Family is a moving target. Our ideas about what constitutes a “normal” family have changed a lot since the 1960s, and there’s no reason to believe they’ll stop changing. How weird could things get? Here are nine different ideas about the future of the family.

No rigid definition exists for the “family,” and there’s no sense trying to come up with one. It’s a fluid concept, one that means different things to different people and at different times. Indeed, our sense of the family as a concept has changed over time, it and will continue to do so well into the future.

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At the same time, however, families are a microcosm of society. This puts them in a unique and challenging position; they are simultaneously the vanguard of social change, and often the target of moral outrage. For instance, anti-miscegenation laws were only finally removed from all U.S. states as late as 1967, while same-sex marriage only became legal across the U.S. last month (by comparison, Canada has allowed same-sex marriage since 2005). What’s more, we no longer talk about “broken homes,” nor do we speak disparagingly about “test tube babies” (which we refer to today as in vitro fertilization).

Looking ahead to the future, families will continue to change and adapt according to cultural, socioeconomic and technological factors. Here’s what to expect.

(1) Multiple Family Households

Statistics show that multi-generational families are on the rise, mostly because housing and other things are getting so expensive. Likewise, two or more family groups may wind up deciding to live together in a single home, to save money. (Keep in mind that families and households are two distinct things.)

Liberty Village in Toronto — not the most affordable place to live (credit: Carlos Pacheco CC BY-SA 2.0)

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And unrelated families sharing a home makes sense for all kind of reasons—and not just soaring rents. Sure, housing costs in many large urban areas are becoming increasingly untenable, and families are finding it difficult to live on their own. But also, as the old saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child; multiple families in a single household can share caring duties—a benefit to single parents or those who have to do shift work. It’s also worth pointing out that the partners in these families could remain exclusive to each other, or engage in polyamorous relationships.

There will be challenges, of course, to living in a quasi-communal multi-family household, such as getting along, respecting each other’s property, excessive noise, sharing common resources, conflicting parenting styles, and so on.

(2) Extreme Multi-generational Families

The onset of radical life extension is set to have a profound effect on family structure and intra-family dynamics. Eventually, humans will start to live well into their hundreds, and they’ll be as vibrant and healthy as when they were half their age or even younger. Some “elderly” people may even choose to have offspring during their later years, which should result in some interesting and novel scenarios.

The way of the future? Six generations of the same family in one photograph (credit: CBC)

Even just 50 years from now, children could have a chance to know their great-great grandparents. Further in the future, humans could have brothers or sisters who are centuries older or younger. It’s hard to imagine what family relations will be like when this happens, and especially how inheritances will be handled—and just imagine what family gatherings will be like over the holidays.

(3) Gender Fluidity in the Family

We are progressively moving towards a post-gendered society—and accordingly, the role of the family as a means to “uphold” traditional gender roles is gradually starting to dissipate.

As a social construct, gender is often reinforced by socialization and modeling within the family environment—but that could be changing, fast. As gender fluidity becomes more common, you could see families become mechanisms to support gender exploration and transition, rather than providing resistance.

(4) Clone Families

Assuming that human cloning can eventually be made safe and reliable, the public’s misgivings about this potential reproductive practice will probably fade. And this could lead to families in which offspring are the clones of a parental donor, or some other donor such as a grandparent, a friend—or a celebrity.

In the future, parents could raise either one or more clones of themselves, including clones derived from each partner. Depending on the scenario, siblings could be genetic duplicates of each other or their parent or both. Over time, clones could become multi-generational, so-called “clonal lines.”

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For the members of these families, it’ll be the differences in their behavior that will be more interesting and endearing than the similarities. But as Orphan Black so carefully points out — our genes aren’t everything.

(5) Robotic and Artificially Intelligent Caregivers

Films like Spike Jonze’s Her demonstrate the potential for intimate relationships between humans and artificial intelligence. But there’s no reason to believe that children — from infanthood through to adolescence — won’t form similar bonds with machines, especially if these systems are specifically programmed for that purpose.

Future children will interact with their surrogate AI parents any number of ways. Using computers, hand-held devices, or some futuristic interface, they’ll be supervised, taught how to read and do math, play games, and be entertained. A tidy summary of the day’s events will be sent to the parents, along with a progress report. The level of engagement is sure to be so intimate and intense that the child (and even the parents) will consider the AI to be part of the family.

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Eventually, human caregivers could be replaced outright by machines, but it’ll be some time yet before we see robot nannies in our households.

(6) Space Colonist Families

By mid-century, we should have a colonial presence on Mars, and possibly the Moon. These habitats will likely be small and rudimentary, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that some colonists will want to bring their families along, or start new ones. Eventually, we’ll start to see the first generation of humans who have never been to Earth.

Eventually, humans will want to embark on long-term missions to the stars. Given the extreme distances involved, they’ll have to develop so-called generation ships. These interstellar arks will travel below the speed of light, and because it could take centuries or even millennia for these travelers to reach their destination, the original occupants will likely age and die (advances in radical life extension notwithstanding), leaving their offspring to continue the mission. Should such a scenario transpire, the human occupants would likely continue to evolve, both biologically and culturally.

(7) Post-Cryonic Families

Over a dozen families have signed up at Alcor Life Extension Foundation, the world’s leading cryonics facility. We have no idea if people frozen in vats of liquid nitrogen will ever be brought back to life, but the possibility raises some interesting scenarios.

Should their dreams of immortality come true, these “reanimated” families would literally be reunited after death. Given that some family members will have been separated by death for many years, their reunions will be particularly emotional and profound. But because Alcor will likely exercise a last-in, first-out policy (LIFO) when choosing who to re-animate, some family members may have to wait a while before all family members are pulled out of cold storage. Once reunited, however, these post-cryonic families will work together as they integrate into their futuristic new society.

(8) Mind-linked Families

Advances in neuroscience could irrevocably change the family unit as we know it today.

(Sense8)

Imagine a family connected via mind-to-mind communication. It would be like Wachowski’s Sense8 TV series in which the characters are mentally and emotionally connected, capable of communicating, sensing, and using each other’s knowledge, skills, and language. Mind-melded families would be greater than the sum of its parts. Of course, an assembly of interconnected minds need not be limited to just family members; friends and colleagues could join in as well, leading to highly interconnected and intimate communities that would exhibit very hive-like behavior. This could very well represent the future family.

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A recent breakthrough by researchers at the Center for Neuroengineering at Duke University shows this future may be close than we think. In their experiment, the researchers connected the brains of monkeys with electrodes, allowing them to coordinate their thoughts to carry out basic tasks, like pattern recognition and moving a robotic limb. Remarkably, similar work has even been done in humans (here and here), though less invasively.

(9) Virtual Families

Imagine a mind-uploaded family, or a family comprised of emulated brains (called ems) that reside and interact within a powerful supercomputer. These virtual beings would live as avatars within elaborate simulated environments. But because the constraints of the analog world won’t apply in cyberspace (whether these constraints be biological or physical), virtual families may not have the same needs or motivations for staying together as a single, related unit.

(Credit: Second Life/HyacintheLuynes CC BY-SA 3.0)

Indeed, in a world comprised of 1’s and 0’s, things could start to get really weird. Depending on the resources available, these digital families could consist of duplicates that run into the hundreds or thousands of copied individuals. Many of these ems could go on to form new and independent family units, particularly if their source code starts to deviate and drift. What’s more, new virtual minds born as babies may become scarce as well-established and successful ems dominate. The concept of the family, at least we know it, could very well come to an end.


Contact the author at george@io9.com and @dvorsky. Top image Orphan Black.