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are the days of the traditional family numbered?



relationships • 27.11.05

I saw a statistic recently stating that 25% of the adult population was living alone. Significantly most of these people were living alone apparently from positive choice i.e. not for negative reasons like failed relationships, or never having met the right person and still looking, but consciously and deliberately choosing this as a lifestyle. It also came over that such types are invariably self-determining and driven. They are often articulate and successful individuals whose values and opinions increasingly carry weight. With that proportion continuing to rise it was suggested that this sector of society will potentially become a force for political and social progress in the future. In other words, what they stand for, their consumption choices, outlook etc., will compete for central place in society, a place currently held by the conventions around family values and parenthood.

Once this way of life is upheld, aspired to and envied, and not the refuge of the reluctant or the sad rejects who can't make partnership, I think the floodgates will open. When the freedoms associated with single life are no longer blighted by the stigma attached to not being coupled; when far from being a route to irresponsible hedonism and psychological ruin it becomes more associated with freedom, choice, flexibility, potential, growth and fulfilment; when it is a life lived less through obligation and more through practices and activities that are sought out for their appropriateness to individuals; when all these factors come fully into play as they surely will, then the scene is set for radical social change. As all this becomes a norm and an acceptable aspiration then I think the days of the traditional family are numbered.

This movement will be one of the key factors that brings about a reassessing of what it means to be in a family. It will demand reappraisal of the responsibilities of parenting and the beginnings of these responsibilities being modernised. It will necessitate a look to innovation and the possibilities for new institutions better able to preside over child rearing and emotional development. Ostensibly it will mean a break with the nuclear family and the dependency a child has for its psychological growth on the stressed-out, increasingly unfulfilled, ultimately disillusioned, conflicted and confused parent.

Of course the current narrative prevents people, women especially, from making negative statements about being a parent as this is seen as an indictment on their love and commitment to the children. It is a heinous moral crime and has the traditionalists jumping up and down about the selfishness of the modern age etc. But it belies what every parent knows: that there are huge compromises in becoming a mum or a dad, that the greater part is task-driven responsibility, a job like any other but essentially unpaid with dubious rewards. When it comes to be properly understood that family life creates as many problems as it solves then the ethical grounds for family as it has been known down the millennia will start to crumble.

This is already an issue where the dividing lines are being drawn. There is open hostility now between those who have chosen not to live in the family way and those who have. There are powerful interests at stake from deeply entrenched social conventions to entire bodies of law and economics, not forgetting the biological impulses that lie behind much of the way structures have evolved through the centuries. These are ripe for being challenged for the first time in history and are likely to cause deep divisions. There have been few movements in my time that I have felt passionately for or against. This is one of them and I know where I stand.