Look back a few weeks to the surprise success in Iowa for Republican presidential primary contender Rick Santorum. Today, there is increased scrutiny of the conservative values the hard-line social conservative so enthusiastically endorsed. Political discourse on both sides of the Atlantic has become more vocal about whether or not there is a need for a restoration of the ‘nuclear family’ as a platform for a successful society. And the questioning of the nuclear family is not just a debate about whether hardline conservatism is good for society. It has expanded to include another question: is it even possible for a society with relatively static demographics to be based around households of a mother, a father and children? Do long-term demographic forces allow for a nuclear family, or will the future hold a new set of family geographies?
The Pre-Transitional Family
Rewind demographic models back a few stages to the pre-transitional era, and it’s apparent that the lifespan, the important decisions, and the experience of the family resembles little of what we see or even imagine today. The overwhelming demographic force of the era was mortality. Death was never far away. It was the social norm for children to be lost in childbirth or infancy. Disease was prevalent, and life expectancy was short. The speed of the human life cycle ensured that it was rare for inter-generational relationships to exist. Child /grandparent relationships were rare, and even child/parent relationships were short, whereas horizontal relationships (between cousins, for example) were far more common. It has been argued that these high mortality rates caused emotional detachment from the immediate social networks, allowing phenomena such as the social acceptance of infanticide to prevail, sowing the seeds for the emerging gender crises in Asia.
The Transitional Family
The 20th century marked rapid changes in family structure. In demographic terms, each generation was less like the last. The subsequent fertility decline resulting from the gradual liberation of woman in society meant that there were a decreasing number of children in the household. In the United States, average household size fell from 5.6 in 1850 to 2.6 in 2000. Neil Howe’s interview with Social Intelligence outlined the consequences of this in countries with below replacement fertility:
“…in two generations you end up with a society in which the typical young adult not only has no siblings, but also has no cousins, no aunts, no uncles. Most young people will have two living parents, and four grandparents, but no other blood relations. In China, they call it the 4-2-1 problem, where one child is meant to support all of them.”
Of course, 4-2-1 is only a problem because of the unevenness of too many elderly and too few young. For many 21st century children with little extended family, the absence of siblings is a blessing in many ways. Greater emotional attachment from parents has given children access to a greater share of their parent’s resources, allowing them to enjoy healthier food and education compared with a family where parental resources were divided among several siblings. The net result of a society with a larger proportion of both adults and of children that have received relatively high levels of social capital investment is staggering in economic terms. South Korea is a testament to that, with fertility falling from 6.1 in 1960 to 1.2 in 2005. In those 45 years the South Koreans have managed to benefit from a greater per capita educational investment by building one of the most successful economies in the world.
The Post-Transitional Family
What defines a 21st century family? The Italian demographer Massimo Livi-Bacci describes the child as “the centre of family life”, referring to low fertility levels prevailing in the developed world, as well as the child being a bank of investment. However, in these austere times, a well-groomed child is becoming a less preferred option. Many couples have decided that no child is better than a poorly groomed child, and thus rates of childlessness have steadily been rising in the developed nations.
Where does this society with fewer children leave marriage? The institution of marriage has been undergoing erosion from many angles. Urbanisation has widened social networks to a point where the family makes up only a small fraction of that network. Relationships of every kind are becoming shorter lived, with increased mobility and opportunities to contact more people. The rise in life expectancy has meant that married years extend for far longer, leading many people to become bored of the relationship or to simply end up regretting choosing the wrong partner.
This has substantially boosted divorce rates. Indeed, the lure of a highflying career has either postponed or cancelled the ever-brittle marriage relationship, and informal relationships are becoming the preferred option. Men are recognising that the roles of father and household head are diminishing, with ever smaller and more informal households that network with friends, not family. Even in the Islamic theocracies there is evidence that pre-marital sex and informal unions are on the rise, giving increased weight to the question: Does marriage decline with development?
The Politics of the New Family
In Eastern Europe, declining marriage rates have been blamed on the collapse of Communism. The American Christian Right to this day blames marriage decline on ‘a lack of faith in God’. Needless to say, if the Christian Right were not opposed to homosexual marriage, the rate of marriage would increase significantly. In fairness however, increasingly secular attitudes are a strong argument for understanding marriage decline.
Social attitude polls indicate a greater acceptance of gay marriage, abortion and equal rights towards women throughout the world, not to mention the explosion of secular attitudes among younger people. The gradual conservative to liberal attitude shift (that seems to be inline with demographic, social and economic forces) and its effect on marriage and demographics poses intriguing questions that have yet to be answered.
My personal conviction is that it is the powerful underlying demographic forces that are breaking apart the cherished union, rather than any conscious tidal shift towards liberal attitudes. These are forces that cannot be pushed back in a free country. The more we urbanise and network, and the longer we live, the more marriage and the traditional notions of the nuclear family will erode. What will be left is a greater mix of smaller ‘traditional’ families, informal one child or childless unions where friends are more important than a formal family, and increasingly common polyamorous relationships. This leaves the family-centred ideal in disarray. It is something that will become less feasible with time, despite Rick Santorum’s best efforts to retain it.
Photo from Bigstock
Edward Morgan is a 3rd Year Human Geography student at the University of St Andrews, Scotland.