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.

History Future Now, ebook edition, is now available from the Apple iBookstore!  So if you have a iPad or iPhone click on this link to download it.  It is currently on at a special offer of 99c.   The Kindle version has been submitted to Amazon and should be available shortly.

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History Future Now, ebook edition, is now available from the Apple iBookstore!  So if you have a iPad or iPhone click on this link to download it.  It is currently on at a special offer of 99c.   The Kindle version has been submitted to Amazon and should be available shortly.

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