The Fading Family
The world's major economies face a serious demographic crunch.
For millennia the family has stood as the central institution of society—often changing, but always essential. But across the world, from China to North America, and particularly in Europe, family ties are weakening, with the potential to undermine one of the last few precious bits of privacy and intimacy.
Margaret Mead once said, “no matter how many communes anyone invents, the family always creeps back.” But today’s trajectory is not promising. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, family formation and birth rates were declining throughout much of the world, not just in most of the West and East Asia, but also in parts of South American and the Middle East.
The ongoing pandemic appears to be driving birth rates globally down even further, and the longer it lasts, the greater possibility that familial implosion will get far worse, and perhaps intractable. Brookings predicts that COVID will result in 300,000 to 500,000 fewer U.S. births in 2021. Marriage rates have dropped significantly to 35 year lows.
The Surprising Demographic Crisis
It’s been a half century since Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb (1968) prophesied a surge of population that would foster Malthusian mass starvation, which echoed the premise of lurid book called Famine 1975! Ehrlich and his acolytes urged extreme measures to stave off disaster, including adding sterilant into the water supply. Similar conclusions were drawn four years later in the corporate-sponsored Club of Rome report, which embraced an agenda of austerity and retrenchment to stave off population-driven mass starvation and social chaos.
These predictions turned out to be vastly exaggerated, with a rapid decline in global hunger. The anticipated population explosion is morphing into something more like an implosion, with much of the world now facing population stagnation, and even contraction. As birth rates have dropped, the only thing holding up population figures in many places is longer lifespans, though recent data suggests these may be getting shorter again .
These trends can be felt in the United States, where the birthrate is sinking. U.S. population growth among the cohort aged between 16 and 64 has dropped from 20 percent in the 1980s to less than 5 percent in the last decade. This is particularly bad for the future of an economy dependent on new workers and consumers.
This demographic transition is even more marked in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and much of Europe, where finding younger workers is becoming a major problem for employers and could result in higher costs or increased movement of jobs to more fecund countries. As the employment base shrinks, some countries, such as Germany, have raised taxes on the existing labor force to pay for the swelling ranks of retirees.
Similar patterns can be seen in China. Expanding workforces like China’s—which grew by 380 million between 1980 and 2012—drove a world-shattering economic boom. Now, this resource is already in peril; birthrates have cratered to historic lows. China’s working-age population (those between 15 and 64 years old) peaked in 2011 and is projected to drop 23 percent by 2050. This plunge will be exacerbated by the effects of the now discarded one-child policy, which led to the aborting of an estimated 37 million Chinese girls since it came into effect in 1980. By 2050, China is projected to have 60 million fewer people under age fifteen, a loss approximately the size of Italy’s total population. The ratio of retirees to working people is expected to have more than tripled by then, which would be one of the most rapid demographic shifts in history, and by 2050 will be roughly 20 percent higher than that of the U.S.
These grim statistics have created an imbalance between the sexes that could pose an existential threat to President Xi’s “China dream,” and perhaps to the stability of the Communist state. But China is not the only Asian powerhouse with diminishing workforces, low fertility rates and marriage rates. Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore all face similar threats.
Goodbye to the “Republic of Children”
Today’s demographic stagnation represents a throwback to earlier times. After the relative buoyant growth in Classical times, the Middle Ages also were a period of global demographic stagnation, caused by famine, pestilence, pervasive celibacy and poverty. Population growth soared with the rise of liberal capitalism in the Early Modern period, aided by changing attitudes toward motherhood, children, and families. Simon Schama describes the Netherlands, the fount of this transition, as a “Republic of Children” built around the nuclear family. The medieval obsession with the Virgin Mother and the unrealistic cherubim typical of Renaissance painting were replaced with domestic images characterized by “uncompromising earthiness.”
We now seem to be moving away from those values, and as in the Middle Ages, becoming less centered around the family. Serfs at least had religion and a sense of community; our societies have become increasingly lonely, with single men hit hardest and children, often without two parents or any siblings, and chained to social media, increasingly isolated around the world. In the U.S. since 1960, the percentage of people in the United States living alone has grown from about 12 percent to 28 percent. Even intimacy is on its way out, particularly among the young; the once swinging age groups now are suffering a “sex recession.”
The percentage of American women who are mothers is at its lowest point in over three decades. Intact families are rarer, and single living more common. In the United States, the rate of single parenthood has grown from 10 percent in 1960 to over 40 percent today. This is very bad news for society, particularly minorities, because intact families tend to have fewer problems relating to prison, school, or poverty.
This social collapse is going global. In Britain, 8 percent of households in 1970 were headed by a single parent; now, the rate is over 25 percent. The percentage of children born outside marriage has doubled over the past three decades, to 40 percent. In the Scandinavian countries, around 40 percent of the population lives alone.
This breakdown in family structure has spread to Asia. Half of all Korean households have experienced some form of family crisis, mostly involving debt, job loss, or issues relating to child or elder care. Shin Kyung-Sook’s highly praised bestseller Please Look After Mom, which sold two million copies, focused on the “filial guilt” of children over failing to look after aging parents. The proportion of people living alone in China, once a virtually unimaginable situation, has risen to 15 percent.
In Japan, the harbinger of modern Asian demographics, the number of people living alone is expected to reach 40 percent of the whole population by 2040. Japan has a rising “misery index” of divorces, single motherhood, and spousal and child abuse—all of which accelerates the country’s disastrous demographic decline and deepens class division. More and more people are not only living alone but dying alone. There are estimated to be four thousand “lonely deaths” in Japan every week.
The Urban Conundrum
The disinclination to form families is often described as generational choice. But American millennial attitudes about family are not significantly different from prior generations, though perhaps with a greater emphasis on gender equality. Among American childless women under age 44, barely 6 percent are “voluntarily childless.” The vast majority of millennials want to get married and have children.
High housing prices, crowded living conditions, and financial pressures certainly account for much of this gap. This phenomenon is particularly marked in the urban centers that dominate the world’s economy and culture. Today many large cities are becoming childless demographic graveyards. Between 2011 and 2019, the number of babies born annually in Manhattan dropped by nearly 15 percent, while the decrease across the city was 9 percent. The nation’s premier urban center could see its infant population shrink by half in the next thirty years. The share of nonfamily households grew three times as fast in gentrifying neighborhoods as in the city overall. In the future, writes Steve LeVine in Axios, shifting local priorities “could write kids out of urban life for good.”
This phenomenon is even more pronounced in more crowded, expensive Asian cities. In Hong Kong, around 210,000 middle-class and working-class residents now live in tiny spaces, some described as hardly bigger than a coffin, and two-thirds of women want either one child only or no children at all, mainly due to the price of housing and a harried lifestyle. Major Chinese cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, have fertility rates among the lowest in the world, and only about one-third of the replacement level.
A Value Proposition
Nearly half a century ago, Daniel Bell saw a “new class” rising with values profoundly divergent from the traditional bourgeois norms of self-control, industriousness, and personal responsibility, which together form the essence of familialism. Instead, Bell envisioned a new type of individualism, unmoored from religion and family, which could dissolve the foundations of middle-class culture.
Indeed, for some, particularly in Europe and North America, declining fecundity represents an ideal result, chosen by those who “give up having children to save the planet” in order to reduce the carbon impact of each additional human. The recipe for reducing family size fits with the widely promoted notion of de-growth which has strong support from the oligarchs and financiers associated with the World Economic Forum. The goal is no GDP growth, less consumption, smaller houses, less class mobility, policies likely to reduce birthrates.
Others, particularly feminists and gender activists, celebrate the decline of the family for more ideological reasons. The late feminist icon Betty Frieden once compared housewives to people marching voluntarily into “a concentration camp.” One recent New York Times article even linked women who choose to stay at home with “white supremacy.” Black Lives Matter, true to its quasi-Marxist ideology, has made clear its antipathy to the nuclear family, an attitude widely shared in the mainstream media as well.
The more conventional Marxists in China, for their part, see these post-familial attitudes as a threat to the country’s future. China’s Communist leaders, while officially genuflecting to Maoist ideology, now promote the filial piety central to both traditional folk religion and the Confucianism but long reviled by the founders of the People’s Republic. Once terrified by overpopulation, China’s leaders are seeking ways to raise childbearing and family formation into “socialist” values.
But it’s Japan which again epitomizes the shift in Asian attitudes. There, traditional values such as hard work, sacrifice, and loyalty are largely rejected by the new generation, the shinjinrui or “new race.” These younger Japanese, writes one sociologist, are “pioneering a new sort of high quality, low energy, low growth existence.” Maybe they don’t need much energy since nearly a third of Japanese adults entering their thirties have never had sex. This is not a good predictor for family formation.
Fortunately, there is some movement—particularly in the United States—to place familialism at the center of policy. This includes both progressives and traditional conservatives, who are proposing expanded child-care credits and incentives. Such approaches are also being developed in Europe, China, Japan, and other countries aware of the growing demographic threat.
To succeed, such initiatives have to go beyond cash payments and other incentives, as welcome as these may be. There also needs to be a concerted effort to build family-friendly housing— large apartments, townhomes, and single-family detached houses—that generally attract families with children. Rather than shoehorning forced density into already-dense metros, we can encourage the development of less expensive, family-friendly housing; the shift to the periphery accelerated by the pandemic could help reverse the rapid aging and demographic declines associated with densely packed cities. The rise of remote work—something widely embraced by parents—could boost families by allowing them to work at home or nearby.
These are not issues of right or left, but concern the future of our civilization, not just economically but spiritually. Social democracy, as first developed in places like Sweden, sought to bolster families, not hem them in. Some conservatives have placed similar emphasis on the family unit. The debate should be not the utility of supporting families, but how best to do it.
This is a choice we need to make. A woke utopia, where children and families are rare, upward mobility constrained, and society built around a collective welfare system, would create a society that rewards hedonism and personal self-absorption. There is nothing as binding in a society as the ties created by children, who give us reason to fight against an encroaching dystopia.