At The Atlantic David Brooks pronounces the nuclear family dead and, indeed, a terrible mistake:
“In my childhood,” Levinson told me, “you’d gather around the grandparents and they would tell the family stories … Now individuals sit around the TV, watching other families’ stories.” The main theme of Avalon, he said, is “the decentralization of the family. And that has continued even further today. Once, families at least gathered around the television. Now each person has their own screen.”
This is the story of our times—the story of the family, once a dense cluster of many siblings and extended kin, fragmenting into ever smaller and more fragile forms. The initial result of that fragmentation, the nuclear family, didn’t seem so bad. But then, because the nuclear family is so brittle, the fragmentation continued. In many sectors of society, nuclear families fragmented into single-parent families, single-parent families into chaotic families or no families.
If you want to summarize the changes in family structure over the past century, the truest thing to say is this: We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options. The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor.
This article is about that process, and the devastation it has wrought—and about how Americans are now groping to build new kinds of family and find better ways to live.
The problem with his article is that it is historically, anthropologically, and psychologically ignorant. Let’s start with the history. He claims that the absolute nuclear family only prevailed in the United States between 1950 and about 1965. That’s untrue.
Anthropologists have done quite a bit of analysis of family structures. It’s one of the central topics of the field. There are many, many different family structures around the world. In Europe four different family structures prevailed: the absolute nuclear family, the egalitarian nuclear family, the stem family, and the communitarian family. Here are their definitions:
|Absolute nuclear||Total emancipation of children in adulthood to form independent families made simply of a couple and their children. Division of inheritance among children by testament or will, usually to a single individual, often the son. Brothers and sisters are treated as independent individuals||England, non-Highland Scotland, Netherlands, Denmark, parts of Sweden and Norway|
|Egalitarian nuclear||Total emancipation of children in adulthood to form independent families made simply of a couple and their children. Equal division of inheritance among children. This system encourages the persistence of slightly stronger relations between parents and children until the inheritance is completely divided after the parents’ death||Parts of France, Spain, parts of Italy|
|Stem family||Extended families with several generations living under one roof. One child – generally, but not always, the eldest – marries and has children that remain in the household in order to preserve the lineage. The rest have the choice of remaining unmarried within the household or of marrying and leaving the home or becoming soldiers or priests. The house and the land are inherited by the son who stays at home. Others may receive some financial compensation. The inheriting son, who stays at home, remains under the formal authority of the father||Germany, parts of Scandinavia, Switzerland|
|Communitarian||Extended family in which all sons can get married and bring their wives to the family home. Equality among children in inheritance, with family wealth and estates divided after the death of parent (although a period of cohabitation between married brothers after the death of the parents is possible)||Parts of Italy, parts of Russia|
These can be organized along two axes like this:
|Weak authority||Egalitarian nuclear||Absolute nuclear|
There is evidence that these family structures have been in place throughout Europe for thousands of years and it has been suggested that differences in outcomes throughout Europe may be attributed to the types of family structures that prevailed in different places. Short version: the absolute nuclear family was emphatically not invented in 1950. Brooks is simply wrong.
I became interested in this subject through my family’s history. Although I was reared in an absolute nuclear family, I knew my father was not. I learned in my studies that he was reared in a variant of the communitarian family that prevailed where my ancestors in Switzerland originated. In that variant siblings could marry, all property belonged to the patriarch and was inherited by the eldest son. My great-grandfather Schuler attempted, unsuccessfully, to continue that in the United States.
I don’t know what family structure is best-suited to modern life in America. I’m pretty confident that grandparent-headed or single parent-headed families are not it. The one thing that should be kept in mind: places where the absolute nuclear family prevailed created liberal democracy and market economies. Our notions of individual freedoms arose from the soil of the absolute nuclear family. Whether they can survive the death of the absolute nuclear family is a gamble.