When I sat down to write about parenting in the future, it suddenly hit me: Wait! In all of the science fiction I read, kids are hardly ever mentioned. Will we even have kids in centuries to come? Sure, survival of the species by reproduction is a top priority of every living creature, but there is a chance that, as we extend the human lifespan indefinitely, there won’t be room for any new people, and no biological need for them. That is, if we stay on Earth, of course.
For now, let’s assume we’re still making babies and enduring the trials of trying to mould them into viable adults. What delights does the future of parenting hold?
In the 1930’s in Brave New World Aldous Huxley described a wholly impersonal system that involved human eggs fertilized and grown in laboratory conditions into embryos that were eventually “decanted” at the proper age, after which the new babies were conditioned according to their planned status in society. To create lots of low class, low intelligence workers, a certain number of fertilized eggs were even cloned to produce many identical copies. Though not an attractive scenario, the lab-grown baby process has been used in a lot of science fiction since then (I included it in a recent manuscript myself), probably because most writers expect that, as reproductive technology continues to improve, it will eventually take over entirely from the old fashioned method, which is, let’s face it, rather hit and miss. (Fun in the beginning, but oooh the inconvenience and pain of pregnancy and delivery!)
Fully artificial reproduction and impersonal child rearing is one way things could go, but it’s based on assumptions that may not turn out to be as relevant as we think. One of those is that lots of human workers will still be needed—natural reproduction interferes too much with worker productivity, and isn’t efficient. Another is that society’s trend toward extreme self-centredness will make personal baby-making and rearing undesirable to everyone.
If we were colonizing another planet, we’d want to increase the population as quickly as conditions could support, and we’d need every worker to be maximally productive and consistently available. Here on Earth, though, as climate change shrinks our habitable coastlines and wreaks havoc on food crops, there’ll be rising pressure to reduce population. Also, as automation continues to grow, the work done by humans will be the work that has to be done by humans, increasingly service work of varying complexity. Workers will have to retrain numerous times in their lives to stay productive. Social pressure to have children will continue to subside and fewer people will have them. The ones who do will be the ones who really want to, and extended maternity/paternity leaves will be welcome as a way to spread the available work around. Far from “cranking out” babies in laboratories, we’ll probably be quite content to have much smaller numbers born to parents who really want them.
One of my sons recently elected to stay out of the workforce to be a stay-at-home dad. His wife also took a one-year maternity leave. So for the whole first year of their daughter’s life, both Mom and Dad were there to cater to her every need and whim. Only a half-century ago, there was a common opinion that you could spoil a child by rushing to its side at every whimper, that it might actually do a child good to have to wait for relief or satisfaction sometimes. According to a video I saw this week, the new opinion is that not responding right away to a child’s cries will not only result in greater aggressiveness and possibly violent tendencies when the child is older, but might also impair the development of its communication skills, since crying and smiling are pretty much a baby’s only means to communicate (and it has to know that they work). So will constant attention be a good thing or a bad thing? Time will tell. But I believe there’s a very good chance that this natural, hands-on and highly attentive method of child bearing and rearing will be the approach that becomes the norm, rather than the scary laboratory/baby farm method. That’s not to say that reproductive technology won’t figure in, but it will be to help couples who need it, not replace them.
Another son and daughter-in-law have smart watches with apps that can be used like a personal trainer, tracking all physical activity during the day and analyzing it according to effectiveness, calories burned, etc., plus offering rewards for consistent exercise. I think that such technology will be adopted very quickly for tomorrow’s kids. While numerous SF stories have predicted a future society of grossly overweight, utterly sedentary citizens parked in front of screens or amid holographic displays all day, I like to believe that, at least in the near term, we’ll see ultra-sophisticated wearable (or implantable) technology monitoring people from birth to death and urging them toward a more healthy lifestyle. Imagine a display in your child’s forearm that not only monitors everything from their physical activity to the nutrition of the food they eat, but also rewards them for sticking to healthy habits.
Pie in the sky? Maybe. But my hope is that the mind-set of preventative health care will finally gain more and more traction as technology enables it. It’s almost inevitable that brain-computer interfaces of some kind will eventually be implanted right into our heads, and such a thing implies the potential to apply electric current directly to the brain’s pleasure centres. Powerful reward motivation indeed.
So much for the basics, but what about raising kids in a world increasingly shaped by technology? Robot nannies? Communal parenting? I’ll take a look at those things in the next post, but for now let me just say, if it’s been a while since you raised your own kids, you’ll be amazed at how quickly the future is arriving!