With single parent, same-sex and platonic co-parent households on the rise, it’s clear that the nuclear family is undergoing a rapid transformation. A kaleidoscope of new family structures is emerging, changing gender roles and more along the way. To understand what is shaping the future of families, Ashoka’s Zeynep Meydanoglu sat down with Debora Spar, Senior Associate Dean of Harvard Business School and a world expert on the interplay between gender and technology.
Zeynep Meydanoglu: Nuclear families are so common that it feels like that has always been the case. Has it?
Debora Spar: We tend to think of the nuclear family – one mother, one father and children who are genetically related to them – as the natural way of organizing society. But in historical terms, that family structure is relatively recent. If we go back to the pre-industrial or pre-agricultural world, we lived in tribes. We lived in groups of 20 to 30, where the childcare was taken care of by many people other than just the biological mother and father. The nuclear family is a creation of the Industrial Revolution.
Meydanoglu: What is behind the fragmentation of nuclear families we’ve been seeing in recent years?
Spar: Family structures change when major technologies change. At a purely biological level, humans (and every species on the planet) are programmed to reproduce ourselves. For thousands of years, the best way of ensuring reproduction was for one man and one woman to come together, combine their resources and protect the child. The nuclear family made sense in an agrarian economy, just as the tribe made sense when we were in a hunting-gathering society and were at risk of predators.
As we move into the 21st century and the future, we don’t even need sex anymore to produce a child. So the idea of the heterosexual monogamous unit being the only way to produce and protect a child just isn’t true. Women in many cases can have and raise children on their own, and gay men can use technology to produce a child who is genetically related to one of the men. They may even soon be able to produce children who are related to both men. People may choose to parent children with one partner or one set of partners, and then have their romantic and sexual lives with very different partners. We can now reproduce ourselves through this kaleidoscope of family forms thanks to advances in reproductive technologies. The traditional, heteronormative nuclear family is not going away, but it won’t be the only family form.
Meydanoglu: What excites you, and what worries you about this transition?
Spar: For many people, this is an expansion of choice. It’s a liberation for many people to live in family structures that may be more suited to their preferences. Every time you get an expansion of choice, it’s a good thing. We now have the ability to create a technology-enhanced utopia, where everybody’s living in a way that feels more comfortable to them; where we’re all living longer, we have miraculous medicines, and we’re not working as hard. But unless we put the policies in place to channel these trends in a productive way, we are likely to see massive increases in inequality, and could very easily wind up in the neo-feudal dystopia that science fiction predicted better than anybody else.
Meydanoglu: How else are new technologies shifting the fabric of our society?
Spar: Just as it appears that we are programmed as a species to reproduce, we also seem to be programmed to work. We are builders who get fulfilment from work. This raises the question: As robots and artificial intelligence start to take over more and more jobs, or the pandemic forces people out of work, how will we find purpose? I think that’s a question that we really need to start wrestling with because we’re already seeing the impact of this shift popping up around the world. In the United States, and to some extent in Europe, as people become unemployed, we’re seeing a level of frustration that goes way beyond their economic frustration. If you don’t have a job, and you don’t have a family, which is often the case, people start reverting to tribalism and nationalism in search for a different kind of purpose.
Meydanoglu: How do we address this?
Spar: We can fix these problems with things like redistributive tax systems, building stronger unions and regulating monopolies – I worry a lot about the concentration of power in the tech sector, in particular. We also need to start looking at our tax code, which in the United States is essentially still based in the 1950s assumption that people are in a heterosexual marriage. We have to look at parental leave: giving somebody two weeks, paid maternity in the US makes no sense. The Scandinavian countries have had really good experience with extensive family leaves for both men and women and making them mandatory. One of the best ways to address female equity is to make paternity leaves mandatory for men. It levels the playing field. So, there are clear ways to ease the transition if we can convince both firms and governments to step up.
Debora Spar is the Jaime and Josefina Chua Tiampo Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and Senior Associate Dean Business & Global Society. Her current research focuses on issues of gender and technology, and the interplay between technological change and broader social structures. Spar tackles some of these issues in her latest book, Work Mate Marry Love: How Machines Shape Our Human Destiny.
Follow @DeboraSpar on Twitter.
This piece is part of Ashoka’s series on building a Gender equal world and was edited by Hanae Baruchel for length and clarity.