Agricultural societies had large families with many children; industrialization introduced the nuclear family. Are we beginning to experience the first stage impacts of a new technological revolution on family structures?
The world’s human population should reach about 10 billion by 2050. Despite the implied growth of around a third from roughly 7.5 billion today, both total population and birth rates in some places are declining. Indeed, higher than replacement-level reproductive patterns have become the exception, not the norm. Lord Sacks, an award-winning humanitarian, has suggested that the trend could mean the end of western civilization as we know it.
Lord Sacks is right that society is defined by its most enduring microcosm, the family, and that it is changing before our eyes. Looking back at history, we know that agricultural societies had large families with many children, and industrialization introduced the nuclear family. Are we beginning to experience the first stage impacts of a new technological revolution on family structures? We appear to be on the brink of the fourth industrial revolution – brought about by AI and automation technologies. What family types might be favored in the prevailing economic and technological conditions during and beyond the transition to an AI-enabled model of productivity?
Looking across the current data, modern women already have fewer children. For example, China currently has the lowest fertility rate in the world and US fertility is at the lowest point on record and its current population growth is slower than during the Great Depression. On the other hand, Germany’s fertility rate is at a 33-year high after experiencing deep stagnation for a generation. There are economic and political reasons explaining these observed patterns and their fluctuations. Technology, such as the introduction of medical contraception, has also played a role in the number of children women have.
The other factor in reproductive decline is a delay in the age of motherhood. A recent tipping point was reached (again) in the UK where more women over 40 are having children than women under 20. The last time this occurred was during the Baby Boom, a direct outcome of wartime resource scarcity and labor distribution; once the priorities of production changed, so did birth rates, and women started having children in abundance. As labor is increasingly set to be outsourced to another, new type of worker, the AI or robotic workers that seem likely to eventually “take most of our jobs,” should we expect reproductive patterns to adapt?
We can see from historical examples that when the technologies that meet our needs on a societal scale evolve (farm, factory), family structure evolves, including family size and the number of children. As we progress into the next phase of technological revolution, characterized by an automated form of productivity involving AI and possibly leading to the so-called “technological singularity” and a resulting era of runaway and transformative technological growth, will a new family type emerge? While sociologically significant, this development would also have an effect on the way products are marketed, housing is designed, property is used, and governments spend tax revenues, just to name a few.
In addition to the rise of an entirely new social structure, a few other imaginable outcomes from this trend might include:
- Immigrants and immigration become more attractive to Western countries. Abundant immigrant populations are one way that Western populations thrive and rebound. Do the nationalistic overtones that dominate the headlines today stand a chance against economic and demographic realities?
- Government programs focused on families and children expand. Spain has assigned a “Sex Tzar” to promote families having children, for example. Are more public programs in store? What other ways will societies support families and children?
- Low birthrates place a strain on economic systems in a way that ultimately justify basic incomes. An unstable population pyramid forms a threat to pensions, elder care and GDPs. Is the answer a guaranteed basic income, or “mincome” as a necessary social safety net?
- Subduing the ecological impact of countries already consuming a disproportionate amount of resources. The birthrates in decline are mostly in developed nations with much higher ecological footprints—is this actually a good thing?
- Gender roles reboot. Will the AI revolution result in the higher status of women in the workplace? Or will we see a repeat of the 1940’s when women, as mothers to newborn Baby Boomers, were forced to retreat from factory work to become suburban housewives? How will men and women differentiate their contributions to the home and the family when work is no longer a mostly human endeavor?
About the author
Alexandra Whittington is a futurist, writer, faculty member on the Futures programme at the University of Houston and foresight director at Fast Future. She is a contributor to The Future of Business and a co-editor for forthcoming books on Unleashing Human Potential – The Future of AI in Business and 50:50 – Scenarios for the Next 50 Years. Fast Future publishes books from future thinkers around the world exploring how developments such as AI, robotics and disruptive thinking could impact individuals, society and business and create new trillion-dollar sectors.