Why the nuclear family needs to die, in order for us to live

The concept of a nuclear family is relatively recent – it is first mentioned in The Oxford English Dictionary  in 1925 – and refers to a household that consists of a mother, father and their children.  It is recent because the cost of establishing a household has been historically very high and young couples simply could not afford to do so.  It was the economic ability to live separately that then enabled the significant social change of splitting up the extended family.  History Future Now believes that the nuclear family is a historical aberration and ultimately doomed to fail.

Extended family is historically and geographically the norm

In many parts of the world today the extended family remains the norm. Most families in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and parts of Southern Europe live in households that are multi generational in their make up, with grandparents, parents and children all living under the same roof.  In some countries, such as Iraq, the extended family concept is so broad that the marriage of first cousins is encouraged, keeping the wealth and the family even closer together.

In the West, if you go as far back as the late Roman Republic and the early Roman Empire the paterfamilias concept extended not just to all of the immediate family members living in a household, but also to a vast retinue of slaves, freedmen and clients.

The break up of the extended family in the West was triggered by the the Industrial Revolution, which was a major driver of internal and external migrations.  Young men and women would leave their family households and go into temporary lodgings near to their place of work. Eventually they would marry and set up a home away from their extended families.

We are seeing the same pattern occurring in countries like China today, where millions of young Chinese from the central and western parts of China have left their hometowns and villages to seek jobs in factories along the coast.  Many households are neither extended families nor nuclear families, but rather single dwellings or group dormitories, with a completely different set of social rules and norms.

The impact of the Great Recession on families

Interestingly, the decline of jobs in the West, due to the Great Recession and a general trend towards outsourcing jobs to lower cost countries, robotics,  automation and software,  has resulted in an increase in the number of people living in extended families.  The number of multi-generational households in the US shot up from 2007 to 2009, according to a October 2011 report by the Pew Research Centre.  It observes that:

Without public debate or fanfare, large numbers of Americans enacted their own anti-poverty program in the depths of the Great Recession: They moved in with relatives. This helped fuel the largest increase in the number of Americans living in multi-generational households in modern history. From 2007 to 2009, the total spiked from 46.5 million to 51.4 million.

Living in a multi-generational household appears to be a financial lifeline for many. Although their adjusted incomes overall are lower, the poverty rate among people in multi-generational households is substantially smaller than for those in other households—11.5% vs. 14.6% in 2009, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data.

Moreover, the potential benefits of living in multi-generational households are greatest for the groups that have been most affected by the Great Recession. Among the unemployed, the poverty rate in 2009 was 17.5% for those living in multi-generational households, compared with 30.3% for those living in other households.

The statistics from 2009 to 2012 are not yet available, but it is likely that the percentage has increased significantly since 2009.

The nuclear family is unsustainable economically

Much of the analysis and press about the re-emergence of the extended family in the West focuses on the fact that it is expensive to live apart and how living together is cheaper for everybody.  The implication is that once the economy gets moving again, people will go back to their old ways and extended family units will split apart.

History Future Now is not so sure.

The decline of the extended family was mirrored by the simultaneous increase in the size of government in order to provide the services that were once handled by the extended family.  Essentially big government has replaced the role of the extended family in many societies today.  Since big government is no longer affordable, the nuclear family will no longer be affordable either.  Here are four examples where a move to living in extended families would help reduce costs and reduce the size of government.

Childcare.  The government currently provides childcare for young families.  This is in the form of funding for nursery placements for pre school age children.  This is expensive, but arguably helpful for the economy as it frees more parents to enter the work force, or to remain in the workforce.  In an extended family, childcare is provided by a combination of grandparents and parents.  This is good for young people as they can develop relationships with adults other than their parents and good for old people as spending time with young people keeps them active.

Retirement homes.  The government currently pays for retirement homes – old people’s homes – for people who are retired and are unable to live on their own.  This is expensive, but arguably helpful for the economy as it frees up adult children from having to look after their parents, enabling them to remain in the workforce.  In an extended family old people can live at home for a much longer period until they get sick or are unable to do anything for themselves. This saves money for the government and is better for the older people.

Pensions. The government currently provides pensions for its retired citizens.  This is expensive and takes money from the existing workforce in the form of taxes and hands it to retired people in the form of benefits.  Given the shrinking number of people in the workforce due to demographics and fewer jobs, this burden is increasingly large for the existing workforce.  If people lived in extended families the cost of housing and living would be lower.  This would mean that government pensions could be smaller and still enable retired people to live comfortable lives.

Unemployment and housing benefits. The government currently provides benefits for people who are unemployed and housing for those who are in need of housing.  This is expensive.  If people lived in extended families housing benefits would not be necessary and the reduced cost of living due to being in shared family accommodation would mean that unemployment benefits could be lower and still enable unemployed people to live without falling below the poverty line.

A fall in GDP would be a good thing

The basic measurement of a country’s economic well being is Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  We talk about GDP per capita (or its cousin Gross National Product -GNP)  and growth in GDP and think that the higher both numbers are the better off we will be.  The problem with GDP is that all it measures is money changing hands in an economy.  If you pay for childcare that has an impact on GDP. If your parents look after your children while you are at work there is no impact on GDP.  If you divorce, sell your house, and buy two new houses and furnishings GDP goes up, but it is hard to argue that this has been a good thing for society.

People living in nuclear families and as singletons are great for GDP as they need lots of services to be provided by other people as it is impossible to live completely on your own.  The number of purchased services  required is huge and range from  builders, plumbers, painters, dog walkers and fast food all the way to therapists and cleaners.  Other services are provided by the government, as noted above.  If more people lived in extended families you should expect a significant drop in the GDP of a country.  If you are a politician who has pledged to boost GDP and employment, promoting extended families will not get you there.

Governments in the West are heavily indebted and as discussed in a previous article there is no real way out, with the exception of debt jubilees (or defaults) and hyperinflation.  But even if the debt disappeared, the underlying problem remains – living outside extended families is enormously expensive and there are not enough good jobs to pay for the way of life that we have become used to. 

The great irony that many people are realising, however, is that they are working in order to pay for the services that are provided by non family members.  If the extended family provided a lot of those services then they would not need to work as long hours or earn such a high income to pay for them.

There is hope

While some people cant stand their in laws, parents, or kids, for the vast bulk of society the extended family is a wonderful thing.  However,  it will take time to readjust to living together.  There will be friction as adult children and their parents work out how to live together with mutual respect.

It is just worth remembering that for the past 70,000 years of human history we have lived very successfully in extended families and it is only in the last 100 years that we have done anything different. A brave politician (I know a number of you read this) would go against the prevailing trends and would advocate extended family friendly policies.

There is reason to think that we can adjust.  There is hope.

 

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  • http://twitter.com/robpatrob/status/254273214107234304/ Robert Paterson (@robpatrob)

    Why the nuclear family needs to die, in order for us to live – History, Future. Now.: http://t.co/xBswtZRT

  • Erin Lin

    I suppose each family is different. The origins of family must have evolved from needs of protection, feeding, etc. in the astropithical age. After all animals seem to need it up to a certain age.
    Posted by Erin Lin

  • http://twitter.com/tristanfischer/status/254472155260141568/ Tristan Fischer (@tristanfischer)

    Saturday Read. The nuclear family needs big government to work. But we can’t afford big government. What to do? Read on http://t.co/AF20ZQxp

  • Giorgos Christoforou

    If you divorce, sell your house, and buy two new houses and furnishings GDP goes up, but it is hard to argue that this has been a good thing for society.

    I bet it is a good thing as far as there is money flow in the current economic model.
    The same goes for the “Casino” policy: it might bring money through taxing and tourism benefits but the social impact it has through probable divorces, personal economic defaults, etc, is huge. Yet, it can boost the GDP up so that the social impact is seemingly negligible. It is a matter of choosing how humane the system under which you are living, is.

    In the end, I think that we are more than just numbers.
    Posted by Giorgos Christoforou

    • Tristan Fischer

      Fully agree.

  • Walter Bazzini

    Those who are poor or falling behind and need to make ends meet, whether for general day-to-day operations or caring for children, the elderly, sick, etc., will gravitate toward this concept (or anti-concept) by nature – and find it to actually be a positive thing beyond just for the sake of survival. Those who are wealthy will find it a quaint idea and continue to live apart, in many cases in multiple dwellings belonging to the same nuclear family. When you can jet from one personal home to another (“Long weekend at the Vail house, dear?”) on a whim, you will. Those of the middle and upper-middle, who can still afford to, will continue to live in suburbia and burn up the miles and energy. Few who can afford to not will adopt this concept voluntarily. It’s been hard wired and conditioned into our psyches for decades now, and will be extremely difficult to reverse – particularly when Big Retail & Marketing and all the trickle-up economics that goes therewith would rather sell two of something than one.
    Posted by Walter Bazzini

  • Ovidio Graziano

    The article is talking mainly about those societies (I think of the US and UK mainly) that relied heavily on debt to sustain themselves and their standards of living – THAT was unsustainable and as a consequence, people had to move back to parents, or studying in the home city universities, etc. No rocket science to me – quite predictable to be fair.
    I come from Italy and I grew up exactly in the way the article is suggesting newer generations should grow up.

    I am thinking right now of all the students here in the UK that are beginning the university being charged 9K a year. They will finish the course of their studies with a debt of 40K to pay back. Is this sustainable? When they’ll buy a property, how much the total debt is going to be for this generation? An entire life spent to repay back debt…Will they ever manage to get rid of it? Have you ever wondered why this is happening? What is the government trying to achieve here?
    Posted by Ovidio Graziano

  • Adrian Horodniceanu

    I suggest also that each family will get a piece of land and start growing some vegetables and fruits in a home graden . It can keep the women home and let the men go to work in the plants to manufacture automobiles for the more advanced country. They may keep a cow or two and have their own milk and cheese .
    In this way we can stop building roads and railroads as the need of transportation will be less , so the government expenses will be lower.
    The problem is that we will have to stop suplying birth control as the need of working hands will increase in each family farm , so we will better promote the religious views to make sure people do not use them.

    This idea sounds ridiculous . Somebody is playing with numbers without considering the actual meaning of them and the wider implication of them.
    Just a small example in an extended family the people will not travel so much so the airtravel, the hosting and retaurants industry will collapse . Those people will start to do what ? Grow vegetables in their backyard or make software to manage extended families ?
    This guy suffers of nostalgy or naivity or both.
    Posted by Adrian Horodniceanu

    • Robert Paterson

      So what is your alternative?

  • James Vaughn

    The “Nuclear Family” is a somewhat silly unit concept (a 1950′s extrapolation of quanta to human societal organization) that is specifically a father, mother, and two children. If people could limit themselves to two children and both parents were to accept parenting responsibilities we would not be facing the overwhelming resource, political, and economic challenges we have now.
    Posted by James Vaughn

  • Jean-Pierre Simon

    I will stick to the “nuclear family”, because Economy is not all. The family is the cement of our society and the reason it has survived so far. Fix the society with more family values, e.g. less greed and more sharing, and you will solve a lot of our problems.

  • http://twitter.com/LouiseCook12/status/255203845620260864/ @LouiseCook12

    Why the nuclear family needs to die, in order for us to live – History, Future. Now. http://t.co/gtWxjuus

  • Diana Fischer

    The economics of living in different parts of the world from your family are huge as is the personal loss of not being with them. I love in Canada and my son and his four children live in England, so he has to either bring five people to Canada to see me or I have to go to England to see him. I am going to England this Christmas, but I have to work to live, even though I have a small income besides what I make at my job as a dog trainer. The cost for me to go there, is quite large, as I have to pay for someone to take care of my parrot, which will cost me $750 for the time I am away. Add the air fare and spending money when I get there it adds up to $3000 for ten days. This is one months pay to me. If we lived in the same city or better still in the same house, I could cover all my own personal needs with my income, and allow my daughter-in law to work as an architect, thus their family income would increase tremendously. I could take care of the children, and all of us would have a far better life. I could follow my other hobbies while the children were at school, and even afford to pay for a cleaning lady to come in. They could travel on their own at times with me at home and I could also travel when they took vacation.

    My ex husband who now lives in Spain the father of my son just broke his hip and my son had to spend a week in Spain to help get him sorted out. This also cost my son money, but his wife had just returned from a one thousand mile bike ride for charity, and she was injured and exhausted, if I had been living in their house, I could have taken over her duties while she recovered. This is an example of how living apart from one’s family really does not benefit any of them and that living together is a far better and happier soloution for all of them. There is strength in numbers. I recently had a terrible accident when my dog bit my finger off, and if I hadn’t had my daughter living around the corner would have lost two weeks pay for work I could not have done without her. So emotionally and economiclally it makes sense to either live with one’s children or around the corner.

  • John C

    I have read the extended family document on your blog… don’t need to subscribe…simply not enough time…….. but the nuclear family debate is interesting.

    Economically of course it makes sense…always has done, always will. The old look after the young, and the young look after the old. Worked like that for millennium and still does.

    What has happened however in the past few years is the explosion of the cult of youth.

    Right or wrong we have moved from a society where experience and a long term view was valued, to a time when decisions are rapid, and short termism is rampant.

    This in its turn means that traditional values of age and experience have pretty much been thrown out of the window. Some cultures retain it….China, for example, but not for much longer. Some professions retain it….but not for long – we all go to the internet before we go to the GP.

    At the other end of the scale families are delaying having children. My generation kids……. in your early 20′s. Now kids in your 30′s.

    So the challenge is not to bring back the nuclear family as a glorified baby-sitting service and elderly care system, because that is simply not going to happen.

    As I read the article it struck me that child care and elderly care were seen as being problems preventing others from getting on with their important lives. I think that is missing one vital point.

    My generation has been fortunate. We had kids early, they were off our hands by our mid 40′s, we had 10 years of good earning power…. and many have retired at 55 – 60 and are now doing other things.

    Your generation will be stuffed….kids still on your hands when you are 55, and a declining earning power if the cult of youth / speed continues……and the older generation may still be hanging around.

    The optimism of youth leads to a belief in immortality….. we can survive. The problem your generation will face, will be how to retain status and employment as very active, experienced 45 – 65 year olds as fully contributing members of society. After that you can baby-sit your grandkids….in your 70′s and 80′s.

    King Lear had it right…Age is unnecessary. One daughter alone retained respect for him once he gave up power. Today’s King Lear’s may be forced to give up their power in the middle of their lives….who will give them any respect or employment?

    • Tristanfischer

      Not sure who is more depressing – you or me!!

      I am not sure how much longer the cult of youth will last. Liam Nielson is 60, Sylvester Stallone is 66 and Bruce Willis is 57. All are now in wild action movies.

  • Giorgos Christoforou

    The nuclear against the extended family is a traditional dispute between conservatism and liberalism. Conservatism and its expressive media are fond of the traditional extended family because of the greater sense of security it provides but also for the greater sense of belonging which cannot be weakened but on the other hand liberalism with its so called progressive character fights for the so called freedom of the tradition and on to modernism. We cannot decide one of the two without forming the framework under which we can make decisions though, both as individuals and as a country. There exists in my opinion, a framework on which we can form the basis to make a decision on this matter and I believe it lies in the weight of socialism and the special role that labor parties have to play in every country.

    I will put it simply like this. If the formal state cannot/must not/does not want to regulate the laws of economy (at least) in its jurisdiction, and leave this doing to the invisible hand, then it is undeniable that, regardless of the progressive character of both socialism and liberalism, in a crisis, where the nuclear family is economically unsustainable, the labor party will favor the extended family in contrast to the liberal party, because of the policy’s objective failure of providing security, both individually and socially.

    But this is not permanent. It is cyclic with a repeating pattern of capitalism crises. So even if the extended family if favored now when the crisis is prevalent, when and if the crisis comes to an end, depending on the modifications in the system, it is a matter of time about the comeback of the nuclear family. And since the crises are inevitable in capitalism, extended family is going to be favored again in the future.

    For a permanent change in the pattern of nuclear family and the extended family, the system must go through socialism.
    Posted by Giorgos Christoforou

    • Erin Lin

      Giorgos, what is the difference between nuclear and extended families? I always thought that families are by nature a steady cluster. If there are social changes, they are deviations from the evolutionary model of man’s origins or necessities in economic/needs circumstances, and of animals too.
      Posted by Erin Lin

      • Giorgos Christoforou

        @ Erin

        I am sorry but I do not understand your statement ” If there are social changes, they are deviations from the evolutionary model of man’s origins or necessities in economic/needs circumstances, and of animals too. ” I consider this as rolling back and forth in Darwinism and the Old Testament which reveals a contradiction in human evolution research. Please be more clear about what you want to say.

        Thank you.
        Posted by Giorgos Christoforou

        • Erin Lin

          Sorry if I was unclear. My assumption is that all animals have a similar model of a family cluster: a mother, father, siblings, grandparents and maybe not so close aunts and uncles, etc. The interconnection of familiarity, protection and support is an ancient model of family ties. When you distinguish between nuclear and extended, do you mean that there is another model of a family, such as a pack or new models such as friends, community groups? If so, I would call those deviations due to social needs and changes in our culture, but not “natural”.
          Posted by Erin Lin

          • Giorgos Christoforou

            @ Erin

            That is a fair assumption but I have a strong opinion about the contrary. I explain my self.

            As I explained in a previous comment, the distinction can only be made visible under socialism. Following this, someone could argue about the social character of the nuclear family in socialism. Under socialism, the nuclear family would enable someone to feel protected and be a part of a sum of equals, without the need for a closed and continuous trend in an extended family. But for this to happen, the formal state would have a strictly social character and prevent the nuclear family to decay or even corrode at an alert level so that it will not be forced to go back at the extended family. The social character would be costly, and in a free market where the formal state cannot interfere, this would be unrealistic. That is why I am talking about socialism, where the incentive is not money but welfare.

            But let me back up my opinion by challenging you with a 5-minute video. A Ukranian Girl Raised by Dogs.

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UkX47t2QaRs

            Please, watch this video and tell me what do you feel about this situation both as an individual and as a member of the society: deviations due to social needs or natural?
            Posted by Giorgos Christoforou

          • Erin Lin

            Very sad video — that’s what i would call a type of deviation in the natural course of family life; a natural course being of the majority way a family develops in animals of the same species. Question is, did Oxana become socialized, able to speak in the course of her life with humans later on? Because if she did, her humanity was not erased by the necessary co-habitation with other animals.
            Posted by Erin Lin

          • Giorgos Christoforou

            @ Erin,

            But for Oxana, the kind of family she had (consider that she could think/feel this) was natural. You raised this interesting point by saying that “a natural course is the majority way a family develops in animals of the same species”. That does not define natural, but a statistical reference. This is why, my point about being able to modify family to our social needs must be considered, with the only known system that you could socially modify policies to the common good is socialism. For example you could modify the nuclear family to be protective under a system of equals. Of course that could erase the distinction between nuclear and extensive, and the term family will encapsulate its definition which includes protection.

            I think that we are on the same page about not letting society deviate from a norm (not a statistical) but the argument lies between the pre-existence of a norm and our struggle to engage it, or the co-creation of the norm or to be clearer the co-creation of the ideal.
            Posted by Giorgos Christoforou

          • Adrian Horodniceanu

            Giorgos,
            Oxana is a sad case , but it is not an example of anything.

            Socialism per se succeeded to be a colosal failure in the East Europe , Rusia, China , Cuba and other countries as it became another type of dictatorship.

            If you want to use examples of successful regimes , I should use the scandinavian countries where the social democracy proved its vitality.

            Let’s also rememeber that today in Europe , most of the Grandparents ( age ( 65+) live in cities , so the second and third generation can not physically live with them . There is no “family farm”, so your assumptions have no real basis.
            p.s. I am familiar with Cyprus ( spent there a couple of years ) and I know that in Cyprus most of the older generation stil lives in vilages , but it is a small and not representative country . Thing about the millions of people on Spain , living for 3-5 generation in Madrid or large cities , or Italy , or UK.
            Posted by Adrian Horodniceanu

      • Adrian Horodniceanu

        Erin, most animals leave their offsprings the moment they can feed themselves , even when they remain in the same herd.
        Posted by Adrian Horodniceanu

  • http://twitter.com/tristanfischer/status/267246654283993088/ Tristan Fischer (@tristanfischer)

    Saturday Read. The nuclear family is killing us. We need to think again about what it means to be family. Read on. http://t.co/AF20ZQxp

  • Adrian Horodniceanu

    Giorgos,
    It might be an idea as today many people can work from home based on the various ways of communications and the large amount of jobs that do not require physical presence in a specific place . If you visited US you can see there that except the very large cities ( NY, DC, LA, SF) there are thousands of suburbs or smal cities of tes or hundred of thousands of people which are almost self sufficient around 2-4 large malls 1-2 clinique , respective schools and other public facilities and people go to work to the next suburb which is mainly “industrial” .
    Still I do not see the “large family ” but I do see the community , as people have the same country club , kids go to the same high school, work at same places and so on.

    I am not sure how much they help each other in case of need !!!! After all thy are americans :)
    Posted by Adrian Horodniceanu

  • http://twitter.com/tristanfischer/status/306048893794258944/ Tristan Fischer (@tristanfischer)

    Read: Why the nuclear family needs to die, in order for us to live – The concept of a nuclear family is… http://t.co/udkh1cVn2x #HFN

  • Robert Paterson

    Where are the pensions going to come from in the next 20 years? Most Boomers have few or no savings as well. Youth unemployment or underemployment means that most young will not have enough money to live independently. The forces of globalization and technology are reducing wages globally. The costs of education are substantial. So how do people live under these circumstances? It is not nostalgia to be practical. Humans have lived in tribal setting for all time except the last 100 years in North American and the UK. It is our social norm – it is primarily an economic unit that was replaced by the state and the idea of a job. Both these constructs are dying.

    Tell me how this assessment is wrong.

  • Alogon

    “The concept of a nuclear family is relatively recent” – this line is inaccurate. And I don’t believe that sociologists believe that the nuclear family arose out of industrialization anymore either, but believe that more likely the opposite is true – that industrialization succeeded so well due to the family structure..
    The idea of a “nuclear family” is not recent, it is an idea and practice 1000s of years old. Just read “The Republic” by Plato, written around 380 BC. Plato was trying to come up with a “just” society and advocated the destruction of the so-called “nuclear family” and turning it into some monstrosity of anonymous, rampant breeding where children didn’t know who their parents were any more than parents really knew which ones were their children.
    It’s hardly a “relatively recent concept”. All the author really did was give a year, 1925, when the first known reference to such a term occurred, not the invention of the thing the term was meant to relate to.

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