Technology and economics could radically change our understanding of the family in years to come – and deepen inherited privilege
In 2004, when the year 2020 sounded futuristic, the Guardian predicted it would by now be “very hard” to talk about a “typical family”. Domestic units would be formed in myriad ways and “children living with both their biological parents in the same household” would be in the minority.
This hasn’t quite panned out. In the UK today, 84% of babies are born to parents who are married, in a civil partnership or co-habiting, although the statistics don’t reveal all the real-life complexities (many of the parents will be starting second families, for instance). In 2019, 61% of families with dependent children have married or civil-partnered parents (the children may not be biologically related to both). In the US, fewer than half of children are living with two biological parents who are in their first marriage.
We correctly predicted that, in heterosexual couples, an increasing number of women would be the breadwinner, but don’t imagine these are all high-earning women easily carrying the financial burden; most are low-earners, and the figures include single mothers. And we said that financial pressures on young adults would lead to people staying at home for longer. There has been a 46.3% increase in the number of young adults living with their parents in the two decades to 2019.
But we overstated the attention we would be giving to the issue of how to care for an ageing population. “By 2020,” we predicted, “we will be in the middle of the debate on the care deficit.” The crisis is still there, and growing, but it is one of those issues that has been overshadowed, and exacerbated, by Brexit (there are 104,000 EU citizens working as carers in the UK). And we understated the extent to which we would invite technology into our family lives.
“Webcams might by 2020 be playing the role the telephone did in the 20th century, a vital communication link for families who might live hundreds of miles apart,” we predicted in 2004. This wasn’t wrong, but the quaint idea of “webcams” – this was three years before Apple launched its iPhone, and everyone started uploading photographs of their children to a new site called Facebook – doesn’t quite describe the proliferation of tech in everyday life.
It’s certainly true that the family has changed immensely over the past few decades, and those trends are continuing. The number of people living alone is increasing, as is the number of women choosing not to have children, and we are having fewer children than before, too. “A key change in family structure since the 1980s has been the rise of childbearing within cohabitation,” says Ann Berrington, professor of demography and social statistics at the University of Southampton.
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“The proportion of births that take place in England and Wales outside marriage has doubled from around a quarter in 1988 to just under half today. Cohabiting families – with and without children – are the fastest-growing type of family in England and Wales. Evidence from qualitative research that we have undertaken suggests that while marriage is being rejected by a minority as an outdated, patriarchal institution, most people still view it in a positive light and as an ultimate goal.”
The number of same-sex couples has also risen, she says: “An increase of 53%, from 152,000 in 2015 to 232,000 in 2018. It seems likely that this diversity in family life will continue to increase in the coming decade, along with complex families – for example, stepfamilies resulting from repartnering.”
There have been developments in reproductive technology alongside changing social attitudes. “Certainly, since the turn of this century, the two have come together to create family types that just wouldn’t have been possible before,” says Susan Golombok, the director of the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge University, and author of the forthcoming book We Are Family. But, she adds: “It’s hard to tell whether they are going to explode into something or not. One thing that we are studying is a small but growing number of people who are meeting each other over the internet in order to have children together, without a romantic relationship. We don’t know how that works out for them or for the children yet, but it’s certainly happening.
“Over the past couple of decades, we’ve seen quite a rise in the number of single mothers by choice – the single women who decide to go it alone and have children, through donor insemination – but we’re now beginning to see single fathers by choice. It’s a very small group, but they do exist. Some of them are gay men, so that, in a way, is more obvious, but there are also single heterosexual men having children through surrogacy and egg donation. That’s something that may grow.”
There is also a rise in the number of transgender parents. “Until very recently, transgender parents had children and then transitioned afterwards, but because of developments in assisted reproduction and people being able to preserve eggs and sperm, more transgender people are having children after their transition.” She says this is likely to increase in the coming decades.
Advances in technology will create ever-bigger ethical debates. So-called “designer babies” are already a reality, with parents able to select embryos to screen out inherited diseases and conditions. But by 2050, prospective parents could pay to select not only for good health but for traits such as intelligence, attractiveness or athleticism – the babies of rich parents could be genetically superior to those born to lower-income families.
“Artificial eggs and sperm are on the horizon,” says Golombok, “which will not just be helpful for infertile heterosexual couples but will allow same-sex couples to both be the biological parents of their children, because that will mean men can produce eggs and sperm, and so can women. For single people who want to have children, it would even be possible for them to produce eggs and sperm.”
Genetic testing will become more popular, and it will be harder for parents to keep secret from their children that they were conceived using donated eggs or sperm (although disclosure is widely considered to be a good thing). Ancestry websites will be used to discover genetic half-siblings. But genetics are not all-important to the concept of family. “Family is no longer necessarily about biological relatedness – that is something that has changed a lot,” says Golombok.
We are already seeing uterus transplants, but by 2050, we may be relying on artificial wombs to grow our babies. “They are being developed at the moment initially to help with very premature babies to replicate, as far as possible, the human uterus. But eventually it’s possible that artificial wombs will be used instead of pregnancy.” That could free up women for whom pregnancy – and its related physical and psychological toll, as well as the financial hit they take when taking time out from their careers – is something to be endured, rather than enjoyed. “I think first it will probably be used for women who don’t have their own wombs – the women who might, at the moment, turn to surrogacy,” says Golombok. “But actually, anybody could do this, so it could be quite liberating in some ways for women. Some women wouldn’t like the idea at all. Also, I can see ways in which it could be used in a rather worrying way, almost like ‘baby farms’.”
A growing number of women are freezing their eggs, and the age at which women have their first child is also rising. In 2050, will it be more normal for women in their 50s, or even 60s and beyond, to become mothers? “It is technically possible,” says Golombok. “Whether many women would actually want to do that seems unlikely to me. But, generally, there will certainly be more women having babies in their 40s, unless there is a huge change in mindset.” Experts have already called for children to be educated about natural fertility decline, which could mean future generations decide to have children earlier. But society isn’t set up to support that, Golombok points out – from the price of education to the lack of state support, and the cost of housing. “The age at which women are having children is going up and up, and I can’t really see an end to that.”
Will we have men travelling abroad for work? What will happen to their skills as dads?
Brexit – with prolonged trade negotiations and predicted economic decline – will affect families in the coming decades.
“Economic insecurity is associated with an increased preference for cohabitation as opposed to marriage,” says Berrington. “Furthermore, economic hardship is related to increased risks of family breakdown.”
Berrington points out that families have become more transnational, “especially since women have made up an increasingly large proportion of migrants. In previous decades, migrants to the UK from South Asia often migrated for the purpose of family formation or reunification. Today, migration to the UK is more often for purposes of education and work. So the future link between international migration and family formation is unclear.” This is particularly so as policies around migration are tightened up.
If the economy suffers post-Brexit, as numerous economists warn, increasing numbers of British people may seek work abroad – and this could disproportionately mean men. Fathers have become more engaged with their children in recent years, with the number of stay-at-home dads rising (although in 93% of heterosexual couples, the bulk of the housework, including caring responsibilities, still falls to women). “Will we have men travelling to the Commonwealth, Europe and the like to work? And if they do, what will happen to their skills as dads?” asks Charlie Lewis, a professor of psychology at Lancaster University who researches fatherhood.
“Thirty years ago when I started working on fathers, all the trends were for women to enter the professions,” he says, “but there’s no good evidence that there will be this [female] takeover of the workplace.” Work is still a largely hostile environment for family life. “And it’s going to be much more volatile in future years.” Policies such as a four-day week would allow “the family to balance better”.
Women will continue to make strides in the workforce, but this will put pressure on childcare, which still disproportionally falls to mothers. In the UK, we don’t have the “extensive childcare to match what happens in Germany and northern Europe”, says Lewis. “We don’t think carefully about protecting the next generation.”
Stay-at-home dads are still a minority, but Lewis says he remains surprised by the still-small number of fathers who are the resident parent after family breakdown, even if they have been the main carer prior to that. Will that change by 2050? Not if the past few decades are anything to go by. “It hasn’t changed much since the early 70s. We think that 40 or 50 years ago was a time when the children always went to the mother, but a government report in 1974 documented that 10% of children lived with their dads, and it’s not much more than 10% now.”
Inherited advantage will entrench the privilege of some families at the expense of everyone else. “The inequality that we currently see between families will only continue to grow,” says Jessica Calarco, associate professor of sociology at Indiana University. “We know that affluent white families hoard opportunities and often demand new opportunities to give them access to even more resources. That cycle perpetuates itself over time and inequalities grow.” It starts with early education, but quickly escalates, as children from well-off families are funnelled into the “right” universities and jobs. “Without some policy interventions, we will see affluent white families continuing to have power over schools and workspaces,” says Calarco, “even as the demographics of society change in terms of white people becoming a smaller share of the population.”
We are an ageing population. By 2035, there will be 44% more people over the age of 65 than there were in 2017. Age UK estimates “around 650,000 extra care jobs will be needed”. In October, the government announced a £34m investment programme to try to teach robot carers to be more empathetic to their humans, making it more likely that by 2050, robots will – as has long been predicted – be one answer to the growing social care crisis. Will they also provide childcare? This has long been more controversial than elder care, but nurseries in Japan have already trialled the use of robots to help out.
The birth of social media has provided a new view of what “perfect” parenting is supposed to look like. We are encouraged to compare ourselves with others, and we are also, says Thomas Curran, a social psychologist at the London School of Economics, becoming more perfectionist. “Parenting has changed in recent years. Parents are more expectant, and are becoming more critical. That is because they are passing down pressures that they feel from society. Things have become tough, the job market has become more precarious, educational achievement has become very important for – I hate to put it in these terms – their children’s ‘future market price’. There’s a lot of pressure on parents now to ensure they raise successful children.”
This will become more acute, he believes, at least in the shorter term. By 2050, it could have reversed. “This current generation of young people, as they become parents themselves, my sense is that they will do things differently. They are pushing back against societal pressures.” In terms of social media, they may not share endless photographs of their children, or do the kind of performative parenting that now often plays out online. “I think they will be much better at educating and building awareness in their own children about [how manufactured] social media is.”
The family in 2050 will be subject to external pressures nobody I speak to wants to confidently predict; the only certain thing is how diverse families will be in the coming decades. The moral panic about the rapid decline of the nuclear (heterosexual) family hasn’t proved justified. “What we’re finding is that family structure is actually less important for children than the quality of relationships within families,” says Golombok. “And also the social acceptance of their family in the wider world. Families are changing and it’s not necessarily a bad thing for children or parents.”
(Source: The Guardian)