Columnists

Thomas Ponniah
The decline of the American family

| November 21, 2012
Photo: Christian Collins/Flickr

In a recent column in the New York Times, "The Age of Possibility," the intelligent conservative David Brooks reflected on the social problems created by the slow death, catalyzed by individualism, of the traditional nuclear family. The column is typically riven with mistaken assumptions yet makes an important overall point.

Brooks argues that for centuries societies have forced people into two-parent families. This trend, according to Brooks, is now ending and he cites some key statistics: in 1950, 9 per cent of Americans lived alone whereas today it is 28 per cent. In 1990, 65 per cent of Americans said that children were important to a successful marriage whereas today only 41 per cent hold the same belief. Brooks remarks that there are now more dogs in American households than children.

Drawing on statistics from a recent report, The Rise of Post-Familialism: Humanity's Future? Brooks explains that the shift away from the nuclear family is not unique to U.S. households: 30 per cent of German women say that they do not want children and the fertility rates of Brazilian women have dropped from 4.3 children in 1977 to 1.9 children today. Brooks uses these statistics to note that "The world is moving in the same basic direction, from societies oriented around the two-parent family to cafeteria societies with many options."

Why is this occurring? Brooks quotes Toru Suzuki, a researcher at the National Institute of Population and Society Security Research in Japan: "Under the social and economic systems of developed countries, the cost of a child outweighs the child's usefulness," meaning of course that people's careers demand more and more hours at work and therefore inhibit the amount of time that one would want to invest in children.

Brooks' ultimate argument is that we are moving into a post-familial age and this phenomenon is inevitably an unhealthy one. Brooks contends that our age of multiple options is based on the fallacy that people are better off when they have maximum individual liberty whereas in truth we are more fulfilled when our lives are built on commitments such as "family, God, craft and country" that extend beyond individual choice. He emphasizes family because he believes that the traditional family encourages people to be concerned about others, become socially engaged in their neighbourhoods and commit themselves to the long-term future of their country. He concludes by arguing for social policies and ideologies that encourage "family formation and fertility, including child tax credits, generous family leave policies and the like."

The decline of familial structures does produce social problems. In The Philosophy of History the German philosopher Hegel notes that society -- what he would have called "objective spirit"-- is comprised of three moments: the family, the market economy and the state. The family teaches individuals to be altruistic, the market economy teaches us to be self-interested and the state reconciles the two by educating us on the value of a prosperous national solidarity. Liberals tend to emphasize the state as the key agent for regulating the greed, volatility and inhumanity of the market while conservatives like to focus on robust family formations and values as the principal check on human self-interest. Hegel typically saw beyond both liberalism and conservatism emphasizing the importance of both secure families and an effective state.

The great philosopher implicitly understood that the value of generosity which one first learns in the family, for example watching one's parents individually work and yet use their money for the good of the whole, was crucial in order for one to later intuitively understand the significance of state economic redistribution. The concern for the poor or underprivileged originally comes from being taught the ethic of benevolence during one's childhood. Without that early instruction one will become primarily guided by the self-interested values of the market and thus one will perceive state taxation for redistribution as an incursion on one's "freedom" rather than as a healthy, appropriate way of treating one's fellow citizens.

The breakdown of the traditional family then has dangerous social implications if alternative family structures are not promoted. Progressives tend to look to the value of having new types of families such as lesbian or gay families, single-parent families, and childless families. However, these new families will confront all of the problems that nuclear families have confronted over the past century and thus will be no more sustainable than their predecessors. The durability of family structures in Hegel's time and before that -- contrary to Brooks' understanding -- depended not on nuclear families but on extended families; that is, situations in which children were mentored not only by parents but also by grandparents, uncles and aunts who lived in the same home or neighbourhood. The extra mentoring took some pressure off of child-raising and off of the relationship between the parents.

The skyrocketing divorce rates of the 20th century are not simply caused by the rise of feminism -- the right-wing interpretation -- or of asocial individualism -- the left-wing view -- but instead by the end of an extended familial structure that had traditionally offered supports for parents to cope with the myriad pressures posed by being a provider, spouse and lover. Without some sort of extended familial formation we are creating a society of temporary relationships that will ineluctably produce asocial individualists whose fundamental understanding of generosity will come from ethical maxims or ideology but not from lived experience. While neoliberal economic policies are in decline, a self-interested individualism has been steadily consolidated by the end of the extended family.

The problem will not be remedied simply by conservative and liberal proposals for child tax credits or family leave policies but will demand institutions that can produce new forms of community -- that are not necessarily biologically related -- but that can provide the emotional, social and household supports akin to those once enabled by the extended family. Neither the proponents of the market or the state, neither liberals nor conservatives, currently have viable solutions to this problem. So then to whom should we look? In the next column I will describe some innovative projects that may offer us some initial remedies to the problems posed by the decline of the nuclear family.

Photo: Christian Collins/Flickr

Thomas Ponniah was a Lecturer on Social Studies and Assistant Director of Studies at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He remains an affiliate of Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies.

Comments

What this analysis fails to consider is the truly liberating effects of easily available birth control. The endurance of families is related to the cost, work and often dependance needed to feed, protect, house and educate children. No effective way to control pregnancy coupled with increasingly effective medical care results in many children who do not dy in infancy. More mouths to feed and protect. Lower, controlled and planed births results in more freedom, particularly for women.

Ponniah laments the "decline" of the nuclear family as as social institution, as if it were an unalloyed force for social good. He does not mention the historical role of the nuclear family as an adjunct to the capitalist market system - a means of reproducing labour power, socially conditioning children, and keeping women in subservient roles as unpaid labour and economic dependents.

The "decline" of the traditional family is but a reflection of the decline of capitalism as a force for satisfying human material and spiritual needs, the widespread revolt against patriarchy, and the family's increasing alienation from economic production and from society itself. There are no "viable solutions" to the decline of the family that do not involve changing society as a whole.  

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