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Last Updated: Friday, 9 November 2007, 18:32 GMT
Smaller families are the future
By James Westhead
BBC News

A BBC poll has suggested most Britons are optimistic about their family's future - but what might that future be like?

A key question is: what will the shape and size of families be in fifty years?

If trends over the last half-century continue, then parents of the future will probably not be married and will likely have fewer children.

Getting married
Fewer people will get married in the future according to predictions

Already the proportion of children in non-married families has trebled in the last 50 years to around 40% while the average number of children has fallen to 1.8 in a family - both continuing trends.

A third of those un-married families are single parents; the other two-thirds are co-habiting, but are more likely to separate than in the past.

So the changeability of family structures seems likely to increase.

Families in flux

Predictions, though, are notoriously unreliable.

"The word 'flux' sums up the future of the family," according to Professor Charlie Lewis, an expert on family psychology. He predicts we will see more single parent families and more families breaking up and re-forming.

"Change will become the norm, not the exception", says Professor Lewis, from Lancaster University.

"People are already making and breaking relationships more easily and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Fighting between parents who stay together can be harmful for children."

Among the factors that will influence family life, perhaps the most significant are economic.

The pressure on housing and the rising cost of property will likely make it more expensive for people to have children.

iPhone
Mobile phones help parents stay in touch with their children

Already trends show the better-off tend to have more children. In future, big families may become a luxury only the rich can afford.

Techno-boom

A growing influence on family life and relationships is technology. With computers and the internet in almost every bedroom, it is already having what many see as a negative impact.

Parents complain their children spend more time glued to screens than involved in traditional family activities.

However the techno-boom has arguably had positive benefits too, with mobile phones allowing parents to stay in touch with - and keep track of - their children.

It is possible to imagine families 50 years from now interacting online through avatar websites like Second Life, perhaps even sharing virtual family meals.

"Technology is a double-edged sword for families," argues Professor Lewis.

"It can erode and reduce human interaction but, at the same time, technology is great at bringing people together - just look at mobile phone use within families."

State intervention

A final long-term trend relates to the family's relationship with the outside world.

The state is increasingly encroaching.... but the idea of family remains sacrosanct
Professor Charlie Lewis
Family psychology expert

In the past families were a private refuge from the public but increasingly the state is intervening - some claim interfering - in the home.

Over the last 50 years the development of social work has grown alongside recognition of the need to protect children.

More recently laws have been introduced to send parents on parenting courses if their children misbehave, or jail them if their children don't attend school.

With growing anxiety over children's behaviour and health, state intervention will likely increase.

In the distant future one can imagine the state requiring people to sit tests, or even acquire a licence, if they want to start a family.

"The state is increasingly encroaching", says Professor Lewis, "but the idea of family remains sacrosanct so further incursions will always be resisted."

Despite the pressures from all directions, Professor Lewis agrees with the findings of the BBC's survey: that peoples desire for a family remains undiminished.

So while their size, shape and behaviour could change considerably over the next 50 years, all the signs are that the family itself will survive, even thrive.

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