The traditional family is facing, and will continue to face, a number of serious challenges in the years and decades ahead. There are also a number of exciting opportunities ahead for families. Additionally, many of the challenges the family faces can be overcome. So there's good news and bad news. I'll start with the good news.
~ Longer Life Spans ~
We're going to live longer. This means that the jobs of genealogists and historians will be easier. You won't have to sift through historical records to find out about your great-great grandparents. You'll be able to ask them.
Life expectancy has soared in the 20th century, from an average of about 45 years for both sexes to 63 years for men and 68 years for women, according to U.N. figures. In developed countries, life expectancy has shot up to 71 years for men and 78 for women. This is due to improved public health, sanitation, nutrition, and medical breakthroughs such as antibiotics and vaccines.
One interesting indication that people are living longer is the increasing numbers of centenarians, people who live to be 100 or more. Today, there are nearly 66,000 Americans over the age of 100, compared to only 3,500 in 1900, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And the United Nations estimates that while there were about 135,000 centenarians worldwide in 1998, there will be 2.2 million by 2050.
Cindy Wagner, managing editor for the Futurist, , a magazine that tracks social and technological trends that may affect the future, has been covering this trend. She writes, "The longer you live, the more relatives you are likely to accumulate. Future intergenerational relationships may involve multiple layers of descendants...future seniors will probably have more grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren--and they will all have the opportunity to know each other...a future family tree may resemble a tangled rainforest."
~ Better Health~
The second item of good news is tied to the first: not only will families live longer, but we will be in better health. Scientists will continue to discover the cellular and genetic components of disease and aging, and devise remedies based on that genetic knowledge. By the end of this summer scientists will have reached a major milestone: the sequencing of the entire human genome. Then will begin figuring out what all those genes actually do. Researchers are already working on gene therapy for cystic fibrosis and other inherited diseases.
So how long can we expect to live? Some scientists believe that a human cell free of disease will live 120 years before dying of natural causes, and that the natural human life span could therefore be increased to 120 years.
But some visionaries are much more optimistic than that. They think we might be able to conquer mortality and live forever. This is pretty far out stuff, but you have to admit that immortality (or even super-long life spans) would create some very large, complex, and extended families. With so many generations knowing each other, I think the "generation gaps" we find so great today will be less of an issue in the future.
~ Families Forever? ~
So how might families that live forever be achieved? Theoretically, immortality could be achieved in two ways, either organically, by manipulating our cells, or inorganically, through a partnership with computers.
Researchers seeking the cellular route to immortality are looking at telomeres, a kind of safety padding on the ends of our chromosomes. When chromosomes copy themselves during cell division, they can't copy themselves entirely and have to leave a little bit off of each end. So the telomeres grow shorter each time a cell divides. Eventually, the telomeres are gone and new rounds of cell division begin leaving off bits of our actual chromosomes. This leads to the death of the cell.
Scientists are looking at an enzyme called telomerase, which makes the telomeres grow longer and may allow cells to replicate indefinitely. While there are still many hurdles to overcome--telomerase is no "magic pill,"--if scientists can figure out a way to keep our cells alive for ever, than we could expect to live forever, too.
Now, the computer-assisted route to immortality: Some researchers, notably Ray Kurzweil, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University, believe the human brain works like a computer. That means, he supposes, that we could replace our brains and bodies with computer chips and artificial parts that never wear out or could be replaced indefinitely. Another alternative would be to simply upload your brain into a computer and live forever as bits of data in a custom-made, hardware body. Imagine how much easier future family historians' jobs will be if they could simply sit at a computer and access the relative of their choice!
~ Living Busier ~
So we will live longer, healthier lives and we will have larger, extended families with many more relatives. But will we put our extra time to good use, or will we squander it? Will our familial relationships be close knit, or fractured?
Many social observers have noted that the more time we have, the more work and activities we try to cram in. In addition, the pace of life is increasing, largely because of technology that delivers instant results and a society that values quick, material gratification.
Science writer James Gleick, author of Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, writes that "We do feel that we're more time-driven and time-obsessed than ever before." He notes that we're conditioned to expect instant results. Internet purchases arrive by next-day delivery. Microwave ovens deliver hot meals in minutes. Faxes, e-mails, and cell phones make it possible -- even necessary--to work faster.
Stephen Bertman, author of Hyperculture: The Human Cost of Speed, has grave concerns about the future of the family.
"Influenced by high-speed technology and a culture of quick turnaround times and instant results," he writes in The Futurist, "people expect life to express deliver the love they need, and they grow restive when it does not. We come to expect the imperfect human beings in our lives to operate as efficiently as our computers and we quickly lose patience with those we might otherwise love if they do not respond as swiftly, or obey as readily, as the machines we know."
"As a consequence," he says, "marriage--a pursuit implying a commitment that reaches across time--is fast becoming an anachronism. The fact that our material culture is characterized by things that do not last and, indeed, were never intended to last, imparts the expectation of impermanence to human relationships as well." In a fast-moving and sensually oriented society like ours, he says, the virtues of sacrifice and long-term commitment--which are essential to effective parenthood--become rare.
The findings of Rutgers University sociologist David Popenoe seem to agree with Glieck and Bertman. The chances of a marriage ending in divorce were about 20% in 1960 and today are between 40%-50%, he notes. One third of all American children are born outside of marriage, and 40% are living apart from their biological fathers.
~ Harmful Trends Reversing ~
There are indications that these social trends that threaten the family may be reversing. Many Americans seem to be realizing that a lifestyle based on personal gratification is not satisfying, and they desire to be part of something larger, according to Daniel Yankelovitch, a pollster who works for the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.
In fact, the "me generation" may be coming to a close, Yankelovitch says. His polls tell him that we are realizing that we can no longer have it all, that we need to choose among career, family, and other desires. We are becoming more willing to make sacrifices for others.
Americans will increasingly seek satisfaction and self-fulfillment, but they will increasingly do that through familial relationships and connecting to a community, Yankelovitch says. People are realizing that the self, considered apart from family, friends, and community is a meaningless abstraction.
"I believe that some truly valid social learning is taking place," he writes, "and it leaves me more optimistic about the future than I have been for a long time."
~ Final Thoughts ~
Here are two suggestions for improving the quality of family life in the 21st Century.
Watch less TV. Nothing is worse for human relationships than television, many scholars say. (Although the Internet seems to be a close second, depending on whose research you believe.) TV has gobbled up the time we used to spend with family and community. It has made us passive and less social.
This is not easy advice to follow. I love television. (And I'm a writer!) One thing you can do is to make TV watching more of social/family activity. Watch together as a family, instead of each person off in a different room. And talk about what you see. I mute the commercials when my wife and I watch so we can talk.
Stay close to home. When I was in college I just took it as a matter of course that when I was on my own I would move far away from my parents and my hometown. A lot of young people do this. Cars, airplanes, and long-distance telephone service make it easy. I'm not saying all young people should stop moving away, but I do think it's worth considering at some point whether or not you can achieve your career goals and your dreams without having to move far away from your family.
I used to feel smugly superior to my sister, who chose to remain in Rochester, NY where we grew up, while I traveled off to distant, exciting places like Washington, DC. I thought she was just afraid to fly too far from the nest. But now that I see the close, day-to-day relationship she has with my parents, now that I see how they help each other out and the bond that has formed between my parents and their new grandchild, I don't feel so superior anymore. I think my sister may have been the smarter one all along.
Copyright © 2000 Jeffrey T. Minerd. Published with permission.