:
A society that is increasingly single and childless is likely to be more concerned with serving current needs than addressing the future oriented requirements of children. Since older people vote more than younger ones, and children have no say at all, political power could shift towards non- childbearing people, at least in the short and medium term. We could tilt more into a ‘now’ society, geared towards consuming or recreating today, as opposed to nurturing and sacrificing for tomorrow.
You may push back on the “now society” mentality by noting the high degree of social consciousness exhibited by single urban dwellers on stewardship issues like the environment. But I reject this because the policy choices represented by items like sustainability don’t represent a sacrifice to the advocates. In fact, those are the exact things they want anyway. The urban bike culture crowd and downtown carless singles aren’t riding bikes or transit out of some sense of duty even though they hate it. They do it because they like it. Similarly, green roofs, recycling, and other things don’t really represent sacrifices as these are lifestyle choices they are happy to make on the merits. When these single, childless urbanites start doing things they hate in order to benefit the future, then I’ll pay it more attention.
I’ve even seen the now society mentality affects people who do have families. The pattern traditionally was that parents sacrificed everything they had to in order to see that their children could have it better than they did, and have the absolute best chance of succeeding in life. Today, that’s less the case. The parents’ own self-gratification carries equal weight. For example, in the past many people moved to the suburbs when their kids reached school age. They moved into the best school district they could afford to give their kids a leg up in life. Today in Chicago, I know people who have decided to stay in the city and send their kids to Chicago Public Schools. As long as they get their kid into a merely adequate school, that’s ok with them. While some want to raise kids in the city for noble reasons like making a stand for turning around failing urban schools or ensuring their children are exposed to diverse populations, most of the people I know who’ve done it are quite open that their decision was made simply because the parents do not want to give up their urban lifestyle. Their own happiness is not something they are willing to sacrifice for their kids.
How this plays out in terms of inter-generational solidarity remains to be seen. If the kids imbibe the same attitude, mom and dad may not be so happy when it comes nursing home time. Also, younger generations may increasingly question why they are paying higher payroll taxes that seniors never had to pay in order to fund retirement benefits.
And for folks like me it may be even more stark. My grandmother was in the hospital last Christmas, and the family was able to come together to be with her. She knows she’ll be taken care of because of her children and grandchildren. But what about me? I’m 42 and don’t have any kids. This could be a scary prospect 20+ years from now. I always hear about people like my grandmother and the family rallying around. But how many older people even today have no one? Almost by definition, their story isn’t told, so we get a skewed sense of the world. When there are large numbers of old people with no kids, it will be a very different world.
Also, the divergent geography of the childless creates further problems in the politically polarized society in which we live. In researching an article I’m writing about Washington, DC, I got Kotkin’s stat on singles in the District. But the region as a whole has a child population percentage almost equal to the US average. Suburban DC counties like Loudoun, VA have some of the highest percentages of people under the age of 18 of any county in America.
As affluent people who choose to remain childless remain in more urban areas, and those who choose to have kids live in suburban ones, we’ll have legitimate matters of interest driving them apart politically. In a piece called “Geographies in Conflict” I noted how different economic geographies in the same physical space is an inherent conflict. Red states and blue states don’t just have different political points of views. They increasingly do different things. If you are Texas and are in the business of energy, chemicals, logistics, and manufacturing, the things that you need to be successful are very different from a Silicon Valley or Manhattan, which specialize in ultra-high end, high value service industries. The conflicts are as much a product of legitimate self-interest as political philosophy.
I think we’ll see similar conflicts between the needs, wants, and desires of the childless urban population and those of the suburban families with kids. It’s kind of nice to do your shopping daily on foot or by bicycle at the local market and such when you don’t have three kids to buy for and haul around with you. Bloomberg’s proposed micro-apartments in New York are an example of a market designed to cater to singles, not families. It’s not a matter of one being good and another bad. It’s merely that singles (or childless married couples) and people with children have very different priorities and concerns in life. To the extent that these are geographically segregated and the worldview of the other parties are increasingly foreign, I think we’ll see increasing political polarization and big sort type logic only grow, and city vs. suburb rhetoric of exactly the same type we are already hearing.
In any case, there’s a lot to ponder as the fundamental basis of society shifts from families to autonomous individuals and looser groupings. It is something that is likely to have a pervasive impact on pretty much everything that makes up our world. Read Kotkin’s report and then think through the issues for yourself.