In 2020, where people have their rights and putting their needs first, it would by now be “very hard” to talk about a “typical family”. Domestic units would be formed in myriad ways and “children living with both their biological parents in the same household” would be in the minority.
This hasn’t quite panned out. In the UK today, 84% of babies are born to parents who are married, in a civil partnership, or cohabiting, although the statistics don’t reveal all the real-life complexities (many of the parents will be starting second families, for instance). In 2019, 61% of families with dependent children have married or civil-partnered parents (the children may not be biologically related to both). In the US, fewer than half of children are living with two biological parents who are in their first marriage.
It’s certainly true that the family has changed immensely over the past few decades, and those trends are continuing. The number of people living alone is increasing, as is the number of women choosing not to have children, and we are having fewer children than before, too. “A key change in family structure since the 1980s has been the rise of childbearing within cohabitation,” says Ann Berrington, professor of demography and social statistics at the University of Southampton. “The proportion of births that take place in England and Wales outside marriage has doubled from around a quarter in 1988 to just under half today. Cohabiting families – with and without children – are the fastest-growing type of family in England and Wales. Evidence from qualitative research that we have undertaken suggests that while marriage is being rejected by a minority as an outdated, patriarchal institution, most people still view it in a positive light and as an ultimate goal.” The number of same-sex couples has also risen, she says: “An increase of 53%, from 152,000 in 2015 to 232,000 in 2018. It seems likely that this diversity in family life will continue to increase in the coming decade, along with complex families, for example, stepfamilies resulting from partnering.”
Over the past couple of decades by Susan Golombok, the director of the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge University, and author of the forthcoming book We Are Family, we’ve seen quite a rise in the number of single mothers by choice, the single women who decide to go it alone and have children, through donor insemination but we’re now beginning to see single fathers by choice. It’s a very small group, but they do exist. Some of them are gay men, so that, in a way, is more obvious, but there are also single heterosexual men having children through surrogacy and egg donation. That’s something that may grow.
There is also a rise in the number of transgender parents. “Until very recently, transgender parents had children and then transitioned afterward, but because of developments in assisted reproduction and people being able to preserve eggs and sperm, more transgender people are having children after their transition.” She says this is likely to increase in the coming decades.
Advances in technology will create ever-bigger ethical debates. So-called “designer babies” are already a reality, with parents able to select embryos to screen out inherited diseases and conditions. But by 2050, prospective parents could pay to select not only for good health but for traits such as intelligence, attractiveness, or athleticism, the babies of rich parents could be genetically superior to those born to lower-income families.
We are already seeing uterus transplants, but by 2050, we may be relying on artificial wombs to grow our babies. “They are being developed at the moment initially to help with very premature babies to replicate, as far as possible, the human uterus. But eventually, it’s possible that artificial wombs will be used instead of pregnancy.” That could free up women for whom pregnancy – and its related physical and psychological toll, as well as the financial hit they take when taking time out from their careers – is something to be endured, rather than enjoyed. “I think first it will probably be used for women who don’t have their own wombs – the women who might, at the moment, turn to surrogacy,” says Golombok. “But actually, anybody could do this, so it could be quite liberating in some ways for women. Some women wouldn’t like the idea at all. Also, I can see ways in which it could be used in a rather worrying way, almost like ‘baby farms’.”
A growing number of women are freezing their eggs, and the age at which women have their first child is also rising. In 2050, will it be more normal for women in their 50s, or even 60s and beyond, to become mothers? “It is technically possible,” says Golombok. “Whether many women would actually want to do that seems unlikely to me. But, generally, there will certainly be more women having babies in their 40s, unless there is a huge change in mindset.” Experts have already called for children to be educated about natural fertility decline, which could mean future generations decide to have children earlier. But society isn’t set up to support that, Golombok points out – from the price of education to the lack of state support and the cost of housing. “The age at which women are having children is going up and up, and I can’t really see an end to that.”
The family in 2050 will be subject to external pressures nobody I speak to wants to confidently predict. The only certain thing is how diverse families will be in the coming decades. The moral panic about the rapid decline of the nuclear (heterosexual) family hasn’t proved justified. “What we’re finding is that family structure is actually less important for children than the quality of relationships within families,” says Golombok. “And also the social acceptance of their family in the wider world. Families are changing and it’s not necessarily a bad thing for children or parents.”
Author: Diva Maharani | Illustrator: Akbar Nugroho