It’s not only in the West or prosperous nations—the decline in marriage and drop in birth rates is rampant, with potentially dire fallout.
‘They’re getting divorced, and they’ll do anything NOT to get custody of the kids.” So reads the promotional poster, in French, for a new movie, “Papa ou Maman” (“Daddy or Mommy”), plastered all over Paris during my recent visit there. The movie sounds like quintessential French comedy, but its plot touches on a deep and serious reality—and one not particular to France.
All around the world today, pre-existing family patterns are being upended by a revolutionary new force: the seemingly unstoppable quest for convenience by adults demanding ever-greater autonomy. We can think of this as another triumph of consumer sovereignty, which has at last brought rational choice and elective affinities into a bastion heretofore governed by traditions and duties—many of them onerous. Thanks to this revolution, it is perhaps easier than ever before to free oneself from the burdens that would otherwise be imposed by spouses, children, relatives or significant others with whom one shares a hearth.
Yet in infancy and childhood and then again much later, in feebleness or senescence, people need more from others. Whatever else we may be, we are all manifestly inconvenient at the start and end of life. Thus the recasting of the family puts it on a collision course with the inescapable inconvenience of the human condition itself—portending outcomes and risks we have scarcely begun to consider.
To evaluate the world-wide flight from the family, we can start in the U.S. Remarkably enough, we do not actually know the probabilities of getting married and staying married in America today, because the government doesn’t collect the information needed to make an estimate. We do know that both marriage and in situ parenting are increasingly regarded as optional for child-rearing.
As of 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just over 40% of babies in the U.S. were born outside marriage, and for 2014 the Census Bureau estimated that 27% of all children (and 22% of “White” children) lived in a fatherless home. But the opt-out from the old family norm is even more advanced than these figures suggest. A 2011 study by two Census researchers reckoned that just 59% of all American children (and 65% of “Anglo” or non-Hispanic white children) lived with married and biological parents as of 2009. Unless there is a change in this “revealed preference” against married unions that include children, within the foreseeable future American children who reside with their married birthparents will be in the minority.
Now consider Europe, where the revolution in the family has gained still more ground. European demographers even have an elegant name for the phenomenon: They call it the Second Demographic Transition (the First being the shift from high birth rates and death rates to low ones that began in Europe in the early industrial era and by now encompasses almost every society). In the schema of the Second Demographic Transition, long, stable marriages are out, and divorce or separation are in, along with serial cohabitation and increasingly contingent liaisons. Not surprisingly, this new environment of perennially conditional, no-fault unions was also seen as ushering in an era of more or less permanent sub-replacement fertility.
According to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical agency, the probability of marriage before age 50 has been plummeting for European women and men, while the chance of divorce for those who do marry has been soaring. In Belgium—the birth-land of the scholars who initially detected this Second Transition—the likelihood of a first marriage for a woman of reproductive age is now down to 40%, and the likelihood of divorce is over 50%. This means that in Belgium the odds of getting married and staying married are under one in five. A number of other European countries have similar or even lower odds.
Europe has also seen a surge in “child-free” adults—voluntary childlessness. The proportion of childless 40-something women is one in five for Sweden and Switzerland, and one in four for Italy. In Berlin and in the German city-state of Hamburg, it’s nearly one in three, and rising swiftly. Europe’s most rapidly growing family type is the one-person household: the home not only child-free, but partner- and relative-free as well. In Western Europe, nearly one home in three (32%) is already a one-person unit, while in autonomy-prizing Denmark the number exceeds 45%. The rise of the one-person home coincides with population aging. But it is not primarily driven by the graying of European society, at least thus far: Over twice as many Danes under 65 are living alone as those over 65.
Lest one suspect that there is something about this phenomenon that is culturally specific to Western countries, we have Japan, whose fabled “Asian family values” are now largely a thing of the past. Contemporary Japanese women have lifestyle options that were unthinkable for their grandmothers, including divorce, separation, cohabitation and remaining single. Japanese women are availing themselves of these new choices. Given recent trajectories, demographers Miho Iwasawa and Ryuichi Kaneko project that a Japanese woman born in 1990 stands less than even odds of getting married and staying married to age 50.
To be sure, unlike Europe and the U.S., Japan still severely stigmatizes childbearing outside marriage. Childlessness, on the other hand, is socially acceptable. Nowadays about one-sixth of Japanese women in their mid-40s are still single, and about 30% of all women that age are childless. Twenty years hence, by Mr. Kaneko’s projections, 38% of all Japanese women in their mid-40s would be childless, and an even higher share—just over 50%—would never have grandchildren.
Much the same has been taking place around East and Southeast Asia for at least a generation. From South Korea to Singapore, China is rimmed by countries where marriage is being postponed or, increasingly, forgone; where networks of extended kin are withering due to extreme sub-replacement fertility; and where childlessness is on the rise.
Thus far the Chinese mainland has been conspicuously resistant to these trends. Yet according to the 2011 Hong Kong census, 22% of the Chinese territory’s women in their late 30s were unmarried—almost the same as for Japan. Further, over 30% of Hong Kong’s women in their early 40s are childless, more than doubling in 15 years. Similar, albeit somewhat less accentuated, tendencies are reported in Taiwan.
Formidable as the imperatives of Confucian familial tradition may be, they evidently can be overpowered by the more immediate attractions and pressures of modern life. Recognition of the fragility of the Confucian ethos in the face of a “me ethos” may help explain why Beijing saw the need in 2012 to amend its laws on the protection of the elderly. Those laws had already criminalized nonsupport of one’s elderly parents; now elderly parents are allowed to sue their children for spending insufficient time with them.
America, Europe and the highly modernized reaches of East and Southeast Asia are affluent and “globalized.” But the undoing of previously accepted family arrangements is also under way in seemingly traditional low-income societies—Muslim-majority societies in particular. Although it has attracted strangely little attention, a flight from marriage within the Arab world is in process, led by masses of women who wish to bend or break the rules of family life to which their mothers had submitted.
According to the U.N. Population Division’s “World Marriage Data 2012,” the proportion of never-married women in their late 30s was higher in Morocco in 2004 than in the U.S. in 2009 (18% vs. 16%). By the same token, the percentage of single women in their early 40s was higher in Lebanon in 2007 than in Italy in 2010 (22% vs. 18%). And nearly 32% of Libyan women in their late 30s were unmarried in 2006—20 times the percentage barely two decades earlier, even higher than for Denmark in 2011 (29%).
Every stage of the Arab world’s female flight from marriage is taking place on roughly a third of the GDP per capita, and just half the mean years of schooling, of the corresponding steps for societies from the affluent West or the affluent East. What this means: High levels of income and educational attainment are not preconditions for the new family revolution in those spots on the globe it hasn’t reached.
Our world-wide flight from family constitutes a significant international victory for self-actualization over self-sacrifice, and might even be said to mark a new chapter in humanity’s conscious pursuit of happiness. But these voluntary changes also have unintended consequences. The deleterious impact on the hardly inconsequential numbers of children disadvantaged by the flight from the family is already plain enough. So too the damaging role of divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing in exacerbating income disparities and wealth gaps—for society as a whole, but especially for children. Yes, children are resilient and all that. But the flight from family most assuredly comes at the expense of the vulnerable young.
That same flight also has unforgiving implications for the vulnerable old. With America’s baby boomers reaching retirement, and a world-wide “gray wave” around the corner, we are about to learn the meaning of those implications firsthand.
In the decades ahead, ever more care and support for seniors will be required, especially for the growing contingent among the elderly who will be victims of dementia, or are childless and socially isolated. Remember, a longevity revolution is also under way. Yet by some cruel cosmic irony, family structures and family members will be less capable, and perhaps also less willing, to provide that care and support than ever before.
That contradiction promises to frame an overarching social problem, not just in so-called developed countries but throughout the world. It is far from clear that humanity is prepared to cope with the consequences of its impending family deficit, with increasing independence for those traditionally most dependent on others—i.e., the young and old. Public policies are the obvious candidate for the task. But as the past century of social policy has demonstrated, government is a highly imperfect substitute for family—and a very expensive one.
Mr. Eberstadt is a political economist at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.