Any attempts at asking the question posed by the title of this article must really start with another question. The other question should look at the subtext of the basic question that the title of this article tries to ask.
In other words, if we’re going to explain what contributed to the breakdown of the American traditional family, we must first ask: What led to the rise of the American traditional family in the first place?
The idea of an “American traditional family” actually stems from the 1950s. Because prior to that point, the American traditional family looked actually very different. There were actually a lot more people in the typical American household prior to that point in American history.
In the 1950s, you have this interesting dynamic in American economic history where you have millions of young men coming from military service in World War II going on to college or working in factories or other jobs. And this has led to a tremendous amount of economic prosperity.
Back in those days, if you had a high school diploma and you worked as a gas station attendant, you can actually support a family. You can actually work towards a pension, and you can retire in 20 years.
Well, you know and I know that that’s no longer the case.
Given this economic boom, there was a tremendous incentive for people to move out of their parents’ homes. This led to the nuclear American family. This means mom, dad, and two kids. That’s it.
And a lot of people who used the term “American traditional family” automatically revert to this definition. It’s as if they have historical amnesia. The truth is, the 1950s was only 60 years ago.
If you really want to get a full understanding of what the traditional family looks like, you have to look at the 1800s. It’s a completely different picture.
Back then, Americans had extended families. We’re talking about rural agrarian families. And since mechanization hasn’t really made the scene yet, it made a lot of sense for Americans to have a lot of children.
First of all, most children don’t make it to adulthood. This was before the discovery of penicillin and antibiotics.
For every 10 children born, they’d be lucky if there was at least 3 of them that made it to adulthood. Meaning, they can have children of their own.
Not surprisingly, rural families tend to be big because there is an understanding that at least a few of the kids won’t make it all the way through.
On top of that, you wanted a lot of children because they could help you around the farm. Whether it’s taking care of the livestock, helping you plant, or helping you harvest, there is a tremendous amount of utility in having a big family.
The breakdown of the real traditional American family is mechanization and massive economic progress.
In other words, there’s a tremendous amount of jobs located far from the farm. This has led to young people leaving their traditional families to move to the cities, and then having big families there.
But what really gave rise to the American traditional family as we recognize it today was the unprecedented American economic explosion after the 1950s.
Again, you don’t have to be all that qualified. You don’t have to go to school for a billion years to get the right degree to get a high paying job. High paying jobs were all over the place. It seemed like the dream would never end.
Then came the 1970s. It was a double whammy for the United States. First of all, you have the Arab oil embargo that basically dried up a lot of industrial jobs in the Midwest. You also have a lot of outsourcing.
First, it began in Mexico, then Japan, then Taiwan, and elsewhere. Those jobs were never coming back. They’re still there. In fact, even Japan is outsourcing its jobs.
Given all this dynamic, the American traditional family has really gone through a big change.
Now, people are not getting married. It has become perfectly acceptable to have children out of wedlock. It’s just another alternative form of family.
Also, the rise of the welfare state where the government basically guarantees income to single mothers has changed the trajectory of the traditional family.
In fact, the number of children born outside of wedlock is going to outnumber the children born in traditional families. This is going to be a problem because the chances of a child going to prison is higher if that person was in a single parent home.
Also, kids who grew up in single parent homes don’t do all that well in school. They don’t tend to go to college. They tend to have lower income, and so on and so forth. It is going to be an interesting challenge up ahead indeed.
But with that said, modern technology is fast evolving, and along with it, social coping mechanisms. I wouldn’t be surprised if the negative trends that are normally associated with single parent homes reverse themselves because this has become the new normal. Never underestimate the human ability to adapt.
But none of this necessarily guarantees that the transition would be smooth nor easy. Like all other social institutions, the American family is the result of the interplay between culture and the economy as well as government policies. After all, we are all creatures of incentives. A large percentage of our behavior is shaped by punishments and rewards as embodied by government regulations, subsidies, taxes, as well as economic pressures.
Accordingly, the current shape of the American family is shaped by the changes swirling around it. While it’s easy to romanticize the family as the typical nuclear family, it is actually more pliable and malleable than we care to admit. Expect it to change further. It is actually quite flexible. At the end of the day, I suspect people will come out okay.
Still, we have to change because people are getting married less and less. In fact, a lot of the population growth of the United States is due more to immigration rather than the natural growth rate of its “native population.”