Throughout most of history, starting a family was a task that most people either aspired to or dutifully performed. Today, that is increasingly not the case—not only in Europe, Japan, Australia, or North America, but in the world’s most economically dynamic region, East Asia. The trend towards post-familialism, a society in which the family and marriage are no longer central to society, will reshape our politics, economy, and society in the decades ahead.
Since 1960, the percentage of people living alone in the United States—where the percentage of Americans who are mothers is at its lowest in over three decades—has grown from 10 to 30 percent. Similar phenomena can be observed in virtually all wealthy countries; in Scandinavia 40 percent of the population lives alone. In Britain, the number of single parent households was 8 percent in 1970 but has now passed 25 per cent, while the percentage of children born outside marriage has doubled to 40 percent over the past three decades.
Even East Asia is also now seeing the early signs of a breakdown of its once impregnable family structures. In Japan, the harbinger of modern east Asia, the proportion of the population living alone is expected to reach 40 percent by 2040. Nearly 70 percent of China’s adults aged between 18 and 36 are on their own; the country now has 200 million unmarried adults, including 58 million single people between 20 and 40 years of age. The percentage people living alone in China, once virtually nonexistent, has risen to over 15 percent since 1960.
The trend towards post-familialism is already shaping new political divides between two geographies: large cities on one hand, and smaller cities and suburbs on the other. Households living in the central urban cores, notes demographer Wendell Cox, are one third as likely as those in the suburbs and exurbs to have children of school age.
In many big cities, the long dominant bourgeois family model has been increasingly replaced by a preference for single and unattached living. This trend was powerfully influenced by the rise of bohemianism in the twentieth century, which stressed individual empowerment over family obligation. In the United States, more than a quarter of households were single-person households as of 2015. In urban areas like Manhattan, that figure is estimated to be something more like half, the majority of which are headed by women.
Throughout the world, the urban centers that dominate contemporary economy and culture—Beijing, Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Sydney, and San Francisco—are becoming “demographic graveyards.” In Beijing and Shanghai, the fertility rate is barely one-third of that needed to replace the current population. Inner London, notes the Office for National Statistics (ONS), has a fertility rate fully one-third lower than the surrounding suburbs. In severely overcrowded Hong Kong, according to one recent survey, two-thirds of women said they did not want an additional or even a first child. The fertility rate in the Chinese territory is now less than half that of 1980.
For progressives, the shift to post-familialism promises almost unlimited power, particularly in urban areas. Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg has noted that the singles, particularly single women, represent the Democratic Party’s largest core constituency, with two-thirds voting for Democrats. As families have fled from the largest cities—particularly their inner cores—the urban electorates have become almost Soviet in their voting patterns, with Democratic majorities upwards of 80 compared to 60 percent as recently as two decades ago. Overall in 2016, 52 percent of married people voted for Trump, while Clinton took 55 percent of the single vote.
Family formation and fertility rates of differing geographies could determine the election in 2020. The 11 states with the lowest fertility rates—including New York, California, and Massachusetts—are all hotbeds of progressivism, and unassailably Democratic. In contrast, all but one of the 25 states with the highest rates of fertility, from South Dakota to Kentucky and Texas, supported Trump and remain dominated by Republicans.
These patterns can be seen in most higher income countries. Brexit, for example, fared poorly in inner London, where fertility rates, particularly among whites, are substantially lower, but was far more popular in the more distant suburbs and smaller cities, where birthrates tend to be higher. Similarly, the growth of the Green Party in Europe, and pro-green sentiment in Australia, has been greatest in the heavily childless core cities, and less marked in the suburbs or smaller towns.
This could change if the next generation demands policies—notably the building of affordable family-friendly housing—that challenge the near-universal progressive embrace by planners of forced densification. As generational researchers Morley Winograd and Mike Hais have pointed out, American millennial attitudes about families and preferred housing types do not differ significantly from those of prior generations, albeit with a greater emphasis on gender equality. A 2012 National Health Statistics Report found that barely six percent of childless American women under 44 were “voluntarily childless.” The vast majority of millennials, meanwhile, want to get married and have children.
The struggle over urban form is already underway in places such as California, where tech- and real estate-backed groups like the YIMBYs (Yes In My Backyard) embrace extending high-density development into the remaining lower density bastions of middle- and working-class families. Fierce opposition from these neighborhoods, particularly in the San Fransisco and throughout the LA area, has slowed densification drives from the state, at least for now.
These conflicts are also seen in places like Sydney, where groups such a “Save our Suburbs” have worked to slow down densification schemes in some of the area’s bucolic neighborhoods. But this is not really, as some suggest, an anti-urban movement, but one that seeks to preserve something of the very family-based—and often diverse—middle-density neighborhoods that amazed Jane Jacobs with their “staying power.” In contrast, the new urban paradigm, dominated by the rich and childless, tends to create the same repetitive apartment streetscape, the same shops, the same kinds of people, the same architecture.
Post-familialism will drive many of the biggest economic challenges facing many countries. To be sure, a major reduction in childbearing is a blessing in some impoverished parts of the globe, but declining birthrates, and the consequent drop in the workforce, will sap the growth of the higher income countries they depend upon for trade and finance. Already in the United States, workforce growth has slowed to almost one-third of the level in 1970 and is likely to fall even further.
Over time, falling populations in advanced countries will threaten economic growth, both limiting the size of their labor force and undermining the fiscal viability of their own welfare states. As the employment base shrinks, some countries—notably Japan and Germany—have already raised taxes on the existing labor force to pay for the rising tide of older retirees.
Some countries even face an inexorable depopulation reminiscent of early feudal times. In Russia, for example, between 1991 and 2011, a total of about 13 million more people died than were born. Overall, Europe’s population, notes Futurist Frederic Pearce, is destined to fall from 738 million to roughly 482 million by 2100 when the elderly in a shrunken Germany will outnumber children under 15 by as much as four to one.
The demographic decline in East Asia has been, if anything, even more dramatic. Over the past few decades, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore, have seen their fertility rates fall well below that required to replace their populations. Perhaps the most extreme case is Japan, where this process had started by the 1960s. If the current patterns hold, the island nation’s population, according to Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, will decline from 127 million to under 80 million by 2065.
More important, China’s working age population (those between 15 and 64 years old) peaked in 2011 and is projected to drop by over 200 million by 2050. China will lose 60 million people under 15 years of age by 2050—approximately the population of Italy—while gaining nearly 190 million people 65 and over—approximately the population of Pakistan, the world’s fourth most populous country. By then, China’s ratio of working to retired people is expected to have more than tripled, one of the most rapid transitions in history.
Overall, world population growth could all but end by 2040, suggests Austrian demographer Wolfgang Lutz, and begin to decline as early as 2060. These demographic declines will reshape economic prospects in the twenty-first century. Today, a majority of people live in countries with fertility well below replacement rates. This number will grow to 75 percent by 2050, according to the UN; rapid aging, and a declining workforce, will become increasingly common around the world.
Children and How We Deal with Humanity
Ultimately, the issue facing the high-income world—and increasingly China as well—is how we regard humanity itself. British author Austin Williams describes this question as a conflict between whether humanity represents “the biggest problem on the planet” or the “creators of a better future.”
Like their Medieval predecessors, many environmentalists view climate change as the singular explanation for everything from starvation, wars, and crop failures to hurricanes, floods, or any other unusual weather. As a result, some climate researchers, such as at Sweden’s Lund University, believe population growth, even in the low fertility countries, should be limited. Scientists at Oregon State University have even proposed severe taxes on people who have children, particularly more than one, for their “carbon legacy.” These notions have been embraced by the UK’s influential Guardian newspaper and such luminaries as Bill McKibben, Paul Ehrlich, and John Holdren, who served as President Obama’s science advisor. If the old clergy attacked sex, the green one focuses on preventing the traditional result from a proverbial roll in the hay.
As the numbers of singles and childless grow, our immediate political future could shift to the left. In Britain, Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democrats are losing younger, largely childless voters. But the Greens have almost tripled their support since 2014, which is now almost now equaling the Tories among voters 18 to 24. Nor does family orientation seem a factor in European politics; today many of the leaders, virtually all the leaders of the continent (Germany, France, Netherlands) are childless. France’s President Emmanuel Macron even identified child-bearing with ignorance.
Yet, in the long run, the anti-natalists could face an unexpected turnaround. The heirs of the post-familial city are not reproducing themselves, leaving only a digital legacy. The fact that these centers appear to be “post-Christian” may accelerate the pace. Secularism, with its tendency towards identity politics and hyper-individualism, notes author Eric Kaufmann, undermines itself as it fails to “inspire the commitment to generations past and sacrifices for those yet to come.”
In contrast, the more religious, more family-oriented population, living mostly in the suburbs and smaller cities, will reproduce themselves. Kaufmann explains in his important book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? that those who embrace more traditional religions—which generally favor families—will prevail. The future of Catholicism won’t be shaped by a Pope, whose closest advice comes from liberal bishops in Germany, where the church is now losing nearly 170,000 adherents annually. The new faithful will be those nurtured by the more traditionalist African bishops, who enjoy the fastest church growth.
Ultimately, the believers and families may have the upper hand. By 2050, for example, Islam may constitute a larger faith community in Britain than the Church of England, the state-sanctioned but hardly faith-centered Christian denomination. The family-centric Mormons, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, continues to thrive, while the more “progressive” Protestant faiths lose parishioners. Among Jews, the increasingly strident and politicized Reform movement is demographically stagnant and aging. Today, the Orthodox constitute the majority of Jewish children in the New York metropolitan region, and by 2100, they are projected to become the majority of the Hebraic community in Britain.
“No matter how many communes anybody invents,” the late anthropologist Margaret Mead suggested, “the family always creeps back.” This will prove to be the case in the decades ahead. Greens, progressives, and feminists may seek to weaken this most precious institution, but in the end, they cannot manufacture future generations. As they have done from primitive times, families create the future, in the only way humanity can remain fundamentally human.
Joel Kotkin is a Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate, 2017). His next book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, will out from Encounter early next year.