In recent years, much has been said about the decline of the family and the resultant social and economic impacts of that phenomenon. But what it often seems to come down to is how the prevailing structure of family is defined and how it has changed. Photo credit: Pexels/Arina Krasnikova
Having just experienced a Family Day weekend full of my kids, their spouses, and my grandkids – including several canine family members – I thought I’d take a break from my usual political and economic rants to consider the state of the family unit in our current times.
Much has been written in past decades bemoaning the decline of the family and the social and economic impacts of that phenomenon. But what it often seems to come down to is how the prevailing structure of family is defined and how it has changed over the years. Up until the late 1800s, it was common for several generations of family to live together and co-operate with child-rearing and care for elderly family members. This became less prevalent in the 1900s when the so-called “nuclear family” – parents and children – became the norm in most Western societies.
Throughout history, repressive government regimes have sought to weaken family bonds so that strong families do not pose a threat to government control. This often takes the form of turning children against their parents such as the Nazi regime in Germany did with the Hitler Youth and League of German Girls groups in the 1930s. These groups were encouraged to report on what was happening in their schools, churches and families. Governments in Communist China, North Korea and other dictatorships have also been known to use these tactics up until and including our current times.
The 1960s saw a huge upheaval in the family structure, as safe and reliable birth control freed women from being tied to childbearing. Women also became more economically independent at that time as they entered the workforce in much greater numbers. The 1960s and 1970s also had the largest growth in divorces, as women who were financially independent were more able to leave unsatisfactory marriages. Since the year 2000, divorce rates have been on the decline. More recently, same-sex marriage has altered the family structure once again, becoming legal in Canada in 2005 and in 2015 in the US.
Perhaps the most problematic recent trend is an element of the “green” movement that believes a growing population is bad for the environment so discourages young people from having children. This theory has been around for centuries, starting with Thomas Malthus in 1798. Malthus believed that human population growth would eventually outstrip the world’s ability to provide enough food, resulting in widespread famine and death. Human ingenuity has repeatedly put the lie to these apocalyptic predictions, as technology permitted more food to be grown, easily keeping up with population growth.
The fact that there are still people without sufficient food around the world is more a result of failed political regimes that worked against the interests of their population and sometimes even caused famines than an actual shortage of food. The recent efforts of some governments to reduce fertilizer use for so-called climate change purposes, including in Canada, will be much more threatening to food security than population growth.
Over the past three years, the pandemic gave a boost to the family. As we were limited in terms of who we were supposed to associate with closely in our respective “bubbles”, most of us chose our family. During the pandemic lockdowns, many parents spent more time with their children than they had in years and extended family members also associated more closely with people they were related to than with their other social circles.
While doomsayers of the past used to speak of the growth in the world’s population outstripping the planet’s ability to provide, a current concern is a shrinking global population that will be challenged to support an expanding economy and take care of its older citizens. China’s one-child policy, instituted in 1979, was reversed in 2016 as the country’s government realized a declining population was not positive for the economy. Japan has had such a low birth rate for so long that its population is declining in absolute terms, questioning its future economic success.
It is well known that as any society becomes wealthier, families have fewer children. In recent years, more open markets and international trade have greatly reduced poverty globally, and the birth rate has fallen as a result. Demographers currently predict that the global population will peak at about 8.1 billion in the 2040s, then decline. Seems like the Malthusians will be wrong yet again.
As with most things, the state of the family does end up being kind of political after all. Despite all of the trends disparaging the value of the family, the evidence suggests that there is great worth in the family unit, both to the economy and society. Family may take on a different form than it has in the past – many different forms in fact – but still seems to be a superior way to organize ourselves in our modern society. Happy Family Day!
She has published numerous articles in journals, magazines & other media on issues such as free trade, finance, entrepreneurship & women business owners. Ms. Swift is a past President of the Empire Club of Canada, a former Director of the CD Howe Institute, the Canadian Youth Business Foundation, SOS Children’s Villages, past President of the International Small Business Congress and current Director of the Fraser Institute. She was cited in 2003 & 2012 as one of the most powerful women in Canada by the Women’s Executive Network & is a recipient of the Queen’s Silver & Gold Jubilee medals.