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As Families Change Shape, Societies May, Too


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Celeste Headlee, in Washington, Neal Conan is away. For centuries, the foundation of human society, the basic building block, was the family: parents, children, grandchildren, passing knowledge and wealth down through generations. But all signs seem to indicate that in many parts of the world, the family is on the decline, and singles are on the rise.

By 2050, experts expect there will be two billion people on the planet older than 60, and for the first time in history, seniors will outnumber children 14 and under. So we're wondering if you've seen signs of this in your own neighborhood. Do you see your family or community aging, and what do you think it means? Let us know. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, in a bold move one author goes out on a limb to defend the humble cliche. But first Joel Kotkin joins us from member station KPCC in Pasadena, California. He's a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University and the author of the report "The Rise of Post-Familialism: Humanity's Future?" Joel, welcome back to the program.

JOEL KOTKIN: Nice to be here.

HEADLEE: So researchers like yourself call this post-familialism. What exactly does that mean?

KOTKIN: Well, that it really talks about is - you know, in a way it's what you referred to earlier. Family has been the building block of almost every society in the world as far as we can go back, and now we are in a situation where family is sort of beginning to become maybe a choice, certainly not the normative force, certainly not the dominant force in holding society together that it was in the past.

This is happening, obviously, in some places more than others and in different ways. One of the things about our team is it was a very diverse team, people coming from different religions and perspectives. So we really tried to extend our reach as far as we could and to try to see the specifics. But the trend overall is a very powerful one.

HEADLEE: All right, so what is causing it?

KOTKIN: Well, there are many things. It varies in different countries, to a degree. One, some of it is a reflection of some positive trends. The growing prosperity in parts of the world certainly has led people to have different options, not being dependent on family. Certainly another good thing has been the liberation of women and their movement in the university systems and in the professions, which has given them other options.

Another factor seems to be urbanization and densification, in other words people living in more expensive, smaller spaces, therefore not being able to have children or being less likely to have children. Those are three of the major ones. And then there are other factors.

Certainly the relative decline of religion in many countries, you know, they make a joke about in Czechoslovakia, in the Czech Republic, that there are more people who believe in UFOs than believe in God. So I think that you have some factor there. We also see very low birth rates in most of the former communist countries, as well.

HEADLEE: OK, OK. Joel, let's try to unpack a little bit of what you're saying, 'cause you just listed off a huge number of reasons for the decline of the family. You just mentioned the decline of religiosity in many nations, especially the wealthier nations, but you also talked about density, and this is something that your report talks quite a bit about, the fact that places like New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, that we've thought of as huge population centers, in fact the number of seniors is growing as the population ages, and there's not families with children moving in, partially because of the high cost of housing, partially because the schools are bad, right, or perceived to be bad?

KOTKIN: Well, I think that - and in many cases they really are bad, having - being somebody who lives in Los Angeles, I think I can attest to that a bit. But let me put it this way. I think when you have very high-density housing, and it also tends to be very expensive, families are really something that are very difficult to have.

You know, what you'll find is sometimes people will have a baby, their first baby, but when the baby gets to five or six, you know, they start moving around. They need more space. And certainly when you have a second child, it becomes more and more imperative for people to move to places where housing is a little cheaper, and there's a little more space.

Obviously, issues like safety are important, but, you know, many of our cities now, particularly New York City, are much safer than they used to be, Los Angeles, as well. So I think a lot of times it's a cost issue. So when we look at where people...

HEADLEE: Yeah, have you looked at the price of a two- or three-bedroom apartment in Manhattan? I mean, come on.

KOTKIN: Right. Well, I mean, that's why people make that choice. First, they move to Brooklyn. Now, Brooklyn has become the second-most-expensive place.


KOTKIN: And now they're moving further out into Brooklyn, into Queens. And we have to understand there's also - there is a lot of movement out of these expensive regions by people with kids. So we have this unfortunate situation where somebody who loves urban life and loves being in the city really ends up having to choose between that on one hand and on the other hand having a family.

HEADLEE: All right, we're going to delve a little further into why this is a problem for the world, but first let's talk to Patrice(ph) in Tallahassee, Florida. We're talking about the decline of the family and the relative aging of the population. So Patrice, you see this happening in your own, in your own family, right?

PATRICE: Well, in my circle of friends, I'm about 24 hours old, and when I talk to a lot of my friends, we - a lot of them don't seem to be interested in having kids at all. You know, it's sort of the concept is odd, or they just think oh, well, it's - kids are expensive, and they're going to tie me down, I'm not going to be able to have the lifestyle I want, kind of like the guest is saying.

You know, the cost of having a child is a big deterrent for a lot of people my age. And also, we're kind of trying to - we're trying to see what's going to happen with our futures, taking longer for us to get to the futures we want because...

HEADLEE: In your career, you mean?

PATRICE: Yeah because we have to stay in school longer and, you know, work a little bit longer to get to a point where we're at a stable career and can even consider buying a house, so...

HEADLEE: So you want kids, Patrice?

PATRICE: I'm not sure about that myself.


HEADLEE: There we go, Joel. I don't mean to interrupt you, Patrice, but let me get back to Joel Kotkin here, who's a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. Patrice is one of the people you're talking about here.

KOTKIN: Yes, and I think that there's a big question. Her generation, the millennials, who really will be shaping our society here in the United States over the next 20 years, certainly they have some attitudes that may lead them not to have children, but also let's talk about another factor, which is economics.

I mean, the United States' birth rate was actually going up for quite a long time before the recession. It was above what we call replacement rate. In other words, that we were replacing ourselves, which is about where you want to be. And I think what we've seen is a precipitous drop in the number of younger people in particular having children, delaying marriage.

Now, those people I look to who have analyzed the millennial population the most still believe that if the economy recovers that their value system will have most of them have children. But, you know, what Patrice is saying is what I hear from my own students at Chapman. Many of the students are saying, well, I'm not sure I'm going to have kids, whereas in my generation and even more so - I'm a boomer - and my parents' generation, having children was pretty much everybody was going to have to children.

HEADLEE: De rigueur, yeah, everybody did that. All right, let's hear from another caller here real quick, Joel, if you don't mind. This is Stan in Honolulu, Hawaii. And Stan, you have your own ideas about why this is happening.

STAN: Well, hi, good morning here.

HEADLEE: Good morning.

STAN: Yeah, I just recently moved from town to outer - outside of Honolulu suburban area, and what I have found is that you have many, many multigenerational homes, with grandparents and great-grandparents and grandkids living together, and they have been living together since the '50s. But all new people moving in and buying homes are either moving from the mainland for retirement purposes or are older with a lot of, well, income just because of the nature of housing prices.


STAN: So they neighborhood I'm going in used to a thriving family neighborhood, and the schools and the infrastructure were all for that. And now it's significantly graying, and the school populations are dropping, and you just have a lot less younger people coming to the neighborhood.

HEADLEE: OK, that's - thank you very much. That was Stan calling us from Honolulu, Hawaii. But Joel, why is this really an issue? I mean, the last I checked, we were overpopulated, the globe was overpopulated. We're still expecting to hit 10 billion by 2050, right? So why isn't it a good thing?

KOTKIN: Well, I mean in some senses you could say it's a good thing, but where - in the sense that, you know, maybe - first of all, we don't know exactly where the population is going to go because we're now seeing these trends in developing countries. My colleague who worked on the report, Ali Modarres, found some very interesting data in the Middle East, where some countries actually now have birth rates lower than ours.

So I think that there's - this may become a problem. But here's the real problem. When you have very low fertility rates, it may be OK for a while, but over time your population gets older and older. And as your population gets older and older, as I think Stan was pointing out, what you start to see is, if you will, the ecosystem for families begins to weaken.

You have - the schools begin to close down. The kind of restaurants and facilities you have, the tax system has to change in order to support the older people. So there are a lot of things that happen. But fundamentally, it's not like we can have the population we have now, and that population will be, in terms of age, like it is. It will be very old. You have to start thinking about societies by 2050, where there'll be more people over 80 than under 15.

HEADLEE: That's an incredible statistic. That's really mind-blowing.

KOTKIN: I mean, you already have many societies, like Japan, where there are more people over 60 than under 15. It's just not a pretty picture. So we have to start thinking about how we can at least break this, slow it down and find a way that people can still have families. Not everyone will have families. Lots of people will choose not to have families. I think that trend will continue.

But we have to be able to say how do we support, nurture family formation and people having children, or else we're going to be in an impossible situation, if nothing else fiscally.

HEADLEE: Well, just in the short term, though, I mean we have to take a break in a moment, but I assume that means just in the short term until the population sort of balances out.

KOTKIN: Well, you're going to have to continue to have children. If you don't have children, you just end up in situation where not only do you start having seniors, but you start having the very old being one of the largest parts of society.

HEADLEE: All right, we're talking with Joel Kotkin, he's author of the report "The Rise of Post-Familialism." If you see your family or community aging, we want to know, what difference does it make? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


HEADLEE: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Celeste Headlee. We're talking with Joel Kotkin, author of a report that looks at the decline of the traditional family unit across the world. The trend of childlessness has been on the rise for decades. East Asia is leading the pack. In 2010, a third of Japanese women in their 30s were single; one in five Japanese women entering their 40s were also single. One sociologist projects that in less than two decades, almost one in three Japanese males may be unmarried by age 50.

So Joel Kotkin, these statistics came straight out of your report "The Rise of Post-Familialism." What is it about East Asia that makes this a particular problem there?

KOTKIN: Well, I think there are several things. One, when we were talking about density, you obviously have very dense, very expensive housing.

HEADLEE: Right, and landlocked in Japan.

KOTKIN: Right, and also a very concentrated system in which really the only part of Japan that's really growing is Tokyo. So if you have any kind of ambition, that's where you go. So you certainly have that. You also have the factor that, and it's sort of an odd thing, but because very few people have children out of wedlock, that option is gone, as well.

So, you know, basically if you make the decision not to get married, you're probably not going to have kids, either. That's certainly a factor. And then these are societies, in many cases, that are not particularly religious, and a lot of the sort of old Confucian morality has really dropped.

I mean, when I started working in China and studying East Asia back 30 years ago, family was at the center of everything. These were Confucianist societies, which were very much based around the family. That has really changed tremendously, mostly in Japan but now in Korea, Taiwan and of course where I work quite a bit, in Singapore.

HEADLEE: Well, we're also wondering how many of you out there are seeing this in your own communities. Right now we have Audrey calling from California, (unintelligible) County - I don't know where that is - in California. Audrey, thanks for joining us.

AUDREY: You're welcome, thank you.

HEADLEE: Are you seeing this in your own family or community?

AUDREY: It's interesting, there's four daughters in my family, all in our late 30s to mid-40s. Only two of us had children; two of us could not. And what we have found is that the two of us without kids are really playing a large role in assisting and raising the children of our siblings, putting money away for college for them. So it's that I didn't - what you were saying before about being expensive, it is expensive in Southern California.

So we're kind of - our family dynamic changed, in that I might not have my own family, meaning my own children, but my role in the family as a whole, you know, from being part of my parents' family and supporting my sisters' has really grown.

HEADLEE: All right, so that sounds kind of positive. That's Audrey. Thank you very much Audrey from California. And we also have Paul with us from Wilmington, North Carolina. And Paul, you have your own ideas about why this might be happening.

PAUL: I do. I feel that we have coddled these people, these young people today, so much that by the time - even when they're in college, they graduate 23, 24 years old, they go back home, they have all their money from their parents. It's like they don't know how to be adults themselves. How are they going to raise a family?

HEADLEE: All right, that's Paul, thank you very much, calling from Wilmington, North Carolina. Go back to you, Joel Kotkin, you helped write this report. You studied this as a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. Are either of these people hitting it on the nail there?

KOTKIN: Well, certainly, I think it was Audrey, my Southern California neighbor, who I think touched on something that is very important, which is in this current generation, where we had larger families, there is the aunt and the uncle who play a very important role. What's scary is in much of East Asia, in the United States in the future and in Europe, there are no uncles. There are no aunts.

And so that whole extended family network, which still exists for the current generation, may not exist in the future because obviously in the future, if you have a family where, you know, only one person had children, they only had one, the whole realm of aunts and uncles - in Italy it's now believed that the vast majority of young people in the next generation will have no aunts, no uncles.

HEADLEE: Oh, my gosh.

KOTKIN: So this wonderful support network, which has been part of the family for so long and has played an important role, you can just read any kind of Dickens novel or any novel of, you know, that talks about how things were in the past, uncles, aunts, extended family were important.

HEADLEE: They were important, but they weren't always nice in Dickens, I'll have to point that out.

KOTKIN: No, they certainly weren't always nice, but they were important, and very often they still, you know, provided shelter, got a job. That - and I know this in my own family, my mother comes from a very large, very poor family from Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York, and - but the whole network of aunts, uncles - when I tell my daughters that we used to go to Thanksgiving and have football games between just the cousins, it seems almost unbelievable today.

HEADLEE: Yeah, they can't believe you had enough people. All right, we've got an email from Emily in Johnstown, PA. She writes: I just wanted to comment, I don't think it's a decline of the family. That makes it sound like people don't care about family. Today's families are not mandated by blood or marriage but are families of choice.

While I choose not to have children, my friends, family and co-workers are my family, and I care deeply about them. I don't think that's a lesser family than a family that people bear when having children.

And we also have Scott with us. He's in Garner, Iowa. And Scott, I understand you're actually encouraging your children not to have kids of their own.

SCOTT: Well, I'm not necessarily discouraging them, thank you for your time, but what I'm saying is I'm wondering if during this research the doctor has found that people - I'm 54, and I do already have two grandchildren, but unlike the old school where it was, you know, get married, have children, I am certainly not encouraging my children to get married and have children.

I would say that's just more an overall world environment thing that I'm not telling them, you know, go out there and have a lot of children. I'm just wondering if he's - you know, and call it economics like some of the younger people are talking about is the costs involved. I'm wondering if he's finding that my generation isn't pushing our children to have children. Thank you.

HEADLEE: Thanks, that's Scott in Garner, Iowa. What do you say, Joel Kotkin?

KOTKIN: Well, I think that it depends on the person. I mean, it depends on your culture. It depends on where you came from. But I want to make one very important point, and this is - may be a little bit on the contentious side. Yes, we have our, you know, our Facebook friends and our work friends and our neighbors, and we do care about them.

I guess I can say as a father there is a big difference between having that commitment to children and having your own children. You know, somebody can say, oh, I love children, but you really love your own children. I think Freud was quite perceptive when he said that when we try to equalize our affections to a more universal group, we sort of downgrade and take away from those particular prejudices that we have because...

HEADLEE: Although just to play devil's advocate, I don't mean to interrupt you, Joel, but I imagine a lot of people have the same experience I have. I'm estranged from my family. I didn't have a particularly happy childhood. I imagine that for some people, the family experience is not sunshine and rainbows, and sometimes being able to choose your family is empowerment.

KOTKIN: Well, I think what we really are seeing here is people are making individual choices that are completely legitimate and completely logical for themselves. And so we went out of our way to say we're not making a judgment. We don't think there's something wrong with people not having children or not getting married.

But what we're saying is if you take this as an aggregate, and you look over an entire society, the effects could be quite severe. So, sure, people choose not to have families for lots of reasons, lots of legitimate reasons. We're just saying if we go on this path in the future, we will start to begin to experience the types of things that, for instance, Japan is already feeling.

HEADLEE: A zero-sum game. All right, let's hear here from Karen(ph) in Charlotte, North Carolina. Karen, you say it's too expensive.

KAREN: Yes, I'm 34 years old, and I'm single, never been married, and I pursued a career and got my Ph.D. And it kind of put me out of synch with my peers in terms of where they were at in their career and getting married. And so I wouldn't be able to afford to have a child. And my sister, who does have a child who's five years old, my niece, she'll grow up without any first cousins because her father, his brother also doesn't have kids. So she's not going to have any first cousins.

HEADLEE: That's Karen in Charlotte, North Carolina. Thanks for calling, Karen. We also have this email here from Rudolph in Kansas City, and he says: What it means for me and our two sons is that our two sons have less children in our immediate neighborhood within three-tenths of a mile to play with. That was not my experience growing up.

I found it interesting, though, we're speaking with Joel Kotkin, he's the author of this report, one of the authors of "The Rise of Post-Familialism," and he's a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University in California. But Joel, one of the things I found interesting is one of your solutions to this is further empowerment of women. Explain this: if it was the empowerment of women, high education, able to make choices about their career, if that's what leading to post-familialism, how do you solve it by empowering them further?

KOTKIN: Well, first of all, you have to understand you can't reverse this trend. This is just - so you have to sort of work with it, and this is particularly true in East Asia where we - where one of the reasons women told us they didn't want to get married is they figured, well, I'm working anyway, and I'm going to get married, and my husband is not going to help raise the kid or do any of the chores. So one of the things we kept saying is, men have got to step up - whether in this country...

HEADLEE: Here, here.

KOTKIN: ...but in East Asia, they tend not to step up at all. And so the burden of having children becomes much worse when your partner doesn't help and so...

HEADLEE: Not to mention the fact that you also point out that having a child increases a woman's chances of being poor. They're paid less. We should also fix income inequality, right, Joel?

KOTKIN: Well, I think we have to increase upward mobility in general, and certainly have more options for women. I think there's also a lot we can do about whether it's male or female, or gay couples for that matter, in terms of having people being able to work at home, have more flexible hours. You know, one of the great culprits here that we identify is modern competitive capitalism which desperately needs human capital but in many ways works in ways to make it very difficult to produce the future human capital because of the demands put on people.

This came out again and again in our interviews in Singapore with very talented young women who - many cases wanted to have children but felt that they could not have them and still have the careers they wanted.

HEADLEE: Well, let's go to Robin here. She's calling from Minneapolis, Minnesota. And, Robin, I understand you're actually, right now, at that time when you have to make the decision to have kids or not.

ROBIN: Yeah. So I am 28 years old, and I have a partner that lives with me. We just bought a four-bedroom house in a suburb that it's in a great school district, and yet, we're choosing not to have children. And our reason for it is that, you know, our society has really been drilling it into us since we were in grade school, that the baby boomers are going to put such a financial stress and weight on the upcoming generations to care for them, that - I mean I remember being in third grade and basically being told by teachers and family members that the responsible thing to do is to prevent that snowball from happening.

So my advice to try to fix this problem would be to go back to that point in our education program and let people know that the effect that we're having is reversing that. And now, the financially responsible thing to do would be to have a generation that can take care of our generation. We don't have to be concerned about the baby boomers weighing us all down. In fact, we all need to step up and do something. That being said, I'm still not going to have kids. I don't want to have (unintelligible).

HEADLEE: I was just about to ask you that, Robin. Are we changing your mind here?

ROBIN: I'm not going to do it. I'm still afraid that if I had kids, all I would be doing is passing the buck along to them, and I wouldn't want that for my offspring.

HEADLEE: All right, that's Robin calling us from Minneapolis. Thank you so much, Robin. So, Joel, isn't this cyclical? Couldn't this just be a cycle? We had the baby boom - at least in the United States - we had the baby boomer generation, and then eventually, we'll go back to another boom.

KOTKIN: Well, I don't think we'll have a baby boom in the same way for lots of reasons, having to do with the - first of all, there was a tremendous amount of pent-up demand. There have been a depression, then a war, and so, you know, it was sort of like, you know, bar the door in 1945, '46 in a way that probably we'll never see again. But I think the key thing may very well be that the millennial generation will have enough children, and they're such a large generation, that they may keep the United States, at least, at a position where our population will still be relatively younger than our competition.


KOTKIN: That is what we hope. If not, I think we're looking at a not-such-bright future.

HEADLEE: That's right in terms of economics, anyway. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. So we're talking about post-familialism, the decline of the family as the basis of society. And here we have Bob in Pensacola, Florida. And, Bob - if I can get Bob there. There, I think I got this thing working.

BOB: Yeah, I'm here.

HEADLEE: Bob, you think that perhaps people are afraid of divorce that the family will split apart.

BOB: Yeah. I told your screener is that I'm divorced myself, but I'm a boomer, got married a little later in life. And I had - I have two kids, and they're both millennials. They're both single, and they're both working right now in jobs out in the job market. But, yeah, what I hear from them and from my friends that they're concerned, you know, divorce rate, you know, one in two marriages end in divorce, and all these failures are going to happen to them. I haven't heard you talking about the sky-high divorce rate and just the fear of all of that.

HEADLEE: OK. So there's a question. Thank you very much. That's Bob calling from Pensacola, Florida. And then also we have another question here for you, Joel, that is coming from Matt in Elkhart, Indiana. Matt, you have a question for Joel Kotkin, as well.

MATT: Yeah. Thank you for having me on. I was wondering, you know, I hear a lot about how having children in Europe and other countries in Europe, how they have social, you know, advantages where they might have home health care that's paid for by the government or they have, you know, opportunities where they don't have to take such financial sacrifices to have children. But through his research, do you see, you know, similar declines in birth rates in this country, or is it just a financial burden and a risks that we're asking our population to take on to have kids that's making this decline happen?

HEADLEE: OK. Thanks. That's Matt in Elkhart, Indiana. The answer, Joel?

KOTKIN: Well, I think, first of all, we have, you know, fairly mixed results in Europe. Almost no European country, with the exception perhaps of France, is above the replacement rate, and that's largely a product from what we can see of immigration from people from North Africa, and we don't know how long that will go on. But it's interesting - yeah, there are things that you can do that will improve your fertility rates. Quebec has that as well, you know, where you have, like, daycare that's available at a very low cost. But it doesn't seem that an extensive welfare state is enough to push people into having kids.

You know, in Singapore, they have very nice stipends for people to have kids. And we had a wonderful conversation with a young woman who - we kept saying, how much would it take for you to have a kid, you know? And when we get up to $1 million and she still said, no, we figured we'd better give up.


KOTKIN: I mean, ultimately, the decision to have children has much more to do with the overall economy, the type of housing that's available, and at some level, the culture itself. Are we interested in giving up a lot, because there's no question that having children means giving up a lot of things. The question is, what really matters? What's important? And I just hope that enough people will decide that even though they are pain in the butt, as everyone who has kids knows, they're also...

HEADLEE: Definitely.

KOTKIN: Right. But the - particularly the young. But they are, you know, God's gift. That's all I can say there is no...

HEADLEE: And we'll have to leave it there. That's Joel Kotkin. He's one of the authors of the report, The Rise of Post-Familialism." His next book is called "The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050." And he joined us from member station, KPCC in Pasadena, California. Thank you so much for your time, Joel.

KOTKIN: It is my pleasure.

HEADLEE: After a short break, we'll hear an author sing praise to the cliche. And we want to hear about a cliche that you think is worth repeating. Time will tell. 800-989-8255 is the number to call. You can also send us an email, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Celeste Headlee. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.