The 100 year family: Longer lives, fewer children
This paper investigates how the role and resilience of the family in the UK has changed over time, and explores how it is coming under increasing pressure from external demographic and economic forces.
We investigate these effects using a novel approach based on survivorship. We also propose a new way to define ‘family,’ using a framework flexible enough to model a range of family structures and situations: by centring analysis on the ‘focal woman.’
Survivorship is the probability of living to a given age (see section 2 for more detail); we take this data from the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) life tables for England and Wales. These are constructed using mortality data and are available from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.
We construct the joint survivorship of typical families based on the number of births. We also employ novel ‘family accounting’ methods to quantify and analyse the potential overlapping of care responsibilities that face today’s families.
Our work is informed by the effects of two broad transitions, widely recognised by demographers as occurring across many societies:
- The first is the progression from high to low mortality and from high to low fertility rates (the average number of children born to each woman in any given population). These two changes combine to produce a surge in population and economic growth, accompanied by rapid increases in life expectancy. In the UK this period lasted from around the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century or later.
- The nature of the second transition is not universally accepted among demographers, but broadly it refers to the societal changes in any given population that have taken place since the 1970s; these include changes in family structures, and a shift towards women choosing to have fewer children, later in life. The arrival of protected rights and wider access to education for women during this period have been key factors in driving these shifts.
We posit that the economic benefits of the first transition are in danger of being reversed by the second, and that our social, political and economic structures are not aligned to support the families in which we now live. We explore this possibility through analysis of family structures in a context of increasingly stretched welfare systems, widening inequalities and ageing populations. This context raises questions:
- Whether our population can continue to replace itself given that families are having fewer children, later in life: our analysis indicates that, at a family level, our increased longevity does not offset the decline in fertility rates.
- How to address the additional strain on our underfunded social, health and state pension systems, with more older people living alone, and a greater need within today’s smaller, older families for external support.
- How to address the likelihood that the tendency towards older families leads to each family’s main carer being responsible for multiple generations at once.
- Whether the additional burdens of juggling work and caring responsibilities will have a further stagnating effect on the wider economy.
- How to address the inheritance gap that delays the passing of wealth to the next generation as we all live longer.
We believe that society must adjust itself to the new reality, by taking steps to move into a third transition. This will require action to enable more of us to spend our additional years in good health and in decent housing, with the capacity to undertake paid work, to care for our families, or to do both. We suggest that as part of this transition there may be a need for:
- Reformulated personal financial services to address the current gaps in provision at the family level.
- A new approach to social protection that focuses on families as well as individuals.
Our analysis shows that the changes occurring during the second transition have put society on a demographic escalator to economic stagnation, and that matters can only get worse. We believe it will take conscious action by the UK’s decision-makers to make a third transition reality and step off the escalator.
Authors: Les Mayhew and David Smith