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.