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The Decline of the Nuclear Family Structure

Updated: May 23, 2023

By Adam Khan (‘23)

In the midst of the post-war economic and capitalist golden age, the image of a traditional father and husband breadwinner alongside his children and typically a homemaker wife was the staple family across the United States. Known as the nuclear family, it was a group of people united by ties of partnership and parenthood and consisting of a pair of opposite-sex adults and their socially recognized children. Decades later, society has seen a significant decline in this once-normative structure. A once 3.7 fertility rate in 1960 for example has now declined to around 1.6 births per woman.

In a country like Japan, the median population has aged incredibly to the point where more than a quarter of Japanese were 65 years and older in 2021. By the end of the century, it is expected for the country to lose more than half of its population. With much of the world following Japan’s footsteps, in an aged world, trends of difficulties in paying for healthcare for the elderly, more elderly people being put in senior citizen centers, and a lack of a needed workforce population will be at the forefront of modern “first-world” issues.

Recognizing these concerns, nations such as Denmark, Finland, Estonia, Italy, and Australia began incentivizing their citizens to have more children through money and campaigning. Another method for nations to increase their population is through immigration, as seen in the United Kingdom.

But what’s the context behind this collapse? What can one expect for what’s to come next long term? Well foremost, the social and economic landscape of the U.S. has drastically shifted, making it harder for young individuals to get married, settle down, and start a family. Significant examples of these changes, but not limited to them, are the introduction of cohabitation, urbanization, childfree couples, birth control, “hook-up” culture, high divorce rates, and the introduction of LGBT and other non-traditional families.

What was not even socially acceptable 50 or 60 years prior, is now today’s norm. The cultural shift of the 1960s is a clear milestone as to when these changes appeared mainstream such as with the sexual liberation or feminist movements.

The statistics reveal one out of four of today's 50-year-olds will have been single their whole lives. The rates seemingly are only trending to rise, as in 2019, 35% of men and 30% of women had never been married. Just about 30 years prior in 1990, 30% of men and 23% of women had never been married.

Associated with these changes is the disproportionate amount of minorities being affected. With the statistics mentioned above, it was noted that in 1990, 43% of black men had never been married. In 2019, it was 51%. During that period, the percentage of black women who were unmarried increased from 37% to 47%. For Hispanic women, it increased from 27% to 37%; the percentage of Hispanic men who are unmarried increased from 37% to 45%.

These types of environments also negatively affect the children being born into resulting single-parent households. A whopping 64% of black chil­dren in 2019 data were found to live in single-parent families. White, Asian, and Pacif­ic Islander children were found least like­ly to live in a sin­gle-par­ent house­hold, with 24% of white chil­dren and 15% of Asian and Pacif­ic Islander chil­dren fitting this demographic.

If this isn’t alarming yet, sin­gle par­ents are more like­ly to live in pover­ty when com­pared to cohab­it­ing cou­ples, and sin­gle moth­ers are much more like­ly to be poor when com­pared to sin­gle fathers. According to research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a charitable foundation focused on improving the well-being of American children and youth, tran­si­tion­ing to a sin­gle-par­ent house­hold can dis­rupt a child’s rou­tines, edu­ca­tion, hous­ing arrange­ment, and fam­i­ly income. Along with traumatic experiences for children, it can also inten­si­fy the inci­dence of parental con­flict and stress.

The research continued: “Kids from sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies are more like­ly to face emo­tion­al and behav­ioral health chal­lenges — like aggres­sion or engag­ing in high-risk behav­iors — when com­pared to peers raised by mar­ried par­ents. Research has linked these health chal­lenges with fac­tors often asso­ci­at­ed with sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies, such as parental stress, lost social net­works, wit­ness­ing con­flict, mov­ing homes, and socioe­co­nom­ic hurdles.”

With a laissez-faire approach to the upbringing of many children, topped with the polarization and shifting ideas of today's world, undoubtedly awareness has to be brought to these topics for the well-being of society as a whole.

While schools of thought between those who lean liberal and those who lean conservative differ in their ideas of how they wish to shape the economic and social landscape, most can agree that the trends above offer uncertainty about the state of the generations after. Academics speculate how this in turn negatively impacts society and the future. As for the solution to these issues, one may ask, is modern Liberalism as seen now, or is traditional thought the way forward? Only the future will tell.

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1 Comment

James Zinsmeister
James Zinsmeister
May 22, 2023

It's an interesting topic--and one to which our nation must devote serious attention over the next century if it is to remain viable. I'm curious as to which incentives are embraced and how we will fare after they are. Other nations will also succeed or fail depending on their respective abilities to adapt. Here's hoping we learn what works--and learn it quickly.

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