Where Have All the Traditional Families Gone?


Don’t Blame It on the TV
There’s so much hand-wringing about the state of families today. Divorce. Abortion. Generational divide. Helicopter parents. Live-in adult children. Gay marriage. Teen pregnancy. Deliberate childlessness. Fewer marriages. The so-called traditional family is all but gone.

The traditional family — one husband, one wife remaining faithful to each other to rear their bevy of children — existed at one time for good reasons, and it’s breaking down for good reasons.

The factors really breaking down traditional family life are not the usual suspects social conservatives trot out: Hollywood, porn, no-fault divorce laws, removing prayer from schools. If I left out your favorite whipping boy, just add it to the list. It won’t matter, because social conservatives don’t put on the list the real factors that have caused the demise of the traditional family.

Three Fingers Pointing Back at You
More often what they call the causes are more like the effects. If sex on television has in fact contributed to the breakdown of the traditional family model, it only did so after that traditional model had begun to break down. Gay marriage hasn’t led to the breakdown of the traditional family. It took its place. It’s part of the new family. The traditional family was breaking down before most of them noticed, and by the time they did notice, they looked around at the things that had replaced it and pointed the finger.

The truth, as is usually the case, is far more complex and interesting. And this perhaps explains why those who hold up the traditional family as the family par excellence fail to see that they are the very people who contributed to its demise. They’re not alone though. We all contributed.

Change economics, Change the Family
Simply put: the traditional family and traditional economics are interdependent. Lose traditional economics, and the traditional family goes with it. Perhaps this is because a family economy is a microcosm of larger national and global economies — though this is probably an oversimplification of the actual relationship between family structures and economic structures. This much we can say, however: people didn’t hold to the traditional family in the past because they were more altruistic than we are today. No, they were just as pragmatic. They followed a family model that worked best for them, and it was what we call the traditional family model that made the most sense for their techno-socio-economic context.

Today, we’ve largely eliminated the factors that once compelled people to choose the traditional family model. How have we done it?

Easy travel. Laws against child labor. Corporations. Segregation of tasks in production — all of which was brought on by technological change.

Easy travel. More people moved away from extended family for work and education. With less connection to family, the importance of family was diminished and people found other networks on which to depend.

Child Labor Laws. With little to no work for children to do, their contribution to support the household was all but

eliminated. They we went from being a financial asset to their parents to being a financial liability instead. This reduced the incentive for people to have children. Those who continue to have children do so largely from a leftover biological urge, passed down from ancestors who lived at a time when children were necessary to one’s own survival.

Corporations. Corporations are entirely new in the history of human labor. Today, however, most people in industrialized societies get their wages from some large corporation that pays little or no attention to their family relationships. A business model that competes with a person’s family for their time, attention, and energy by asking them to work late, work third shift, or please the boss ends up being a strain on marriage and family.

Segregation of tasks in production. Few people today make a product from beginning to end. Even meals at a fast food restaurant are the product of segregated tasks. Most of our work today is performing a small task as one of many cogs in a much bigger process, making it harder and harder for a person to describe what they do. Ever talked to someone at a party and asked about their job, only to find out after they describe it that you have no better understanding than you did before you asked? It’s not their fault. It’s the way we’ve divided labor for the sake of efficiency. If you can’t figure out what a guy at a party does for a living, now imagine how ignorant his child is about his work. The child has no way of gaining deep respect for her father’s contribution to the world. Imagine, however, if that child worked alongside her parents from an early enough age that she was impressed by their mastery of economically valuable tasks. Imagine if she saw her blacksmith father turn raw iron into useful tools that he sold. That’s a model for a child to respect the work of a parent and hold him in higher esteem. It’s a model that culturally bonds generations across time. Today’s industrialized economic model increasingly tempts generations to culturally separate. Teenagers haven’t always said, “Mom and Dad are so lame. They don’t get it.” That kind of generational divide is what you get when the next generation loses awe at the previous generation’s wisdom and skill. And when you heavily segregate tasks in production, you end up going from children who marvel at parents who are leather workers, trappers, hunters, fishermen, farmers, woodworkers, and carpenters to children who don’t know why you dragged them out to a Red Lobster on a Tuesday night to celebrate your promotion to Senior Assistant to the District Legacy Paradigm Strategist in the Unicorn Division at MicroGoogleCorprazon.

There’s also something to be said about the family’s connection to animals in the course of human history. Today, we visit farms and petting zoos as tourist destinations because this life is novel to most of us, but in the past, animals were part of a person’s everyday life. The disappearance of economically valuable livestock from most households is perhaps a factor in the breakdown of the traditional family because children don’t learn from an early age to place a high value on offspring.

A Vision for the Family at Odds with Itself
So if you want to see the traditional family restored on a society-wide scale, you’ll have to crash the industrial economy and keep it crashed. Never to let it arise again. The vision that social conservatives have for what the family is supposed to be is a vision at odds with the vision they have for the global economy. They’ve worked against their own social interests for the sake of an easier life. They want to reinstate the traditional family by force of law while keeping in place all of the things that made the traditional family obsolete. It’s an ignorant hypocrisy, but hypocrisy nonetheless. Social conservatives have already made a choice without knowing it. They’ve chosen the modern family that they lament so much, and no amount of lawmaking in their favor is going to be as powerful as the other forces they’ve helped put in place.

One of the Family, Frederick George Cotman. Oil on canvas, 1880.

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