The waning of the nuclear family

By Razib Khan | September 2, 2012 5:09 pm

‘The Waltons’ Meets ‘Modern Family’:

A Pew Research Center study, “The Return of the Multi-Generational Family Household,” published long before the most recent, even higher census figures, revealed that in 2008 a record 49 million Americans, or 16.1 percent of the country’s population, lived in a family household that contained at least two adult generations or a grandparent and at least one other generation.

Those figures, according to that Pew report, represented a significant trend reversal that started right after World War II. In 1940, about a quarter of the population lived in a multigenerational home (my mother-in-law, in fact, grew up sharing a house with her aunt, uncle and cousins), while in 1980, only 12 percent did.


One of the issues that occasionally crops up on this weblog is that some readers are surprised that that I would term myself conservative, since that position seems to only imply that one wishes to slow down the inexorable march toward the future. This is a particular view of progressive history, where the future always builds upon and extends the past. Another view is cyclical, or even declinist, and over the course of human history this has been a more common tendency. Instead of hewing toward these heuristics in their extreme and exclusive forms I believe it is more prudent to keep in mind that in our current time both dynamics are important.

For example, my “phone” today would be perceived as science fictional 10 years ago. It would be inconceivable 20 years ago. Though most people don’t utilize the feature, conversations with video are finally within the reach of an average person. But these changes have come so quickly that they’re now the “new normal,” barely worth commentary.

And yet there are social trends which go in cycles. One could argue that there has been a revival of the respectability of bourgeois values in the United States since the 1970s among upper middle class cosmopolitans. Despite the power of hormones it also seems that today’s teens are sexually less experienced, on average, than those of the 1970s or 1980s. The sexual revolution not only plateaued, but receded (the push for gay marriage may actually be part of this, as homosexual activists in the 1970s were often much more radical, and would have dismissed the acquisition of bourgeois institutions into the gay subculture).

These are contemporary examples, but a modest knowledge of history will also refute excessive Whiggishness. Some would argue that the Reformation brought on sexual conservatism, as we would understand such things, only for this ‘reformation of morals’ to recede in the 18th century. In the 19th century you saw the reassertion of sexual conservatism with the Victorians, and a slow recession up to the 1960s, when the dam literally broke. Waves of cultural change and cycles suggest that the lessons of the past are often useful for the future. Social arrangements which may seen outmoded or irrelevant may not always be.

The revival of extended families in contemporary America is clearly due to economics. Unless technology can boost productivity I don’t see this trend reversing in the next 20-30 years. The dependency ratio is such that in the next generation developed societies need to reduce fixed costs like housing, and co-living is the lowest hanging fruit (and, it is within living memory of even many Americans). The piece in The New York Times presents the situation through a rose-tinted lens. And that makes sense, most living arrangements have upsides and downsides, and if the proportion of people living in these extended family situations is increasing, obviously the upsides are more appealing in the current context than the downsides.

But this is also a case where we can look to the past and other societies for lessons in terms of how it will impact our society. Though I have never personally lived in this sort of family, except to some extent between the ages of two and four (and so my memories are minimal), I know of the downsides from family lore and gossip. Just watch a Bollywood film as ethnography. From what I can gather a linear increase in the number of family members within a household does not entail a linear increase in the family drama. On the contrary, there is a very rapid increase, as inter-personal relationships become much more elaborated (this especially is true when you multiply grades of relatedness). A far greater proportion of one’s life is taken up by maintenance of household relationships. The American nuclear family is to some extent on the atomized side, but extended families tend toward hyper-sociality.

And I believe that this has consequences. The shift back toward extended families is due to the exigency of post-bubble America. Bu we may be on the way to a more thoroughgoing shift in the nature of American society, and how we relate to each other. The hyper-mobile nuclear family in the post-World War II America produced a particular kind of culture. What it lacked in family values beyond the core nuclear unit, it made up for in a commitment to civil society which could fill the breach. In contrast, societies which are ‘familialist’ often lack civil institutions and organizations because tight clusters of families can provide what in other societies would be part of the public good.

What I am proposing here is that for most Americans multi-generational living is a means toward maintaining the lifestyle and values which they hold dear, but the shift itself may change that lifestyle and those values in deep and fundamental ways. The initial trigger here is economic, with the first-order causal effects sociological. But the downstream effects may also be economic, as Americans become less mobile and more familialist. What can we expect? Look abroad, and look to the past.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture
  • Dwight E. Howell

    What we have is a society in which the percentage of completely dysfunctional and totally fragmented families is growing rapidly. I’ve asked kids who their grandparents are and gotten total gobbledygook gook for an answer. I’ve talked to adults, mostly mail, who had only the vaguest idea who their grandchildren were. What I’m seeing is the only half way stable relationships left is mother daughter. All to often granny or even great granny is raising the kids and it isn’t all that uncommon that nobody actually wants custody of the older kids especially the boys who are all to often running totally wild.

  • Darkseid

    perhaps Italy could be a preview of where we are headed? probably won’t get that bad but…

  • http://www.twitter.com/nineran Sarani Rangarajan

    One could make the argument that India is one of those countries moving _from_ an extended family arrangement to the nuclear one; it’s their recent past – indeed, their present.

    I wouldn’t call it “bad” as Darkseid implied, merely different.

    The obsession with geneology in this country throws me every time it comes up, but only because I know my history back three generation and could extend that knowledge any time I liked back to five. I’d say that the social impetus (and search for) ‘roots’ has been around, the economic situation may have provided the push toward a society that may be more rooted in family.

    And just to point out – subsets of America have always had extended family arrangements. Hispanics spring to mind. Recent immigrant groups. For that matter, people with lower socio-economic status (which adds weight to your argument, ofc) etc.
    So, has the proportion of these subcultures merely increased (demographic distribution has changed)? Is it really a movement toward an extended family even in the populace that was primarily nuclear a few decades ago? And if so, we can look within ourselves, and not just back and out.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #1, make your comments more value-add in the future. i think i’ve indulged you for a while, but too often you just leave unfocused diatribes. #3, did you bother to read the text of the post? i put specific numbers in there.

  • http://sep.stanford.edu/sep/jon/ Jon Claerbout

    Here’s a bit of American folklore:

    “A son is a son until he takes a wife.
    A daughter is a daughter all of your life.”

    One thing it says is: If you want to see your grandchildren, you are better off with daughters than with sons.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #5, my family in bangladesh has shifted from large to small families in one generation. in the process they switched from son to daughter preference for this reason.

  • April Brown

    It would be fun to run this concept by one of the more hystrionic commenters on the far right – rhetoric I hear coming out of some of the republicans at the convention included mourning the phenomenon of adult children living at home with their parents. As an indicator of economic strength, this does reflect a setback in prosperity (20 somethings unable to move out and buy their own houses or rent their own apartments), but at the same time, it could be argued that this is good for family values. A three generation household and the family interaction that goes along with it is a common theme in nostalgia rants for the ‘good old days’. It would amuse me to present these two concepts together to Pat Buchanan and see if his head explodes.

  • Riordan

    “Unless technology can boost productivity I don’t see this trend reversing in the next 20-30 years”

    Razib,

    On the contrary, I thought a large part about productivity was that we are becoming so much better at it (through many avenues) it has started to impact (aka eliminate) jobs if not entire sectors of them, which clamps down on employment/wages of the lower 50% and thus indirectly contributes to the desperate house crowding we see today.

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot Steve Sailer

    The Census Bureau sometimes asks about nationality (e.g., Italian) and that could probably be correlated with rate of multi-generational living.

    Probably the all time extreme in one-generational living were the English upper classes, who sent their small children off to boarding schools.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    I thought a large part about productivity was that we are becoming so much better at it (through many avenues) it has started to impact (aka eliminate) jobs if not entire sectors of them, which clamps down on employment/wages of the lower 50% and thus indirectly contributes to the desperate house crowding we see today.

    productivity gains has not had this effect over the medium term, as you probably know. it may be that we ARE at that stage, long predicted. but increased productivity has traditionally meant that each worker produces more. that means a bigger pie to divide among fewer people, and so presumably greater surplus to be redistributed to the old and young from the working age population.

    . It would amuse me to present these two concepts together to Pat Buchanan and see if his head explodes.

    you confuse two elements of the aspects of the right. pat buchanan has been trading in anti-capitalist rhetoric for nearly a generation now. he’s not a free market libertarian. the tea party element which you hear talk this way, and combines libertarianism and social conservatism in an incoherent and unsophisticated manner. in contrast, buchanan is someone who cites my weblog in his books ;-) (or, he hires researchers who do!)

  • vik

    I wonder whether there was some essential difference between the Great Generation (who witnessed the Depression and fought the Second World War) and the Baby Boom ‘Me’ generation? The former created resources which they transferred early to the ‘Me’ generation. The latter shirked their responsibilities, ate up their inheritance and then effectively borrowed from their own progeny to indulge themselves. The boomers wouldn’t look after their own grand-parents though they might hit them up for a loan or park their kids with them- but now they themselves are getting on they see an advantage in financially hobbling their progeny so as to force them to act as unpaid care-givers.
    At the same time, because of demographic change, it may be that the majority amongst boomers is no longer interested in Social Security- because that benefit goes to all- and hopes to lock in inherited privilege by resurrecting filial piety and duty of care to elderly parents.
    It is interesting that you mention that in Bangladesh daughter preference has increased due to the nuclear family. I believe upwardly mobile people have daughter preference because hypergamy is easier for girls. The dowry system, which is the curse of much of India, means this hypergamy becomes prohibitively expensive and so daughter preference is defeated. Maybe, either Bangladesh doesn’t have dowry or the expectation of upward mobility is stronger.
    I get the impression that you regard some sorts of hyper-sociality- like that of the hunter gatherer group or the old extended family against which Naipaul’s Mr. Biswas rebels- as the opposite of some superior functionalist Eusociality and that notion has intuitive appeal especially as extended family hyper-sociality so easily overlaps with other hyper-social networks- e.g. Youth Gangs & Communal cliques- in a manner such that Personal Identity becomes more and more splintered and finally ceases to cohere sufficiently to define moral or even rational agents.
    What does this imply for Public Justification discourse?
    ‘multi-generational living is a means toward maintaining (existing) lifestyles and values but the shift itself may change that lifestyle and those values in deep and fundamental ways’- if so what happens to methodological individualism?

  • April Brown

    Poor Pat Buchanan – he’s one of those fellows who can sound reasonable for a while, then WHEEE!~ his brain goes all wonky and he says … stuff.

    I remember about 10 years ago, in a bout of unemployment, I ended up watching an interview with him on MSNBC at 3:00 AM. He’d just published the book where he rants about how selfish women are for going to graduate school instead of marrying and getting pregnant in their early 20′s. The Dolce Vita, he called it, and it was the thing white women were doing instead of making more white babies, so America was going to loose it’s identity in the… wait for it…

    swarm of muslimoids who were infiltrating Mexico, then crossing the border illegally and getting jobs in our nursing homes taking care of our grandmothers.

    During his rant about the intrinsic selfishness of the Educated Woman, the interviewer, herself female and educated, started to get annoyed. There the discussion dissolved into lack of men willing to impregnate and support large families, at which point he told her to find herself a Promise Keeper, and then he started yelling at welfare.

    Then I went to bed and had very, very strange dreams.

    You’re right though – I haven’t heard Pat weigh in on the Tea Party stuff (haven’t heard much out of him since MSNBC dropped him), and there’s definitely a gap there. If nothing else, Buchanan was educated and informed, even if he did occasionally come to odd conclusions. The most vocal of the Tea Partiers seem to be skipping the research phase of their opinion forming.

  • ADS

    “when the damn literally broke.”

    Is this phrase written as intended?

  • abb3w

    I’d guess that the amount of family drama would grow with the number of inter-personal relationships, rather than the number of people. Roughly, quadratic O(n^2) rather than linear O(n). However, I’ve no hard data to back the guess.

  • Kirsten

    What an interesting blog I’ve stumbled on in my internet walkabout!
    Regarding the ‘unfocused diatribe’ of Dwight E. Howell, I’m actually curious about whether there is greater ‘family dysfunction’ in current times than in, say, the past century of US history. I’d ask Mr. Howell specifically: What part of the US or world and what socioeconomic class are you getting your anecdotal info from?
    Also I’m not sure how to define family dysfunction or family fractured-ness, perhaps something like: percentage of children raised by caregivers other than bio parents/ percentage of divorced parents/ some other estimate of family instability? (although I acknowledge kids often can be and are raised well by divorced & non-bio parents)

  • Karl Zimmerman

    Judging by how much peer effects mean in terms of life outcomes, and how little family environment matters, I’d say that the shift from nuclear families to extended families will mean little to nothing in terms of how children turn out, so long as it just means another adult generation living under the same roof. If it means we begin seeing, for example, cousins in the same household, then the children themselves may indeed begin forming their own, insular peer cultures, which will interact less with the outside world. But we’ll probably need to have far larger domiciles before we begin seeing that again to any significant degree.

    I think it may matter in terms of adult culture, although not in the manner you believe. I remember when I was in college, my most active social life was during the period I had a roommate I disliked, because I would do anything to get away from them. To the extent that a similar transition happens in America, I’d expect the same to be true – having somewhat irritating in laws (or adult children) occupying your home will make individuals far more likely to see the home not as a place of solace, but a place of stress, and seek the same sort of “third places” that past generations had (social clubs, civic action, etc). I see this as positive, as it will mean that some of the isolating trends that Robert Putnam noted in American culture will begin to reverse.

    Speaking personally for a second, my maternal grandparents moved into my household when I was 1, and my grandfather only died when I was 20 (my grandmother is still alive and with my mother), so they were essentially with me my entire childhood, with my grandmother being the “housewife” and my grandfather spending far more time with me in childhood than my father. Although my father did not like them at all, and my grandfather and he got into vicious arguments (my grandfather would sometimes claim he was “moving out” and go for a walk which lasted all day), I was essentially not cognizant of anything being wrong as a child. Why would I be, when this was the model I based all families off of?

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #16, one aspect is that we’re combing small families with multi-generationhood. that is, same numbers of children, adults, and seniors. i don’t know how that will play out. i can say that in bangladesh ‘small domicile’ doesn’t restraint the tendency of a ‘circle of cousins’ to develop.

    I believe upwardly mobile people have daughter preference because hypergamy is easier for girls.

    the reason given is the one above, not hypergamy. my family in bangladesh is relatively well off already, some of them so well off that they don’t take opportunities to settle abroad through immigration.

    I get the impression that you regard some sorts of hyper-sociality- like that of the hunter gatherer group or the old extended family against which Naipaul’s Mr. Biswas rebels- as the opposite of some superior functionalist Eusociality and that notion has intuitive appeal especially as extended family hyper-sociality so easily overlaps with other hyper-social networks- e.g. Youth Gangs & Communal cliques- in a manner such that Personal Identity becomes more and more splintered and finally ceases to cohere sufficiently to define moral or even rational agents.

    the hyper-social extended family is a breeding ground for chatty idiots. it makes islamic fundamentalism look positively appealing. at least people will talk about something other than your third cousin’s second marriage with a woman who is too dark-skinned and socially beneath us, though she is pretty and well educated, but her brother is a blah, blah, blah….

  • Karl Zimmerman

    Razib,

    I made the point about small domiciles not because I think it’s unlikely that Americans will get impoverished enough that distantly-related children will begin being raised together. My point was instead that we have huge amounts of “legacy housing” in the U.S. While we could indeed cram more people into existing housing (my rowhouse is 1200 square feet, houses 3 now, and housed 12 a century ago), it would be odd for this to happen while perfectly good homes are sitting vacant.

    Instead what you should see is that as multi-generational households increase, a new equilibrium is reached. Some areas were truly overbuilt, and will see the wrecking ball, but in others the cost of housing would drop until independent living became an easier option to consider.

    As a result, I don’t see too many people forming multi-family households, except perhaps in areas where “McMansions” were overbuilt and will never attract the high-end owner-occupiers originally intended. Indeed, these areas seem set to become the slums of the future in many cases, although it seems more likely they’ll be subdivided into apartments than anything.

  • Mike F.

    I’m no expert on this, but I’m surprised that you associate multi-generational families with a decline in civil society. I would have thought the opposite were true, at least in American history. I had always had the impression that the post-WWII years were characterized by a decline in civil society compared to the 19th and early 20th centuries. Certainly, mobility does not seem to lend itself to robust participation in community institutions. Perhaps some of this has to do with the distinction between clan-based and non-clan-based societies, and the familiar observation that clan-based societies do poorly on measures of civil society, societal trust, etc. But the Western European-derived culture dominant in the US was never clan-based, even when it was far less atomized. So it’s far from clear to me that reversing some of the atomization will diminish civil society rather than enhancing it, as multi-generational ties to communities deepen.

  • zach

    AIDS epidemic played a big role in squashing the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s. Partly because [unprotected] sex could now actually kill you in an unpredictable way, so better promiscuity is punished. Partly because this danger lead to better sex ed (which is something that the “revolutionistas” would have wanted?)

  • Abelard Lindsey

    Mutli-generational living will definitely reduce the fertily rate in the U.S. Why? Anyone who has lived in cultures where multi-generational households are common is very aware of the amount of bickering and general commotion that is prevalent to such a style. Americans, in general, place a premium on peace and quietness in their homes. They want the home to be a place of rest and relaxation from the stresses of the outside world. Live with the parents while having kids of one own does not offer such at all. Its easier to just not have kids of one’s own in this situation. For people who like peace and quiet, multi-generational living really sucks.

    Teen pregnancy, along with crime and drug abuse, are the metrics of social decay. All of these have improved significantly over the past 20 years. This suggests that the fears about social decay expressed by social conservatives and political christian right people are groundless. Thus, social conservatism as a political ideology can be considered a form of mass paranoia (e.g. it is a psychiatric disorder).

    The other criterion of which social conservatism can be considered a psychiatric disorder is that it is a form of inappropriate boundaries. In psychology, obsessing over the private acts of other people, especially total strangers, as those it is appropriate for one to have control over other people, is defined as inappropriate boundaries which, in turn, is considered a mental condition. Hense, social conservatism as a political ideology can be considered a psychiatric disorder on this basis.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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