The Obsolete Ideal of the Nuclear Family?

  • Two pieces about how the idealistic nuclear family beloved by conservatives has been an aberration in human history and is perhaps no longer suited for the modern world;
  • Pondering the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and Cain and Abel;
  • Items about Trump and the Nazi’s playbook; when the GOP likes big government; and Vivek Ramaswamy’s claims about climate change;
  • And Nicholas Kristof summarizes recent trends about the decline of religious faith in America.

It’s been my impression (I don’t have a quick link to cite) that one of the MAGA points is that the traditional nuclear family is threatened by modernity, and ideally society should return to those traditional roles. Father, who goes to work; mother, who stays home; children, who go to school. But in fact my understanding is that the nuclear family is a relatively modern invention, of the past century, perhaps enabled by the rise in America of suburbia and car culture. Hillary Clinton’s “it takes a village” remark was reviled by conservatives, whose ideas about an idea past go back only to the 1950s; but they have a very limited perspective of human history.

Big Think, Mauro F. Guillén, 24 Aug 2023: Why we must replace the American nuclear family with a “postgenerational” society, subtitled “Ideal models of family life have been broken by societal, technological, and cultural shifts — and we need to rethink our options.”

Key Takeaways
• By the 1950s, the American “nuclear family” — two kids, working dad, mom at home, suburban prosperity — had become a global aspiration. • We no longer live in a society in which traditional nuclear families are the majority. • Living life one stage at a time and in sequence has become obsolete. We need to explore “postgenerational” ways of living.

Like many pieces on Big Think, this is an excerpt from a book, in this case the writer’s The Perennials: The Megatrends Creating a Postgenerational Society, published four days ago.

The 1970s were the heyday of the nuclear family.

In theory, the sequential model of life, with people entering and exiting stages in an orderly and predictable way, became widely adopted around the world at the same time that governments, the media, Hollywood, and the major religions promoted the idea of the nuclear family, consisting of parents raising their children until they finished their education and left the household to start their own families. At the lowest socioeconomic levels, both parents would work, leaving children with neighbors or bringing them with their older siblings. In a development dating back to German unification in the 1870s, women higher up in the social hierarchy were told to stay home and devote themselves to the three k’s of Kinder, Küche, Kirche — children, kitchen, and church. Companies in most countries, from Japan all the way to the U.S., discouraged or outright prevented married women from working outside the household. By the 1950s, the American nuclear family consisting of two parents, at least two kids, a TV, a washing machine, a car, and a dog had become the standard to emulate around the world, given the growing prosperity of the middle class.

I recalled that David Brooks, the NYT columnist who leans conservative especially in his appeals to lost values of a better past, wrote on this subject, though I couldn’t find a link. The writer here quotes him, from a piece in The Atlantic.

The rosy notion of the nuclear family belies a reality of struggle and despair. Its emphasis on “growing up” leads to the enormous pressures placed on children to prepare for achieving as adults everything from a stable romantic relationship to professional success. Moreover, the nuclear family has contributed to social inequality because, predictably, not every group in society is in a position to live up to the ideal prototype. “We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children,” argues New York Times columnist David Brooks in a recent Atlantic piece. “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,” and ultimately “liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor.” He is referring to the painful fact that the ideal of the nuclear family is far from realized among the poor and underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities.

So I guess Brooks wasn’t pining for a return to the nuclear family after all.


Two observations. First, this is yet another thing that the MAGA folks believe that is wrong. Their nuclear family ideal has never been true throughout most of human history, let alone a part of some mythical past golden age. What’s rather been true are those villages Hillary Clinton alluded to, a few dozen or a hundred people who all knew each other and who more or less took care of each others’ children, and elders. Second, the mentality behind that lifestyle is precisely the Savannah, or tribal, human nature I’ve been referring to. It was appropriate then; not so much now, when the expanding human population has necessarily brought so many people together in larger groups than villages.

Third, when conservatives pine for what they think was an idealistic past, how do they think they are going to achieve returning there? All the evidence suggests: by coercion. Never mind individual human freedom and liberty, for people to live life as they decide for themselves. Conservatives think they know better. And are perfectly willing to take over governments and school boards to impose their ideas on the entire population.

And yet, what would reformers like this article writer do? How to “explore” a “postgenerational” way of living? The excerpt on Big Think ends thusly:

So let’s be pragmatic. Let’s minimize social strife and political extremism by thinking strategically about both incremental and radical change. Let’s continue to discover the ways in which the sequential model of life is preventing people from realizing their full potential. Let’s challenge the assumptions that are causing the most trouble, especially those about the compartmentalization of the stages of life. Let’s launch pilot programs based on new ideas and possibilities both to prevent people from falling behind and to unleash each individual’s potential in this age of demographic, economic, and technological transformations. Let’s invite governments, companies, educational institutions, and other types of organizations to think about citizens, students, and workers as “perennials,” to be creative, to think outside the box, to become engines of change, to dissolve problems rather than simply solving them. Just a few of them can make a huge difference by experimenting with various aspects of postgenerational ways of living, learning, working, and consuming.

Well… OK. But who’s launching these pilot programs? What kind of invitations would governments and other institutions actually implement?


I did find that David Brooks article…

David Brooks, The Atlantic, March 2020 issue: The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake, subtitled “The family structure we’ve held up as the cultural ideal for the past half century has been a catastrophe for many. It’s time to figure out better ways to live together.”

He begins by describing a family scene from the movie Avalon, Barry Levinson’s 1990 film, ending,

As the years go by in the movie, the extended family plays a smaller and smaller role. By the 1960s, there’s no extended family at Thanksgiving. It’s just a young father and mother and their son and daughter, eating turkey off trays in front of the television. In the final scene, the main character is living alone in a nursing home, wondering what happened. “In the end, you spend everything you’ve ever saved, sell everything you’ve ever owned, just to exist in a place like this.”

And then says:

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 is a *very long* essay, at least 50 screens on my monitor, and I’ve not read all of it. But it raises deep issues about human happiness and freedom.


Coincidentally, today Big Think has this article (another book excerpt), which expresses the deepest kind of yearning for an ideal past, given human nature.

Big Think, Jessica Carew Kraft, 26 Aug 2023: Human “rewilding”: To have a better life, live like a hunter-gatherer, subtitled “‘The more I unleash myself from the tethers of domestication, the happier I feel.'”

Maybe what the MAGA motive reveals is a yearning for the ancestral environment of thousands of years ago. As mythologized in the Garden Eden, the key story about Cain, the newfangled farmer (what with the advent of agriculture) and brother Abel, the traditional shepherd, representing the conservative way of life, which MAGAites of the time would have wanted to return to.


Modern scholars typically view the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel to be about the development of civilization during the age of agriculture; not the beginnings of man, but when people first learned agriculture, replacing the ways of the hunter-gatherer.


Finally for today links to articles that caught my eye lately, without commentary. As at the top, the subtitles reveal the point of the article.

Vox, 25 Aug 2023: Why Trump seems to grow more popular the worse his legal troubles become, subtitled “Trump isn’t Hitler. But when it comes to the courts, he’s successfully borrowing the Nazi’s playbook.”


Vox, 25 Aug 2023: What the GOP debate revealed about Republican health care hypocrisy, subtitled “The GOP loves Big Government in health care — if it’s blocking abortion or trans care.”


Politifact, 24 Aug 2023: Vivek Ramaswamy: “The reality is more people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change.”


NYT, Nicholas Kristof, 23 Aug 2023: Opinion: America Is Losing Religious Faith

Long piece summarizes trends already seen, including those remarks from Russell Moore. A historical overview, with passages like this, that show why so many people, for decades, have been repelled by claims of the religious right.

When the Rev. Jerry Falwell dismissed AIDS as God’s lethal judgment on promiscuity, he conveyed a sanctimoniousness that in the 1980s and 1990s allowed much of the religious right to turn a cold shoulder to the suffering of people with the virus.

Jesse Helms, a leader of the religious right in the Senate, even suggested in 1995 that funds for fighting AIDS should be reduced because gay men contract the virus through “deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct.” In retrospect, the most immoral conduct in America in the late 20th century was not taking place in gay bathhouses but in conservative churches where blowhards preached homophobia, embraced bigots like Helms and resisted efforts to counter AIDS — allowing millions of people, gay and straight alike, to die around the world. That is not morally inspiring.

Then in 2001, Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson suggested that the Sept. 11 terror attacks were God’s punishment for the behavior of feminists, gay people and secularists. My view was that God should have sued them for defamation.

Ending thus:

Moore cites data suggesting that the reason people leave churches is not that they lose their belief in God so much as that they lose confidence in religious leaders and in the church’s moral leadership. He thinks faith can still recover; I’m not so sure.

Religious charlatans like Falwell may have meant to usher in a new Great Awakening, but in fact they taught millions of Americans to be wary of preening ventriloquists who claim to speak for God.

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