There isn’t a culture in the world that doesn’t hold the big family up as the social ideal, a blessing. The big 'happy' family.
Think of the big family and the clichéd stereotypes flood your imagination with a long table piled high with food while the generations tuck in, laughter, fun, happiness, maybe even a sing along. Cut to the scratched record.
What makes us so sure the big family is such a 'happy' one? Maybe if they're very well off they might be, so they can outsource the hard physical work. I'd be surprised if the mother is happy. She's run off her feet, elbow deep in nappies and either pregnant or breast feeding. She oscillates between being tired and irritable or tired and guilty. Is she being fair and just or just or really mean? The father isn't happy. He's probably the lone breadwinner stressing over the finances and trying to get by on five hours sleep. The first born is more bitter than happy. She relinquished parental exclusivity only to see what was left of her parental access whittled away to nothing with every addition. Now she's more likley to dispense mothering than get any herself. The older brother isn't happy either. Sick of never having any money he left school at an early age to get a job and get away from his tired irritable parents and the pack of unruly sibs. The middle children are invisible and will never wear anything but hand me downs. The youngest is crying... hang on where did I put her?
And then there's the stuff we don't discuss, it's taboo: The sibilng rivalry that decends into bullying and abuse, the favouritism, incest, deprivation, lack of privacy, opportunities and personal space.
Ah but there are occasions when it all comes together and the big family hunkers down for a really great day at the park, a wicked camping trip or a fun game of monopoly. And that is the moment we all associate with the big family.
Happiness was never really the point of the big family. It has a more practical, utilitarian reason to exist, pure survival.
If you are very poor, six children can mean the difference between life and death. They can bring in the crops or extra wages and if someone gets sick or when the parents get old the family can pool resources to take care of them. The big family is your social security, your life insurance, your workforce, your childcare and your nursing home. Even if it's not exactly happiness, it's an insurance policy against unhappiness.
The big family has been pushed from above, literally. All the major religions encourage large families and consider children a blessing. Catholicism forbids contraception, Islam encourages more children and so does Hinduism. Children swell the ranks, the coffers and the support base.
Governments too encourage more children. Nothing pumps up an economy like more people and more workers maintains a downward pressure on wages, all good. For Nations it's about power too. Falling numbers look like national weakness, a lack of fucundity is unmanly, embarrassing. Everyone worries about an aging population, who will push our wheelchair when we're old.
Interestingly depite such powerful social, political and religious pressure to procreate, big families are in serious decline all over the world. It's because the big family has lost it's economic and social advantages. It no longer makes sense.
And here are five good reasons why.
Of course the first thing you need for a big family is space. In a contemporary urban environment living space is expensive and the big family is an unaffordable luxury. According to the United Nations more than half the word’s population now lives in urban areas. This worldwide shift to tightly packed cities is arguably the greatest movement of people in human history. And it’s just getting started.
“Projections show that urbanization combined with the overall growth of the world’s population could add another 2.5 billion people to urban populations by 2050, with close to 90 percent of the increase concentrated in Asia and Africa, according to a new United Nations report launched today.”
Worldwide more people live in cities than in rural areas and if they’re living in cities you can be certain space is limited. The urban middle class are likely to be living in a high rise where they pay dearly for extra space while the urban poor cram into shanty towns where extra space doesn’t exist. Every child that is added to this crowded domestic situation comes at a cost for those already there. An extra person is expensive and parents can easily monetise the exact weekly cost of the extra room needed and the extra work they will need to do to pay for it. In this situation the difference between one child and two can be overwhelming.
In China, the government has relaxed it’s one child policy but most parents there are choosing to stop at one because of the cost of living and the price of urban real estate.
But the relationship between family size and space works the other way too, space encourages the big family, makes sense of it, demands it. For human society space means isolation, and isolation demands a big family. An isolated family must function as a community in itself and requires people to carry out functions that in a crowded setting would be shared between many families. In a tightly packed urban environment the community takes the place of the big family.
If you’re urbanised then you’re probably working and working hard, long hours are the norm for men and increasingly women too. Urban jobs aren’t child friendly so you can’t put your babies on your back and the extended family isn’t conveniently living nearby in the village to step in and help. With no one at home to look after the family, children are shuffled off to child care, and the extra cost of each additional child is easily monetised. Even the cost of two children in full time childcare is enough to wipe out the benefits of a full time wage.
Research shows that as women benefit from increased education they have fewer children and when you examine the panoply of reasons for this the correlation becomes a no brainer. Women who are engaged in education put off having children which leaves less time to have them. Women who are educated have been exposed to more ideas and have a broader outlook and understanding of their choices. Women who are educated are more likely to have access to and the inclination to plan their family and control their fertility, and the big one, women who have been educated are more likely to have an interesting and satisfying career which they cherish. Of course the financial cost of children includes the income foregone as the woman takes time off work, so the more educated the woman, the more likely she is to earn more and the greater the cost of each child.
Likewise educated parents know first hand the importance of a good education in securing well paid, dignified and satisfying employment. Good educations particularly in developing nations, don’t come cheap. The average middle class family can afford to educate one child well, but rarely two children. A big family is increasingly an uneducated family and these unfortunate children will have to work hard to raise their standard of living above their parents.
The family room is no longer the social hub it once was. Families don’t sit around the piano or the television or a board game, they sit in separate rooms watching their choice of program or playing a video game or they’re on their personal devices communicating with their friends.
The ‘friend family’ has in many ways replaced the big family as the source of social life. The ‘friend family’ is the family you choose, it’s the family you connect with on facebook, Instagram or xbox. It can include relatives or not, they can be people up the road or people you met living overseas or people you’ve never met. And since you chose this ‘friend family’ they’re probably compatible: if you’re a kid they’re your age, they share your interests and if you grow out of them or fall out with them you can de-friend them with the click of a button.
Online communities aren’t the only ones rendering the big family obsolete. With people living closer together they have a choice of in-the-flesh local communities to get involved with and do. There’s the people at the dog park, the local bar or café, the local church or sportsclub, there’s the social club in your building, the office or local school, they’re people who share hobbies or they’re a Meetup group.
Communities flourish in tightly packed urban areas and make great company on religious and other holidays when you really don’t want to be one, two or three. Check it out, there are meetup groups for Gen Only too.
So the big family is like the wireless, the gas guzzler and the typewriter, it’s been superseded, and maybe what’s replacing it is like the smart phone, electric car or Netflix, actually better.