The Straits Times says

Track social change as families shrink

Nations are finding themselves at their wits' end as big demographic shifts roil once-familiar contours of societies. For example, just 20 years ago, it was rare to be an only child. Today, one-child families are the second most common after two- child ones which remain the norm - itself a shrinkage compared to the three or more children most parents had in 1970 and earlier. The factors at work cannot be easily rolled back: Couples are marrying later, and those who go on to have children are opting to concentrate what they have (resources, time and attention) on just a single precious kid. Given this trend, could social ill-effects like the Little Emperor Syndrome, that afflicts China because of its one-child policy, arise here?

Notions of the ideal family size have evolved over time, in line with broader shifts in education, urbanisation and economic structure. The proliferation of large families in the past imposed costs of their own, on both their members and society. But today, the pendulum seems to have swung too far in the opposite direction. One local population expert observed that the growing social acceptability of being married with no kids suggests a "decoupling of marriage and children". That, combined with a growing number of singles, is contributing to more people living alone - 27 per cent in the United States. Here, the share of one-person households and those headed by married couples who are childless or not living with their children rose to one in four last year.

For a small city-state, the longer-term demographic consequences are serious. As more couples choose to remain childless or have just one child, the threat of rapid demographic decline will be accentuated. Whatever the Government tries to do to reverse this trend, at the end of the day, it all boils down to personal preferences. Perhaps, other factors feature more strongly in the calculus of the young, like their lifestyle choice, financial independence and acquired social circles. Consequently, it's not just the architecture of the family that is altered but the very definition of family. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni thinks the traditional definition of family is much too narrow as he is "more impressed by families who are bound by choice than blood".

At a human level, all kinds of families born out of necessity (driven by loss, illness, war and disaster) ought to be celebrated. But ceasing to mourn the disappearance of the traditional family would be folly. Lonely seniors might have no choice but to build wider networks of friends and neighbours for social and emotional support. But the young have a choice of building a close-knit family of their own. Harvard scholar Robert Putnam found that such a family, especially one with children, is associated with greater social trust and connectedness. The choice is indeed intensely personal but the impact is extensively social.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 28, 2015, with the headline 'Track social change as families shrink'. Print Edition | Subscribe