In a recent column I responded to David Brooks’ pessimistic analysis concerning the decline of the nuclear family. Brooks argued that we live in an “age of possibility” in which the endless choices offered to individuals discourage them from making broader commitments to family, craft and God. The lack of obligation to family was in Brooks’ view dangerous for the development of the individual and of society.

Brooks is of course not the first to note the decline of the nuclear family. The sociologist Manuel Castells, in his The Power of Identity, has pointed out that the patriarchal family has been undermined by a number of factors over the past generation. The new forms of work and consciousness available to women, powered by various feminist struggles, the emergence of the global informational economy and the reproductive control offered by scientific advance have irrevocably eliminated the dominance of the patriarchal family in most of North America.

Castells, like Brooks, makes the mistake of conflating the two-parent family with “the family”. In my earlier column I noted that the nuclear family is a 20th-century invention; the prevalent norm for most of human history has been the extended family. The support — economic, emotional and pedagogical — offered by the extended family provided couples with the time and stability needed to fulfill their multiple roles. The nuclear family has placed an unreasonable pressure on parents, and was therefore always predisposed to self-destruct. Its implosion was not simply because of the rise of feminism or of libertarian individualism but because its very form was ineffective in light of the numerous responsibilities placed on families. How can the average couple tackle the diverse tasks now demanded of them: spouses, lovers, breadwinners, networkers, volunteers and parents? The extended families of the past could help with some of the above for the very simple reason that grandfathers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews offered babysitting, household chores, mentoring, economic resources and time to fulfill other commitments.

The decline of the nuclear family — with a concomitant rise in the number of people living alone — should not lead us to despair, but instead to appreciate the new forms of family and community that are on the rise. Since the onset of the financial crisis there has been an increase in the number of multi-generational families: a recent article in the New York Times asserts that 41 per cent of American adults between the ages of 25 and 29 now reside or have recently resided with their parents and “50 million Americans are now in multigenerational households, a 10 per cent increase from 2007.” Economic circumstances, as well as other cultural factors, have no doubt influenced families to start incorporating widowed grandparents, unemployed in-laws and adult children back into a common home. To some degree we may be seeing the return of extended family formations.

Alongside the growth in multi-generational families there has also been a rise in various modes of co-operative living. Glacier Circle, to name one example, is the United States’ first self-designed housing co-operative for senior citizens, conceived and planned by its residents. Twelve seniors purchased land together, hired an architect and designed a mini-village of eight individual townhouses formed into a circle that also encompasses a courtyard and a common building. The common area has a kitchen, a living room, a dining room for communal meals and a studio apartment that will be rented to a nurse to provide health-care support.

In France, a women-only senior home, Baba Yaga’s House, named after a sorceress in Slavic folklore, has been established in which the residents take care of themselves. The six-story home is funded by the state as an alternative form of senior care and has 19 residents. The inhabitants are a group of elderly feminists who lobbied for the past 13 years for this type of housing to be established.

In many parts of the world there has been a long tradition of co-operative apartments for individuals and families. In Toronto, the members of most co-ops live in individual apartments that are owned not by a private landlord but by the co-operative as a whole. The monthly rent — which is less than a normal apartment because there is no landlord aiming to profit from the residents — covers all of the regular operational demands, such as mortgage, property taxes, utilities, repairs and staff salaries. The co-op, initially backed by substantial federal, provincial or municipal funding, is governed by a board of directors that is elected annually by the members. Each member of the co-op has to join a committee; for example the financial, social, membership and gardening committees. These groups help fulfill the responsibilities of the co-op as well as enrich its community spirit. One can imagine that the quantity and quality of people committed to collective living could open up possibilities for informal daycare, homework help for young people, birthday dinners, anniversary celebrations and a flourishing social community life that is absent in conventional society. The co-operative that I live in has many of the benefits mentioned above as well as numerous other possibilities.

The decline of the biological, patriarchal, nuclear family does not signify the birth of a society of self-interested individuals. Instead, it can be understood as opening up a new chapter in human development in which people can for the first time build intentional, as opposed to traditional, familial structures. As the nuclear family declines we see two distinct possibilities emerging: on the one hand, the rise of single-occupant households, and on the other hand the emergence of new forms of biological and non-biological extended family and community. Progressives should push governments, civil society organizations, social movements and themselves to build institutions that will generate a world nurtured by the latter.

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.

Photo: Valerie Reneé/Flickr

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Thomas Ponniah

Thomas Ponniah, Ph.D, was a Lecturer on Social Studies, Assistant Director of Studies, and Faculty Associate of the Project on Justice, Welfare and Economics at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He...