For a single person, or for DINKs (double income no kids), the role of the nuclear family doesn’t factor too much. But as someone who recently became a grandfather, I have started to wonder whether the nuclear family is actually a limitation and anachronism in the modern world.When I was at school in the 1960s and 1970s, one of the societal aspects we discussed in classes like economics and human geography was the positive role of the nuclear family in the development of modern economies. The common definition of a nuclear family is a married husband and wife and their biological or adopted children, all living together at the same house.
Looking back, there were three implicit elements to the ideas we were taught.
- The role of women was to care for the family.
- The role of men was to work and earn income for the family.
- This arrangement allowed men to go where work was, and the family followed.
These points stemmed from a male-oriented view of society that had been around for centuries; although the 1960s and 1970s was the period when that view was starting to be challenged.
Now, however, in the current interplay of society and family, it seems to me that the nuclear family has several disadvantages and need to be re-evaluated.
The roots and history of the nuclear family
Contrary to the belief that the nuclear family started during the Industrial Revolution, it seems that it was common in England even in the thirteenth century. However, it appears to have been almost unique to England; few other countries had the same prevalence. The reason seems to have been societal – young couples in England were expected to establish their own household, which was not the case elsewhere in Europe. This meant that men and women tended to marry later in England, after they had saved enough money.
It’s important to appreciate though that the nuclear family is not, and has not been, the most common human family unit. The most popular family unit throughout history has been the extended family. Perhaps it was because of growing wealth in the 20th century that families we were able to live alone as a new couple with young children.
The role of grandparents
As one myself, it was interesting for me to discover that grandparents are believed to have been essential for human evolution. Not only did they provide additional care and support, but it also seems they helped the family and society by enabling the accumulation and transfer of information, which led to more sophisticated kinship systems and other social networks.
So the presence of grandparents in the extended family is both significant and positive.
Problems of the nuclear family
It has been pointed out that the nuclear family is good for a country’s GDP (gross domestic production) as lots of services have to be provided by other people since it is difficult to live completely on your own. But the nature of economies, society and family have changed in recent years.
- The obvious point is that far more women now work, and men aren’t the only breadwinners of the family.
- 40 years ago there were a set of assumptions about personal and family behaviour that are no longer regarded as acceptable, such as:
- children alone at home are safe;
- children can play unsupervised outside.
- The demands of mobility and flexibility of the workforce have been impacted by government restriction(immigration, housing policy), economic concentrations (business hubs), and rising costs of housing and moving house.
- The nuclear family was possible when healthcare became cheaper, that is a trend that now seems to be reversing.
Increasingly governments are finding it financially hard to provide the services they used to offer and are making individuals pay an increased proportion of those services.
- Childcare. Costs of child care are getting so high that it’s becoming a real financial burden for many young parents. If you have an extended family, childcare is provided by a combination of grandparents and parents. This helps children develop relationships with adults, and is good for old people as it encourages activity.
- Pensions. Many governments are putting the burden on people to fund their own pensions. People in extended families reduces the cost of housing and living.
- Retirement. It used to be that older people moved into retirement homes fairly early. This is now getting expensive, so the extended family offers support as old people can live at home for a much longer period.
- Unemployment benefits. By living in an extended family, people who are unemployed can live without falling below the poverty line.
Changes in the 21st century
The impact of the recession from 2007-2009 has changed family life. According to Pew Research, the number of Americans living in multi-generational households rose from 46.5 million in 2007, to 60.6 million people, or 19%, in 2014.
In the last 60 years, what used to be accepted as cultural, societal and economic norms have changed; in particular the role and treatment of women, and the impact of technology. Just because the nuclear family operated seemingly successfully for some time is no reason that it should continue to be the predominant family structure. There seem to be good reasons to re-introduce the extended family as a better platform for families and societies, as well as for businesses and governments. Personally, the benefits I have seen and experienced to my daughter’s family of having grandparents nearby makes the argument in favour of extended families that much stronger.