In a recent study published in the journal Dr Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers conceptualized an experimental measure for family ideals consisting of ten family traits, a significant increase from previous studies assessing only one trait. Against the backdrop of one of the worst low-fertility periods in modern history, they recruited participants from eight low-fertility countries. They conducted a factorial survey experiment (FSE) to assess what the ideal family meant to people from different cultural contexts and institutional settings.
Their findings revealed both expected and surprising results. As expected, childlessness is a collective concern across nations and is often viewed in a bad light. However, the general idea that multiple children are preferable to a single child, two being the norm, has been shown to be a misconception. This study highlights that although some country- and culture-specific characteristics differ across nations, most family norms remain similar in industrialized countries.
Study: Family Norms in an Age of Low Fertility. Image credit: IndianFaces/Shutterstock
The changing concept of the ideal family in the modern world
The family is the basic unit of social organization, but the concept of family can mean quite different things to different respondents. Many factors unpin this observation – culture, society, religion and the media all influence the overall interpretation of the ideal family. This is evident in the world around us – today’s family landscape is radically different from that of our grandparents’ generation. While intergenerational differences in opinion are to be expected, the scale of recent demographic change is arguably unprecedented.
Entitled ‘The Second Demographic Transition (SDT)’, Lestheghe’s interpretation of van de Ka and Inglehart’s ideas postulates that value systems have fundamentally shifted, coinciding with a relatively novel focus on self-realization that has created traditional family structures in modern societies. Examples of rare include the growing popularity of single-person households and the growing prevalence of cohabitation, divorce and repartnering, and children being raised by unmarried parents and unmarried couples.
Alarmingly, one observable result of these changes is the rapid increase in low fertility rates, particularly in industrialized countries. Understanding the role of family values and norms on fertility rates in these changing times represents a first step in stabilizing the global fertility crisis and is the focus of current research. Although previous studies have explored the concept of family ideals, they suffer from a common flaw – dimensionality.
The concept of an ideal family is a multidimensional one, incorporating different characteristics (eg, ideal number of children, family versus career obligations and division of housework) with different relative contributions to observable trends (low fertility rates). Unfortunately, most studies in the field have focused on the ideal number of children (fertility ideal), a single dimension. Although this study established two children as the global norm, it is plagued by numerous potential biases and may be less accurate than believed.
“…Traditional survey questions force respondents to state a single ideal number of children (eg, one or two or three children), thus masking potential variation in the strength of such preferences…because fertility ideals or preferences are asked in direct relation to others. is not Family life dimensions, the importance of fertility cannot be established relative to other relevant family dimensions, including the division of labor within the family, career aspirations, financial resources, and the potential for extended family support.”
About the study
In the first comprehensive examination of multidimensional family characteristics across different 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) consisted of 20,141 participants from urban areas in 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 consisted of participant demographic information and completed FSE-based questionnaires Collected ages ranged from 925 to 39; 40 to 50) and gender (male or female) data were used to divide the combined national population into four groups per race. Participants were further classified based on the presence of at least one child. Each group was subjected to a separately analyzed questionnaire with questions modified to reflect the presence (or absence) of children.
FSE offers at least three advantages over traditional study methods – “First, the experimental design ensures that respondents’ characteristics are independent of the dimensions of the vignette they are asked to evaluate. Second, FSE studies ask respondents to rate vignettes that vary on multiple dimensions. This has the advantage of allowing us to test different combinations, some of which rarely occur in practice Third, the multidimensionality of the FSE reduces respondents’ concerns about providing socially desirable answers because variations across vignettes make it relatively more difficult to identify study objectives.
Questionnaire content included participants’ numerically scaled responses to the question, “How well does this describe an ideal family?” For a vignette created by randomly combining different levels of conceptual features. These characteristics include union status, family income (relative to the national average), number of children, level of respect received by the family in the community, gender roles, work-family conflict, contact (nuclear and extended family contact, measured separately), children. Savings for support (of children) and level of desired educational attainment of child(ren).
“Of the 1,440 (864 + 576) unique vignettes, 240 (144 + 96) decks (ie, questionnaire versions) were constructed with six randomly selected vignettes each. Pooling across eight countries, each vignette was rated by 84.23 (SD = 511) . ) ) 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 confirms the robustness of the results.
Statistical analysis was structured hierarchically to account for the multidimensional structure of the setting and nationality. Dependent variables were treated as continuous and a multilevel linear regression model was used to calculate and interpret the results.
Study findings and conclusions
The present study reveals that, consistent with previous work, fatherhood is one of the most valued family characteristics. However, contrary to previous literature, the analysis showed that, after the birth of the first child, the number of additional children was unnecessary for the study participants. The study highlights that parents may prefer one child to the ‘ideal’ of two children, especially when resources are scarce. Cross-referencing these results against population trend data from countries such as Norway validates their accuracy, with fertility rates significantly lower than the expected two-child-norm rate.
Country context was revealed for some dimensions, such as household income – although low-income households received low ratings regardless of respondent nationality, high-income households were not rated highly in Italy, Spain and Norway, possibly due to the high level of welfare support received in these countries. In contrast, most characteristics and their corresponding scores were indistinguishable between national groups, suggesting that education and urbanization play a stronger role in shaping norms about family than region and cultural background.