As we approach UN International Day of Families, only the foolhardy would try and predict the future of family groups. Previous attempts have, in fact, failed. William J Goode, writing in the early 1960s during the “golden age of marriage”, saw convergence towards the western-style conjugal family as an inevitable consequence of industrialisation. No sooner had his seminal book World Revolution and Family Patterns been published than divorce rates started increasing, and married women began moving into the labour force.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, however. And there are some clear clues we can draw on to guess at how family life might change in Europe over the years.
From the early 1970s, marriage and childbearing began to be postponed and cohabitation and non-marital childbearing started to increase. The trend is clear in the chart below.
Demographers Dirk Van de Kaa and Ron Lesthaeghe interpreted these changes as the consequence of changing values, increased self-fulfilment and individualism. They suggested that all European countries would experience a “second demographic transition”. Marriage, sex and parenthood would be separated, and we would see a convergence to sustained low fertility and a new set of family forms: non-marital fertility, lone parenthood, cohabiting couple families.
There has been movement in most countries towards new family forms such as cohabitation and non-marital childbearing. Even in what are generally considered to be more religious countries in Southern Europe. In Spain, births outside marriage rose from 2% in 1972 to 39% in 2012.
Countries still differ, though, in the way in which cohabitation, marriage and childbearing are related. The extent to which governments have acted to recognise and regulate non-marital cohabiting unions and same-sex couples suggests that the acceptance of new family forms will continue to vary greatly between countries.
As family biographies have become de-standardised, so there has been a “convergence towards diversity”. In other words, people today experience a greater range of ways to organise their family lives, and we expect such diversity to characterise future families. However, according to US scholar Sara McLanahan, socio-economic differences in the types of parenting structures and behaviour in evidence can be seen as fuelling poverty by creating “diverging destinies” for children.
Partly in response to economic precariousness and reduced gains to marriage, less well educated people are more likely to enter partnerships at an earlier age and to have children outside marriage. They are also more likely to see their relationships fail, or to go through pregnancy with multiple partners, compared to those with higher levels of education in the US and possibly also in the UK.
You can also see the evidence of persistent diversity in large cross-national differences in the level of childbearing. As can be seen in the chart below, there is persistently low fertility (around 1.3 to 1.4 births per woman) in Southern Europe and the German-speaking countries, compared to much higher fertility (between 1.8 and 2 children per woman) in Nordic countries and Western Europe.
Drivers of change
There are several factors likely to affect how families are structured and organised, and which could impact on shaping the future families. These include increasing longevity which has important implications for how we plan our lives, care needs and inter-generational relations.
Increased international migration will create more transnational families – especially since for the first time women account for more than 50% of all international migrants. Technology is likely to influence the future of families too. As mobility increases, family members are increasingly geographically separated, but more connected via mobile technologies. Flexible working becomes more possible, allowing men and women to better combine their work and family roles.
Another driver of change in future families is gender equality. The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development sets, among others, the goal of achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. But which type of gender equality matters for the future of families?
The adaptation of women to their new role in traditionally male activities in the public sphere and the acceptance of their new roles as equal or primary earners has been faster than the adaptation of men to traditionally female roles as care providers.
However, look at the chart above and you can see that in all countries women still devote more time than men in housework activities. The gender revolution is far from being fully completed, even in the gender-egalitarian Nordic countries.
Sharing the load
Proponents of the gender revolution theory predict a happy ending for the family of the future. Once gender equality in all spheres of life is reached, a new model of the family will become widespread, with higher fertility and more stable unions.
However, current data highlight striking differences across social classes: gender-egalitarian ideologies and decreased risk of divorce are a prerogative of the highly educated. Whether the gender revolution will translate into a positive outcome for families in the future may depend on whether and how fast men, especially from lower social classes, embrace gender equality in the home.
This is the equality that seems to matter most for promoting more stable families and higher fertility. The hope has to be that attitudes towards an equal division of tasks in and outside the home will continue to spread until we arrive at a new model of the family where partners become increasingly more similar in terms of their employment and caring responsibilities.
This article has been co-published with The Conversation.