Family: Delayed Life Transitions
The The Vanier Institute of the Family maintains a series of papers exploring Contemporary Family Trends. In Jean Vanier: Community Belonging I briefly explored Jean Vanier's important ideas surrounding the intersection of community and belonging as he presents them in his book Becoming Human. The various Contemporary Family Trends described reveal that the idea of family is quite diverse and is intimately linked to its environment. A family is more than a set of biological connections; a family is a form of felt meaning. In Vanier's terms, a family is a kind of community that is nurtured by ideas about belonging. In this sense, family is an environment for deep communication. We may even think about a family as a kind of environment for learning, and perhaps even a network of connections and associations.
When we think about our own family, what is it that comes to mind? Is there an ideal sense of family that we seek to attain? I suspect that it is not possible to generalize answers to these questions. With respect to learning, the influence of family and its effects on family members seems to go largely unnoticed. At the same time, the dynamics of a family have a clear and intimate connection with learning...
Families and Delayed Life TransitionsThe standard notion of a life transition in the article Delayed Life Transitions is summarized as follows:
Cohorts born between the world wars experienced a transition to adulthood that was compressed into a relatively short period of completing formal education, entering the labour force, leaving home, establishing a nuclear household and having a first child.
- Delayed Life Transitions: Highlights
All families evolve in unique kinds of social, cultural and technological environments. In today's terms, we might think of a family as a kind of network, or perhaps even a network-learning environment. While there are variations on the pattern of living described above, it seems to me that it is relatively commonplace and can serve as one possible way to explore life transitions. If we introduce delays, then, we are changing the durations associated with the phrase, "compressed into a relatively short period."
The underlying premise of the article is that new technologies can have dramatic effects on the nature of the family unit. For example, a technology that makes pregnancies possible at age 60 introduces a delayed life transition:
In looking forward to the year 2100 as editor of La démographie québécoise: enjeux du XXIe siècle, Piché proposes that there will be at least as much change as we have seen in the past 100 years (Piché and Le Bourdais, 2003). He proposes that technology may make pregnancies common at age 60. In his case, he says that it would have been good to have a first child at age 45, given career priorities, and all the work that needed to be done when he was a young professional. While advances in technology allowing further delays in childbearing can certainly be envisaged, might one also envisage a world that was less centred on work, and where family had more priority? Rather than adjusting reproduction to suit the needs of production, might we not also make adjustments to benefit reproduction? For instance, is it always important to maximize the number of people working, at the expense of family time and leisure?
- Delayed Life Transitions: Trends and Implications
The notion of introducing a technology that delayed childbirth in order to increase worker productivity is offensive in the sense that worker productivity, and therefore economics, are given priority over childbearing and family. Like the author, I find this notion inept and frankly quite stupid. However, are we not already in that "delayed" space in some ways? Perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to it as a "disturbed" or "fragmented" space. While people still do have children during their (supposed) years of highest production, these children often spend more time in daycare centres than family environments. The parents are often driven by a two-income lifestyle that fragments their family time into discrete pieces. The idea of quality time it seems to me is really a retrieval of the desire to belong, and possibly an excuse for not belonging enough.
While the negative side of delayed childbearing via technological intervention is clear, have we not already created a disturbed and highly fragmented space for childrearing?
Life Transitions: Questioning the Underlying Assumptions of LifestyleOne of the most important things that Delayed Life Transitions does is brings some underlying lifestyle assumptions to the foreground. The assumption presented here is focused on the compression across being educated - finding work - leaving home - establishing a nuclear family - and having the first child. Of course, there are numerous kinds of influences that cause trends in this pattern so there is no one way to proceed through it. But if we were lifestyle designers, we might take these underlying assumptions and alter them.
The stronger negatives are at the societal level, because delayed early life transitions bring lower fertility and population aging. Accommodations to population aging are more complex, including promoting more economic productivity at older ages, partly by reducing the benefits of retirement without leaving stranded those who are unable to work for health or other reasons. Population aging affects a number of policy questions ranging from pensions and other transfers, to education and labour market issues. Hicks (2003b) argues in particular that we need to introduce greater life course flexibility in our systems of education and work.
- Delayed Life Transitions: Trends and Implications
Retirement: Plunging Into New Activities questions the underlying assumptions made about retirement in much the same way. There is an assumption that retirement is something that happens after work. Or, more to the point, that retirement is something that happens only after work. Often, assumptions like these lie hidden in the background of our daily activities - an invisible ground in our minds. When they are brought to our attention we place ourselves in a position to explore, articulate and potentially design new alternatives.
The idea of promoting greater lifecourse flexibility in work and education is one that makes a great deal of sense to me. When we step outside of our own social and cultural ideologies, there is no meaningful basis to assume that we all must get educated - find a career - retire in the prescribed manner.
Family BelongingIf we belong to a family, what precisely does that mean? How is it that economic progress supplants family life? Should ideas like delayed life transitions be filtered through meaningful ideas about belonging? It seems that family is something we try to fit in - to schedule - to "balance" with work. The basic problem here, to my thinking, is that the underlying priorities in life are misguided. That is, we have a tendency to place material progress above family belonging. Perhaps it should be work that is the something we try to fit in - to schedule - to "balance" with family.
In A Sacred Balance David Suzuki describes the possibility that the brain is really a storyteller. He refers to this capacity as a neural narrative (see Brain: Narratives, Neural Pathways & Experience). He states that these narratives can become "a story [that] has lost its meaning, its purpose and its ability to touch and inform." With respect to our natural environment, it is clear that notions of material progress bias our neural narratives, our stories. Perhaps much the same can be said about family and material progress. It may be that the stories that have become physically encoded into our brains require, what Richard Restak refers to as rewiring (see also Brain: Narratives, Neural Pathways & Experience).
In the end it we are questioning is it is we want to belong to. Belonging, as an end unto itself, is not always productive or beneficial. We can learn to belong to people, places, and things in the presence or absence of love. It is the character and personality of belonging that matters. If we want to belong to a family in the sense that Jean Vanier describes belonging then by default it is an act of unconditional love.