What future for the family?

by Barrie Stevens
Head, International Futures Programme

The family landscape in OECD countries has changed enormously over the last few decades. The extended family has all but disappeared in many places, and the traditional family – the married couple with children – is much less widespread than it used to be.  Of course, this has a lot to do with other things that have been happening in society – divorce rates have been rising, as has the number of cohabiting couples and couples “living together apart”, and single parenthood and same-sex partnerships have increased too.  Many more women have taken up work, adolescents spend longer in education, and elderly family members live longer and, frequently, alone.

So, are we witnessing the fragmentation of the family?  Well, not quite, because at the same time, we are seeing family relations start to reconfigure on new foundations. We see networks of loosely connected family members from different marriages, partnerships and generations emerging, with fresh attitudes and approaches to cohesion and solidarity. We see technological progress (mobile phones, Facebook, Skype…) bringing new opportunities for easy, frequent communication among family members, and medical progress improving the health and reducing the dependence of the elderly on other family members.

Whatever we may think of these new trends in family structures and relations, many of them could be here to stay.  The national statistical offices of a dozen or so OECD countries have recently conducted or commissioned, quite independently of one another, long-term projections of household and family composition. Detailed comparisons among the different forecasts are not very useful, because the start dates, time horizons and methods used vary from study to study. What is striking however, is that the underlying trends revealed by the estimates show strong similarities.  For example: All the studies, without exception, expect significant increases by 2025/30 both in the number and in the proportion of one-person households.  Similarly, almost all of them expect a substantial rise both in the number of single-parent households and in the share of single-parent households as a percentage of all households with children.  And almost all expect significant increases in the number of couples without children.

Just to be clear.  These are projections and not predictions of the future. They serve to illustrate the growth and change in families or households that would occur if certain assumptions about marriage, divorce, fertility, work, values, migration, etc. were to prevail over the projection period.  These are impossible to predict.  However, it has to be said that social structures are not given to rapid transformation. In the absence of extreme events, key trends such as the expansion of higher education, the growing participation of women in the labour market and the rising numbers of dependent elderly all seem set to become a permanent feature of the next couple of decades.

 This suggests that quite strong likelihoods attach to the projections, and calls for strengthening the links among family-relevant aspects of different policy domains, such as care for children and the elderly, labour market, education, technology and housing.

If the above projections are indeed a reasonable reflection of the future, then we need to start thinking about some of the possible consequences.  The OECD’s The Future of Families to 2030 report, which will be published in January 2012, offers a foretaste.  For example:  the growing numbers of single-person households will put increased pressure on housing and in many cases complicate the task of preserving family cohesion; the expected increase in single-parent families, the numbers of cohabiting couples and reconstituted families could lead to more such families facing a higher risk of poverty; and the increase in childless couple households, divorce rates, remarriages and stepfamilies may weaken family ties and undermine capacity for informal family care.

What are the long-term  consequences for education? If, as many experts suspect, the home is set to grow in importance as a locus of learning, where does that leave families that are less able to support their children with the requisite time, technology and resources?

The next 20 years look pretty challenging – for families and for policy makers alike.

For more on the OECD International Futures Programme: www.oecd.org/futures
The Future of Families to 2030, a synthesis report
OECD,  Doing Better for Families, 2011
OECD, Higher Education to 2030, Vol. 1, Demography
OECD, Trends Shaping Education, 2010
Education at a Glance 2011: OECD Indicators
OECD work on Education and Social Progress

Some National links to household statistics:

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