As societies modernize, the size of an average family decreases; it’s a trend that’s been the center of discussion since it emerged in late 19th century Europe.
Terms like “clan” and “kin” sound outdated nowadays. Our basic social units are getting smaller, and the impacts of the decline in family size are readily apparent—from a decrease in extended family ties and the gradual disappearance of family-owned businesses to the overall aging of society.
The traditional explanations for the disappearance of large families often contain references to factors such as more effective birth control techniques, a decline in the importance of children as farm hands (owing to industrialization) or the rapidly increasing expense associated with having a large family.
While these theories have some merit, they do not fully explain why almost identical trends are identified, all over the world, as countries modernize.
A Shift in Focus
Having a cave full of kids might have been the definition of a happy home back in the Stone Age. More hands meant more work could be done, more food could be secured and dwellings could be better defended.
But today’s families have different priorities. The perception of what constitutes an acceptable standard of living has changed greatly over time.
As societies modernize, parents’ lifestyle expectations improve; they come to expect a home, quality healthcare, security and a plentiful supply of food to be par for the course. In addition to these improving standards, their aspirations for their children also improve, which includes ensuring that their children attain a certain level of education.
Such “natural progressions” cost an increasing amount of money, which results in many parents choosing to have smaller families; a trend that tends to become embedded in family tradition.
While natural progression and traditional theories go some way to explaining why large families are disappearing, researchers at the University of Exeter hypothesize that kin influence is integral in explaining the declining birth rates in modernizing societies.
The kin influence hypothesis asserts that as people’s social networks expand, to include far more individuals than the traditional family unit, pro-reproductive messages, traditionally distributed by kin members, are significantly weakened. Unrelated co-workers and friends are less likely to badger young couples to have children than well-meaning aunts and uncles are. In fact, friends often encourage one another to remain childless and enjoy the “freedom” of youth longer.
With the world becoming an increasingly interconnected place, and people’s social networks rapidly growing, this trend only looks set to continue.
Highly industrialized and modernized, societies, such as Germany and Japan, are seeing a rapid decline in birth rates, while an improvement in healthcare is seeing older members of the population living longer. An inverted population pyramid means a declining number of people paying taxes, which leaves policy makers with the conundrum of how they are going to look after their aging populations.
Another area impacted by the decline in family size is the divorce rate. According to one study, marital stability tends to increase with the birth of each child: “Couples with one child have divorce rates about 24 percent lower than childless couples. The rate drops even further to 37 percent lower than childless couples after the birth of a second child and 44 percent lower after the third child.” The study found that the effect of having a fourth child was identical to that of having a third.
As the family is where one first learns traditional values, its disintegration in size and subsequent higher rates of divorce are directly contributing towards societal fragmentation and social disaffection. With 7 billion human inhabitants, our world is now made up mainly of strangers and a decreasing number of people we can call brothers, sisters, cousins or “blood relations.”
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