In the Atlantic, I find a really interesting essay by David Brooks entitled The Nuclear Family Was A Mistake which traces the history of the family in America over the past few hundred years. He concludes that “[t]he family structure we’ve held up as the cultural ideal for the past half century has been a catastrophe for many,” and we need to find a better way.
He describes the early American settler households, extended families linked to family businesses and farms.
“Steven Ruggles, a professor of history and population studies at the University of Minnesota, calls these “corporate families”—social units organized around a family business. According to Ruggles, in 1800, 90 percent of American families were corporate families. Until 1850, roughly three-quarters of Americans older than 65 lived with their kids and grandkids. Nuclear families existed, but they were surrounded by extended or corporate families.”
“If a mother dies, siblings, uncles, aunts, and grandparents are there to step in. If a relationship between a father and a child ruptures, others can fill the breach … Multiple adults teach children right from wrong, how to behave toward others, how to be kind.”
This form of the household survived for a long period. “According to Ruggles, the prevalence of extended families living together roughly doubled from 1750 to 1900, and this way of life was more common than at any time before or since.” However, industrialisation and urbanism eventually worked their magic. As the younger generation moved to the cities, they were distanced from their families both geographically and socially.
“The decline of multigenerational cohabiting families exactly mirrors the decline in farm employment … A young man on a farm might wait until 26 to get married; in the lonely city, men married at 22 or 23. From 1890 to 1960, the average age of first marriage dropped by 3.6 years for men and 2.2 years for women … By the 1920s, the nuclear family with a male breadwinner had replaced the corporate family as the dominant family form. By 1960, 77.5 percent of all children were living with their two parents, who were married, and apart from their extended family.”
The old corporate family was replaced in many places by a new form of “extended family” — that of friends and neighbours; coalitions of unrelated nuclear families. And for a short while, this proved a stable format. It was an historical moment delivered by the growing economy of the 50s and 60s, and by a relegation (after the freedom of wartime) of the woman back into the house. It could not last.
“When we have debates about how to strengthen the family, we are thinking of the two-parent nuclear family, with one or two kids, probably living in some detached family home on some suburban street. We take it as the norm, even though this wasn’t the way most humans lived during the tens of thousands of years before 1950, and it isn’t the way most humans have lived during the 55 years since 1965. Today, only a minority of American households are traditional two-parent nuclear families and only one-third of American individuals live in this kind of family. That 1950–65 window was not normal …”
“[T]he sheltered family of the 1950s was supplanted by the stressed family of every decade since. Some of the strains were economic. Starting in the mid-’70s, young men’s wages declined, putting pressure on working-class families in particular. The major strains were cultural. Society became more individualistic and more self-oriented. People put greater value on privacy and autonomy. A rising feminist movement helped endow women with greater freedom to live and work as they chose.”
Societal norms changed and marriage, the family, had to change along with them:
“Over the past two generations, people have spent less and less time in marriage—they are marrying later, if at all, and divorcing more … Americans today have less family than ever before. From 1970 to 2012, the share of households consisting of married couples with kids has been cut in half. In 1960, according to census data, just 13 percent of all households were single-person households. In 2018, that figure was 28 percent.”
There is also an economic class system in operation.
“In 1970, the family structures of the rich and poor did not differ that greatly. Now there is a chasm between them … As Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, once put it, ‘It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged’.”
And why should we worry about the decline of the traditional family and its supports?
“The people who suffer the most from the decline in family support are the vulnerable—especially children. In 1960, roughly 5 percent of children were born to unmarried women. Now about 40 percent are. The Pew Research Center reported that 11 percent of children lived apart from their father in 1960. In 2010, 27 percent did. Now [only] about half of American children will spend their childhood with both biological parents. … According to a 2003 study that Andrew Cherlin cites, 12 percent of American kids had lived in at least three “parental partnerships” before they turned 15.”
And consider single men — “Extended families provided men with the fortifying influences of male bonding and female companionship. Today many American males spend the first 20 years of their life without a father and the next 15 without a spouse” — and seniors — “‘elder orphans,’ with no close relatives or friends to take care of them.”
“When you put everything together, we’re likely living through the most rapid change in family structure in human history. The causes are economic, cultural, and institutional all at once … The structures that once supported the family no longer exist” as Jane Jacobs wrote in 2004.
And that is just the first half of his essay. In the second part, he looks in depth at alternative arrangements. In the end he is, I believe, cautiously optimistic:
“The two-parent family, meanwhile, is not about to go extinct. For many people, especially those with financial and social resources, it is a great way to live and raise children. But a new and more communal ethos is emerging, one that is consistent with 21st-century reality and 21st-century values.”
Brook’s essay is a long and involved read but it is well worth the time to explore one of the key institutions of human life from the past to the present and into the future. Put on the cocoa and settle down to an absorbing read.