Was The Nuclear Family A Mistake

April 6, 2020

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.”

These families had great resilience and helped develop socialization:

“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.

In Support of Key Workers

April 6, 2020


British graphic artist Craig Oldham has produced this poster in support of all the workers continuing to deliver essential services through this virus crisis.  He notes that these now-essential workers are often the lowest paid and the least considered.

Thanks to Creative Review.

The Footprint of Highways

April 5, 2020

The activists of the City of Vancouver are rightly proud of keeping highways at bay, more or less, in our city.

The always reliable Visual Capitalist has a feature today on the cost certain US cities paid for allowing the growth of highways. They share bird’s eye views of Oakland (1946-2020), Providence (1955-2020), Miami (1961-2020), and Cincinnati (1955-2020), which were swept along in the highways movement:



They note:

“Since 1987, there have been more than 20 urban highway segments removed from downtown cores, neighborhoods and waterfronts, mostly in North America. The pace of removals has picked up significantly and an additional 10 highways are now planned for removal in the United States. During the COVID-19 pandemic, American cities have seen their traffic plummet. Rush-hour trips into cities are taking nearly half the time while some are not even commuting at all. While this situation is likely temporary, it is offering a moment for reflection of how cities operate and whether the car should be at the center of urban planning.”

Many of us hope that Vancouver lives up to its historic role, cancels the demolition of the viaducts, and ignores the call to build a brutal urban highway — in all but name — in its place.

The Sensual Dadaist

April 4, 2020

A long time ago, probably in the mid-1960s, I found the Dadaists much to my taste. Of that group, perhaps Jean (or Hans) Arp has stayed with me longest. He was the only Dadaist to produce truly graceful artworks in contrast to the wrecking crew as some have dubbed the other anarchists.

Self portrait, about 1922

In an article for its online magazine, Christie’s describes Arp’s work as “playful, ambiguous, sensuous” and “alluring.”

“The highest 25 prices for Arp pieces at auction have all been realised in the past 15 years. According to Didier Hess, two types of work are the most sought-after. One are his bas-reliefs from the 1920s, which are rare and bear witness to Arp’s seminal role in the development of Surrealism.  The other, of course, are his biomorphic sculptures executed in prestigious materials such as white marble or black granite — and characterised by their purity of line and immaculate polished surface.”

A fine example of the latter is Demeter, created in 1961 and sold at auction in 2018 for $5.825,000.

Artwork: © DACS 2020


The Christie’s article is in advance of a coming sale of an Arp.  Selon Les Lois Du Hasard — a wood relief, 11 ½ x 17 ½ x 1 3/8 in., executed in 1951 in an edition of 3 — is expected to sell for about $55,000:


Jean Arp died in 1966.

Supporting Local Stores Goes So Much Further

April 4, 2020

As anyone who reads my history pieces, and especially anyone who has read, The Drive, will understand how important I believe local newspapers are — both for us today and for the historians of the future.  It is with the utmost regret, therefore, that I note the passing of the Vancouver Courier.

The Courier is having to close because of the lack of local advertising that supports its work:

“The small, independent businesses in our community that are under economic pressure to shut their doors or reduce services are the same ones that have supported our coverage and made it possible to deliver free, local news to you. Their significant drop in advertising revenue for our publication and lack of quick, available government funding means that we have been forced to make the difficult decision to cease both print and online coverage.”

Our loyal support of local merchants is one of the reasons our neighbourhood is usually so vibrant and alive.  The current retail shutdown is not of our making. However, as we can now plainly see, lack of that support (for whatever reason) has even wider ramifications than deserted sidewalks and empty stores.

My fingers are crossed that the Courier‘s closure will be just temporary, but I will sorely miss their journalism in the weeks ahead..


Nobels For DeLillo and Irving

April 4, 2020

I am of the opinion that the next two American Nobel Literature prizewinners should be John Irving and Don DeLillo.  I’ve thought that for a while, and so I was delighted to find an essay by Gerald Howard at Bookforum.com urging on the selection of DeLillo.

The failure of the Academy to select Philip Roth before he died was a constant complaint in literary circles.  It was described as equal to their failure to recognize Nabokov, Joyce, or Borges.  However, writes Howard:

“[E]ven while Roth was alive I regarded DeLillo as the greatest living American writer, and now the matter is not remotely debatable. Roth, of course, was a highly visible public figure and a shrewd manager of his own career and reputation, while DeLillo, though by no means the Pynchonian recluse he was once mistaken for, shuns the spotlight and has no interest in the wages of fame. To the extent the matter of a DeLillo Nobel is discussed, the consensus seems to be that yeah, he probably should get it, but he won’t because, well . . . he’s too cerebral, he stays under the radar.”


“By every metric that we use to measure literary greatness—including overall achievement, scope and variety of subject matter, striking and fully realized style, duration of career, originality and formal innovation, widespread influence here and abroad, production of masterpieces, consistency of excellence, pertinence of themes, density of critical commentary, and dignity in the conduct of a literary career—Don DeLillo, now eighty-three, scores in the highest possible percentile.”

Howard writes well of the various reasons DeLillo deserves the Prize.  He concludes by noting

“the dignity and nobility that he has brought to his vocation as a novelist. He may be the last totally free man in American literature. He eschews almost all the encumbrances and strategies of a postmodern literary career. His public appearances at readings and panels are sparse … [But] he has in fact given enough interviews over the decades to fill an entire book of them, and in those interviews he speaks of his personal history, his intentions and obsessions as a novelist, his working habits, and, especially, the larger place of the writer in our culture with epigrammatic wit and unshowy eloquence. While his oft-repeated mantra is Joyce’s motto “Silence, exile, and cunning,” Don DeLillo has taken care to be perfectly understood.”

I agree entirely with Howard on DeLillo’s literary importance, on the power of his prose, and on his insights into post-war America.  Given DeLillo’s age, I agree too that he should be the next Nobel winner.  But once that happens, I’ll be leading the charge for John Irving.

The Drive’s First Closures

April 3, 2020

In the last Changes on the Drive report, I noted that it is too early to tell the long term damage the covid-19 crisis will inflict on local businesses.  However, we have now heard of the first closure in this period.

The five-year old Cabrito Restaurant at 2270 Commercial will officially close this weekend.  The tone of the press announcement suggests that the closure was going to happen with or without the virus. The virus, however, has disrupted any plans for a big send-off party.


When I was doing the Changes walk last Tuesday, I noticed that Triple A Grocery at 1626 Commercial had closed. When I passed by yesterday I saw that they have actually boarded up the place.  I hope that is just a temporary situation.