Rethinking the ideal family: Global study finds one child may be the new norm

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In a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers conceptualized empirical measurements for family ideals comprising ten family characteristics, a significant increase from previous studies' evaluation of just one characteristic. Against the backdrop of the worst low-fertility period in modern history, they recruited participants from eight low-fertility nations. They conducted a factorial survey experiment (FSE) to evaluate what the ideal family means to people from different cultural contexts and institutional settings.

Their findings revealed both expected and surprising results. As expected, childlessness is a shared concern across nations and is often looked upon in poor light. However, the common notion that multiple children are preferable over a single child, with two being the ideal, was found to be a misconception. This study highlights that while a few country- and culture-specific characteristics differ across nations, most family ideals across industrialized countries remain uniform.

Study: Family ideals in an era of low fertility. Image Credit: IndianFaces / ShutterstockStudy: Family ideals in an era of low fertility. Image Credit: IndianFaces / Shutterstock

The changing concept of the ideal family in a modernized world

Families are the fundamental unit of social organization, but the concept of family may mean substantially different things to different respondents. A multitude of reasons unpin this observation – culture, society, religion, and media influences all shape the holistic interpretation of the ideal family. This is evident in the world around us – today's family landscape radically differs from that of our great-grandparents' generation. While intergenerational differences in opinion are expected, the magnitude of recent demographic transitions is arguably unprecedented.

Titled 'The Second Demographic Transition (SDT)', Van de Kaa and Lesthaeghe's interpretation of Inglehart's ideas hypothesize that value systems have fundamentally shifted, which, in tandem with the relatively novel focus on self-realization, have made traditional family structures in modern society rare. Examples of this include the growing popularity of single-person households and cohabitation, divorce, and re-partnering, and the ever-increasing prevalence of children raised by single parents and nonmarried couples.

Alarmingly, one of the observable outcomes of these shifts is a rapid increase in low fertility rates, especially across industrialized nations. Understanding the role of family values and ideals on fertility rates in these changing times presents the first step to stabilizing the global fertility crisis and the focus of current research. While previous studies have explored the concept of family ideals, they suffer from one common demerit – dimensionality.

The concept of an ideal family is a multidimensional one, incorporating different characteristics (e.g., the ideal number of children, family versus career obligations, and the division of domestic work) with different relative contributions to the observable trend (low fertility rate). Unfortunately, most research in the field has focused on the ideal number of children (the fertility ideal), a single dimension. Despite this research establishing two children as the global ideal, it is plagued by numerous potentially biasing traits and may be less accurate than believed.

"…traditional survey questions force respondents to state a single ideal number of children (e.g., one or two or three children), thus masking potential variation in the strength of such preferences… because fertility ideals or preferences are not asked in direct relation to other dimensions of family life, the importance of fertility cannot be established relative to a host of other relevant family dimensions, including the division of labor within the family, career aspirations, financial resources, and the possibility of extended family support."

About the study

In the first comprehensive examination of the multidimensional family characteristics across diverse national backgrounds, researchers reviewed classical theories of family behavior to conceptualize and empirically measure ten characteristics of the ideal family. The online factorial survey experiment (FSE) comprised 20,141 participants from urban areas of China, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Italy, the United States (US), Norway, and Spain.

The survey was conducted between December 2021 and February 2022. Data collection comprised of participants' demographic data and the completed FSE-based questionnaire. Collected age 925 TO 39; 40 TO 50) and gender (male or female) data were used to stratify the pooled national populations into four cohorts per nation. Participants were further categorized based on the presence of at least one child. Each cohort was subjected to a separately analyzed questionnaire with questions modified to reflect the presence (or absence) of children.

FSE provides at least three advantages over traditional study approaches – "First, the experimental design ensures that respondents' characteristics are independent of the dimensions of the vignette they are asked to evaluate. Second, respondents in FSE studies are asked to evaluate vignettes that vary along multiple dimensions. This has the advantage of allowing us to test various combinations, including some which occur only rarely in reality Third, the multidimensionality of the FSE reduces concerns about respondents providing socially desirable answers because the variations across vignettes make it relatively more difficult to identify the purpose of the study"

The contents of the questionnaire involved participants' numerically scaled responses to the question, "How well does this describe an ideal family?" for a vignette made by randomly combining different levels of the conceptualized characteristics. These characteristics consist of union status, household income (relative to the national mean), number of children, level of respect received by the family within the community, gender roles, work-family conflict, communication (nuclear and extended family communication, measured separately), savings for the child(ren)'s support, and child(ren)'s desired education attainment level.

"Among the 1,440 (864 + 576) unique vignettes, 240 (144 + 96) decks (i.e., questionnaire versions) were constructed with each containing six randomly selected vignettes. Pooling across eight countries, each vignette was rated by 84.23 (SD = 5.11) respondents. For each country, each vignette was rated by 11.83 (SD = 3.03) respondents, which exceeds the common suggestion of 5 in the literature and thus ensures the robustness of the result."

Statistical analysis was hierarchically structured to account for the multidimensional structuring of vignettes and nationalities. Dependant variables were treated as continuous, and a multilevel linear regression model was used to compute and interpret results.

Study findings and conclusions

The present study reveals that consistent with previous work, parenthood remains one of the most valued family attributes. However, contrasting previous literature, analyses found that, following the birth of the first child, the number of additional children was inconsequential to study participants. The study highlights that parents may prefer one child over the 'ideal' of having two, especially when resources are scarce. Cross-referencing these findings against population-trends data from countries like Norway validates their accuracy, with the fertility rate substantially lower than the expected two-child-ideal rate.

Country contexts were revealed to matter for some dimensions, such as household income – while low-income families received a low rating irrespective of respondent nationality, the high-income families were not given a high rating in Italy, Spain, and Norway, potentially due to the high level of welfare support received in these countries. In contrast, most characteristics and their corresponding scores were indistinguishable across national cohorts, suggesting that education and urbanization play strong roles in formulating ideals about family compared to region and cultural background.

Journal reference:
  • Aassve, Arnstein, et al. "Family Ideals in an Era of Low Fertility." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 121, no. 6, 2024, p. e2311847121, DOI – 10.1073/pnas.2311847121, https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2311847121
Hugo Francisco de Souza

Written by

Hugo Francisco de Souza

Hugo Francisco de Souza is a scientific writer based in Bangalore, Karnataka, India. His academic passions lie in biogeography, evolutionary biology, and herpetology. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. from the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, where he studies the origins, dispersal, and speciation of wetland-associated snakes. Hugo has received, amongst others, the DST-INSPIRE fellowship for his doctoral research and the Gold Medal from Pondicherry University for academic excellence during his Masters. His research has been published in high-impact peer-reviewed journals, including PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases and Systematic Biology. When not working or writing, Hugo can be found consuming copious amounts of anime and manga, composing and making music with his bass guitar, shredding trails on his MTB, playing video games (he prefers the term ‘gaming’), or tinkering with all things tech.

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