Traditional family structures are witnessing an unprecedented transformation worldwide. The image of the nuclear family consisting of a married couple with children is quickly vanishing.
Instead, it is becoming more common to meet divorced parents, single-parent households, multicultural marriages, widowers, families who live apart due to migration, adopted children, and elderly people living alone.
Indeed, demographics are a key factor in some of these changing family structures. Divorce rates are rising globally and more single-parents households are facing a higher risk of poverty due to the reliance on a single income. In 1950, the average global fertility rate was 4.7, which almost halved to reach 2.4 in 2017, according to research published in the Lancet by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
By 2050, the number of people aged 65 and over is expected to be one in six people in the world, many of whom will live alone. All of these changes will have significant repercussions on countries’ health care expenditures, public day care centers, housing markets, infrastructure planning, social care services, pension systems, labour markets, and the sustainability of social protection systems.
Stability, love, and support
Considering the changing patterns of family structures in our societies, it is imperative that policymakers reimagine services and programs that cater to individual segments of society that veer away from the typical nuclear family structure. All families and individuals need stability, love, and support to thrive after all.
To understand this trend further, demographers would need to establish a data dashboard with updated census information on families and individuals, tracking both historical data and future projections.
Data points could include the age group, average household size, income levels, education levels, labour market participation rates, marriage and divorce rates, fertility rates, and geographical location. Such information will enable demographers to formulate timely solutions according to different target audiences and areas.
Urban planners can redesign cities so that they are friendly to all types of families, ensuring local communities have access to day care centers, early childhood education centers, schools, cultural facilities, sporting venues, health clinics, and parks and green spaces.
Family centres, first pioneered in Scandinavian countries, are excellent venues for delivering a number of services that promote the well-being of society.
These include accessing evidence-based parenting advice, enrolling in financial literacy programs, receiving counselling services focused on divorce or bereavement, and strengthening social networks for those who are feeling lonely due to the loss of a family member.
It is equally important to establish strong social protection systems to support individuals and families who face difficult life circumstances and require assistance. Benefits should cover cash transfers for low-income individuals, child allowances, early childhood education subsidies, scholarships, and medical assistance.
Sustainable pension systems
Housing programmes and grants are becoming ever so important in order to be able to access affordable accommodations that cater to individual needs, sizes, and locations. Sustainable pension systems will also ensure people are economically self-reliant in old age, regardless of their family circumstances.
Introducing and enforcing family-friendly labour policies will ensure single, divorced, or widowed parents are able to work whilst managing childcare duties.
Evidence points out to their myriad benefits, such as safeguarding financial security, decreasing poverty rates, enhancing productivity, reducing costs associated with families’ public assistance programs, improving well-being, and reducing stress levels.
Employers should be encouraged to adopt world-class policies, such as flexible working arrangements, remote work, or part-time employment as a way to achieve work-life balance. Investing in universal, affordable, and quality early childhood education centers is imperative for lone parents to balance between work duties and caring responsibilities.
Research also affirms its multiple benefits, such as improved academic performance, enhanced health status, lower school dropout rates, and higher earnings in adulthood. Universal health care coverage should also be available for individuals during their periods of illnesses.
Safeguard rights of individuals
Many countries have also introduced legislations that safeguard the rights of individuals, such as children, women, and the elderly.
For example, Finland’s Child Welfare Act lays out children’s rights to balanced development and well-being, close human relationships, understanding and affection, supervision and care, education that builds on a child’s abilities and wishes, a safe environment free from abuse of all forms, and opportunities to be involved in various interests.
Last year, the UAE redesigned its personal and family law to address important themes pertinent to divorce and separation, division of wills and assets, and the protection of women against harassment.
Lastly, the media would need to embrace the changing faces of families and share more interesting, realistic portrayals of modern life. More importantly, it is important not to stigmatise non-nuclear families and to have respect for people’s personal choices.
Many current TV shows and films astutely narrate the struggles and joys faced by adopted children, single parents, widowed spouses, divorced couples, and elderly groups in a sensitive way that resonates with a wide spectrum of viewers. For example, the 2012 Japanese drama “Yasu” portrays a man who loses his wife in a tragic accident and ends up raising his son alone, along with the support of his friends.
By embracing all walks of family life, we can guarantee that individuals are surrounded by the care and support they need to thrive in their lives, regardless of their family backgrounds.
Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and literature