No relatives

I've been working on a piece about demographics recently (more TK), and one of the great pleasures was interviewing Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute. Mr Eberstadt is one of those rarest of creatures: a scholar at a think tank with a strong ideological identification, who is nonetheless greatly respected by people all over the ideological spectrum.

His op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last month, which I was just re-reading, is a case in point. It raises a question about China that I haven't seen phrased quite this way before:

In Beijing, Shanghai and other parts of China, extreme sub-replacement fertility has already been in effect for over a generation. If this continues for another generation, we will see the emergence of a new norm: a "4-2-1 family" composed of four grandparents, but only two children, and just one grandchild. The children in these new family structures will have no brothers or sisters, no uncles or aunts, and no cousins. Their only blood relatives will be their ancestors.

It is no secret that China is already a "low trust society": Personal and business transactions still rely heavily upon guanxi, the network of personal relations largely demarcated by family ties. What exactly will provide the "social capital" to undergird commercial and economic development in a future China where "families" are, increasingly, little more than atomized households and isolated individuals?

Having grown up with the kind of family where the copious extended relatives sometimes seem slightly surplus to requirements (Save the date: Fortieth annual Taylor Family Reunion is now set for July 17th, 2011!) I find it hard to wrap my mind around the idea of no sibling, no aunts or uncles, no cousins . . . no great aunts asking your grandmother in a stage whisper when you are going to find yourself a husband . . . umm, okay, well, it still sounds awful.

But what does it mean to be in a society where, essentially, every tie is voluntary? Do the ties that bind you to your parents get stronger--or weaker, because there is so little cross-reinforcement? Does trust in strangers grow, or erode because people get no practice in giving without immediate compensation? And without great aunts to attend your wedding and ask your grandmother in a stage whisper why you couldn't find someone who doesn't drink so much, who will support China's nascent chafing dish industry?