01/04/2013 03:46 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2013

Is the Family Doomed?

If you had a trying time with your relatives this holiday season, the news is good. Such gatherings will soon be a faint memory, according to sociologist Joel Cotkin in a new report, "The Rise of Post-Familism."

What Is Post-Familism?

Ever since the Stone Age, married couples and their children were the building block of all societies. In post-familism, most young people opt not to marry. Even if they marry, many opt not to have children. So families with children are no longer the most common type of household.

These simple changes transform societies based upon the family unit to networks of individuals who come together for companionship, for entertainment and to cope with practical problems. The model is the urban bohemian communities that sprang up in cities a century ago with a rejection of conventional family life and an emphasis on personal growth and fulfillment.

Post-familism is of great concern to demographers who foresee some very bad consequences extending far into the future. Chief among these are exceptionally low birth rates and an unprecedented aging of the population. This is bad, because it means that the population will have much more elderly people. There will be fewer people of peak working age.

So the entire world population begins to look more like Japan, with its rapidly aging population, high dependency ratio and stagnant economy. Cotkin's report is most interesting in its identification of possible causes.

Causes of Post-Familism

One key factor is prosperity. Family groups, and kin networks more generally, are partly a reflection of the difficulty of making a living alone. In prosperous societies, healthy, well-paid individuals can look out for themselves. This is particularly true in social democracies where basic health and survival needs are protected by government safety nets.

Prosperity also brings more job opportunities for women, who enjoy greater job opportunities in modern service economies where physical strength is no longer an advantage. Contemporary women are out-competing men in third-level education, and occupationally successful women often delay marriage and child bearing, seeing them as hinderances to their careers.

Urbanization of the population is another key trend. The high population density in cities is adverse to child bearing for numerous reasons, including the high cost of living space, and risks to children from high crime rates. Even schools tend to be bad in large cities, and that is particularly true of public schools.

In effect, young people have a choice between remaining in the city, with all the personal and occupational advantages this brings, or moving to cheaper suburbs, where they can afford to raise children.

Even the bad economic times the developed world is currently experiencing mean that marriage and child bearing are delayed due to hesitation about taking on the financial burden of a family.

Cotkin, of Chapman University, believes that the worldwide decline in religion is also a cause of the decline in conventional families, on the assumption that religion bolsters family values. This is questionable. In my recent book, Why Atheism Will Replace Religion, I argue that the decline in religion and the decline in fertility are both caused by economic development.

Is It Really All About Values?

Having outlined the many practical influences that work against families, Cotkin concludes -- incongruously, in my opinion -- that the future of families is really a matter of what people want to do to protect families. This frustrating tendency to shift from credible scientific explanations to unsatisfactory ones that are circular, or moralistic, is unfortunately common and reflects theoretical weaknesses in sociology. The family did not decline to this point because anyone wished it to decline, and it will not recover magically when the desire to save it gets stronger.

The brave new world of post-familism is a fascinating problem for social scientists, including evolutionary scholars like me. Will we diverge forever into Aldous Huxley's "brave new world" of unrelated individuals where families are disreputable, or will we cling to marriage and the family that saved our hides up to this point? Either way, we are learning much about what it means to be human.