The strange death of the family

The strange death of the family

The world is sleepwalking towards a depopulation crisis.

Joel Kotkin

Joel Kotkin

Topics Politics World

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Over a decade ago, I led a team of Singapore-based researchers to investigate why families were declining. Back then, we were experiencing a historic shift away from population growth and familial ties, towards individualism. Since then, the post-familial age has entered full swing.

This situation would have been unthinkable in the 1960s, when ‘overpopulation’ was seen as inevitable. In his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich predicted that the number of people on Earth would rocket to unsustainable levels, resulting in global famine.

Yet the disaster Ehrlich predicted has not materialised. In fact, the trend is now reversing. Last year’s global population growth was the smallest since 1950. Far from humans breeding themselves out of existence, today almost half of the world’s people live in countries with fertility rates well below replacement level. This week, the US Census announced the lowest birthrate in American history. Rather than relentlessly continuing to rise, as per Ehrlich’s prophecies, the UN predicts that the world’s population will peak between 2053 and in 2086. By 2100, the rate of growth will have virtually stalled. We are entering demographic territory not seen since the plague-cursed Medieval period.

The decline of families is a global problem. In the US, the number of households with under-18s living in them has declined from 56 per cent in 1970 to 40 per cent in 2020. And over a quarter of all US households were one-person households in 2020, up from just eight per cent in 1940. Similarly in the UK, both birth and marriage rates for women under 30 have hit an all-time low. The story is the same in most Western countries, as well as Japan, China and much of south-east Asia.

Demographic stagnation is arguably a natural result of weakening family ties. These have held human society together and encouraged fecundity from the earliest times. Dismantling them, as we have, has had dire consequences. As Richard Reeves, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, notes: ‘You don’t upend a 12,000-year-old social order without experiencing cultural side effects.’

In the West, it should come as no surprise that younger generations are shunning marriage and children. We are living in an age of gender confusion and of faltering relationships between men and women. Today, over 28 per cent of all women in Generation Z, notes Gallup, identify as LGBT. While the bulk of those describe themselves as bisexual rather than as strictly lesbian, this reflects a growing trend of rejecting traditional heterosexual relationships as unfashionable, if not outright ‘oppressive’.

These young people are products of a decades-long culture war. Where the young were once pressured to marry and procreate, singleness is now widely celebrated. Environmentalists, for their part, have worked overtime to convince young people that the Earth cannot cope with any more people. College campuses are having a particularly radicalising impact on some young women. Of course, green ideology runs rampant here, but there is also a boom in such things as ‘queer studies’. Plenty of the content taught within these programmes has an agenda to replace the ‘nuclear family’ with some form of collectivised childrearing. For example, prominent feminist Sophie Lewis advocates ‘full surrogacy’ as a replacement for the traditional family.

Even the Black Lives Matter movement initially made its opposition to the nuclear family a part of its basic platform. Its academic supporters often see marriage as an instrument of white supremacy.

Woke politics can’t be blamed entirely for the population decline, however. In Asia, woke has had very little impact, if any. Yet still familialism, once a dominant force, has faded there, too. Today China has 200million unmarried adults, including 58million single people between 20 and 40 years of age. The proportion of people living alone in China, once virtually unimaginable, has risen to 15 per cent.

Alarmed by this decline in marriage and childbearing, the Chinese Communist Party is trying to encourage young Chinese men to ‘act masculine’ and is providing incentives for procreation. But increasingly, Chinese young people, like their Western counterparts, choose to adopt ‘live for yourself’ as the fundamental principle driving their lives. Marriage and childbirth, notes one Chinese Gen Zer, have become ‘almost synonymous with the stress of life for us young people’.

Young people in both East and West are experiencing what has been described as a ‘sex recession’. In the US, the share of sexually active people stands at a 30-year low. Around 30 per cent of young American men reported in 2019 that they had no sex in the past year, compared with around 20 per cent of young women. In Japan, the harbinger of modern Asian demographics, roughly a third of men and women enter their thirties as virgins.

Certainly, overpopulation no longer seems a threat. But as John Maynard Keynes prophetically warned, ‘chaining up of the one devil may, if we are careless, only serve to loose another still fiercer and more intractable’. An increasingly childless world will certainly come with a whole host of other problems.

For starters, societies with ageing populations will be much less productive. In China, the working-age population (between 15 and 64 years old) peaked in 2011. It is projected to drop 23 per cent by 2050. By then, the senior population in China is expected to have doubled, constituting one of the most rapid demographic shifts in history. By 2100, almost half of China’s population will be over 60, a percentage far greater than in the US or much of Europe.

Yet this is not restricted to China. For the OECD as a whole, the dependency ratio – those aged 65 and over as a proportion of those aged between 20 and 64 – will rise from the current figure of 22 per cent to 46 per cent in 2050. The burden of this will be massive for all nations.

The US already faces a massive public pension crisis. Worse still, the social-security reserve funds that provide Americans with welfare is set to be depleted by 2034. To cope with a shrinking employment base and the rising demands of the elderly, the US may have to follow in the footsteps of countries like Germany and raise taxes.

At the same time, people rely on the state now more than ever. As both religious institutions and the family decline, we are ushering in a world – already evident in Europe – where people depend less on family and community. Instead, they look to impersonal state institutions to provide critical services. Even in the more free-market-oriented US, unmarried progressives often push for rent subsidies or direct cash transfers. This is reflected in the pitches of Democratic presidents, such as former US president Barack Obama’s ‘Life of Julia’ and President Joe Biden’s ‘Life of Linda’. These much-mocked cartoons aim to extol the virtues of a generous welfare programme for married people and families. Not only can the state provide, the message goes, but it can also do so more effectively and reliably than traditional community and family bonds.

With more state welfare and an ever shrinking native workforce to support it, population decline naturally necessitates more migrant labour. Migration from the developing world to the developed world – expected to average 2.2million annually up to 2050 – threatens the existing social order, even as it allows the major economies to continue functioning. Many advanced countries have loosened their borders to facilitate this mass influx of people. Although Asian countries are generally far less amenable to mass immigration, even as they face massive workforce shortfalls, particularly in factories and farms, many European governments have had no such qualms.

While businesses might favour this approach, mass migration has spurred fierce opposition among ordinary people. It has helped nurture populist, often nativist, movements in many countries, including in Austria, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy and Germany. Much of the support for populist parties comes from the working and lower-middle classes, who resent the sudden cultural disruptions, as well as the public expense of accommodating the newcomers.

In the US, which has long depended on immigrants, attitudes have also hardened. Control of the border is, for now at least, the leading issue in the upcoming election. Not surprisingly, the record numbers of migrants now crossing the border, and costing millions to the ‘sanctuary cities’ that are hosting them, has elicited strong opposition.

What is there to be done about the current demographic collapse and its political blowback? Some see salvation by adopting the ‘Nordic way’, which removes much of the burden of child-raising from families to the state. But many places that adopt this approach – including Scandinavia and Quebec – continue to struggle with fertility rates well below replacement level. During my own research in Singapore, our focus group of young female professionals told us that, even after upping financial incentives to $1million, most still would not consider having children.

For many young people, it is a lack of stability and fear of their future prospects, rather than a lack of government benefits, that holds them back. In which case, better economic conditions and more affordable housing could well spur positive demographic shifts.

It is certainly not the case that young people are actively choosing not to start families. Most people in the UK who don’t have children once wanted them, notes Jody Day, founder of Gateway Women, a support network for involuntarily childless women. She believes economic issues, like high housing costs, student debts and career demands, are depressing birth rates. Pew finds similarly that about half of unmarried and childless young people in the US would like to become married parents.

Of course, the revival of the family is not only an economic issue, but also a civilisational one. Certainly, a resurgence in religion could play a role. Secular people or members of progressive faiths have fewer children than adherents of evangelical Christianity, orthodox Judaism or fundamentalist Islam, as Eric Kaufmann explains in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?.

Obviously, secular people also need families. The publication of two new books on the subject, Get Married and Family Unfriendly, make a powerful case for restoring familialism as the best way to improve both psychological health and economic success. But first, attitudes need to change. As one Japanese professor told the Wall Street Journal, we must again become ‘a society where people have fun working and raising children’. In order for this to happen, we must once again embrace family and children as positives – a view that is uncommon, particularly among the highly educated.

In the eyes of some in the tech world, people are increasingly irrelevant. Masayoshi Son, founder of the influential Softbank venture fund, recently suggested that artificial intelligence (AI) would lay the foundation for the creation of the ‘superhuman’, who could programme society through algorithms. Working humans could soon be replaced with machines, it is argued. Some have even suggested that ‘sex robots’ could be the answer to the sex recession.

A world with fewer people and more robots might well be a greener and perhaps even more ‘efficient’ society. But it will be at the cost of the very things – romance, marriage, children – that have made humans something other than just inefficient machines. We should ask ourselves if that is really a price worth paying.

Joel Kotkin is a spiked columnist, the RC Hobbs presidential fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and author, most recently, of The Coming of Neo Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, published by Encounter.

Picture by: Caleb Oquendo.

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Topics Politics World


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