Ryan’s notes

The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake by David Brooks

The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake

  • What were the forces that led us to embrace the nuclear family as the new default unit?

    • Industrialization (and urbanization) effectively broke extended families apart.

    • The culture changed: we became more individualistic, women gained freedom, and we started to value privacy and autonomy more.

    • We heavily marketed the nuclear suburban household, and for a short time, that model worked pretty well!

  • Over the past century, we've moved from living as large extended families to smaller, nuclear families.

    • In the 1800s, most work was extremely labor intensive (farms, small family businesses), so adults would have many children and they'd stay close to home.

    • At the turn of the century, young people left their extended families and moved to cities to take factory jobs. By 1960, the switch had completely flipped.

  • For a time (1950-1965), all seemed well with nuclear families.

    • Post-war, social institutions in the US were as strong as they'd ever be (church, unions), mimicking a kind of extended family.

    • Women were relegated to the household, playing a full-time support role.

    • Prosperity was high and a single job could support a nuclear family.

    • "In short, the period from 1950 to 1965 demonstrated that a stable society can be built around nuclear families—so long as women are relegated to the household, nuclear families are so intertwined that they are basically extended families by another name, and every economic and sociological condition in society is working together to support the institution."

  • After 1965, conditions supporting the nuclear family began to degrade.

    • Churches and unions lost power.

    • Individualism gained favor.

    • Divorce rates increased.

    • Family size decreased.

    • Wages stagnated, demanding two incomes.

  • Nuclear families perpetuate inequality

    • The rich can effectively buy an extended family: child care, tutoring, coaching, therapy while the poor cannot.

  • Extended families better serve us:

    • Extended families are resilient (to death, conflict, sickness), while nuclear families are more easily disrupted.

    • Extended families support the most vulnerable (children, elderly, sick, out-of-work), while nuclear families do not, instead maximizing the potential of the most privileged.

    • Extended families offer more socialization and diversity: children can see various ways of living and have more role models.

    • Extended families keep us feeling engaged and guard against loneliness and depression.

    • Tradeoffs: Extended families don't offer as much privacy, mobility, or personal choice.

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