Economic Pressures Reshape American Family Norms

For most of the 20th century, the word "family" in America evoked a specific image: a married couple, their children, and often a golden retriever, symbolizing domestic bliss.

by Faruk Imamovic
Economic Pressures Reshape American Family Norms
© Getty Images

For most of the 20th century, the word "family" in America evoked a specific image: a married couple, their children, and often a golden retriever, symbolizing domestic bliss. However, this portrait, once considered the bedrock of society, has been undergoing a transformation.

The concept of the nuclear family, characterized by two parents living with their children, has seen a gradual decline over the past 50 years. In 1970, more than two-thirds of American adults between 25 and 49 lived with a spouse and at least one child.

By 2021, Pew Research found this figure had dropped to just 37%. This shift suggests that the nuclear family model is increasingly becoming an option rather than the norm. Various factors, including economic pressures, changing societal values, and the rise of diverse family structures, contribute to this trend.

Moreover, the debate over the future of the family has become a polarizing topic, attracting commentary from various public figures and sparking discussions across political and social spectrums.

Historical Context and Evolution

The nuclear family, often seen as a hallmark of American society, didn't always hold the central place in our social fabric that it came to occupy in the mid-20th century.

This family model, characterized by parents living with their biological children and isolated from extended kin, is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. Historically, marriage was more about economic alliances and survival than romantic love, with most Americans living in extended, multigenerational households that worked together on family farms or businesses.

The industrial revolution of the 19th century marked a turning point. Young people began moving to cities for work, leaving behind their family units. This migration gave rise to the dating culture, a concept virtually unknown before this era.

As Moira Weigel notes in her book "Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating," dating moved courtship from the private sphere of the home to the public marketplace, intertwining love with economic transactions and making leisure activities part of the courtship process.

By the 20th century, the evolution of the American economy and the expansion of the middle class altered family dynamics further. Children were no longer economic assets but dependents to be nurtured, leading to the rise of the breadwinner-homemaker model.

This period saw the nuclear family reach its zenith, supported by postwar prosperity that made it possible, if not desirable, for families to subsist on a single income.

A family in Kentucky saying grace before their christmas dinner© Getty Images

However, the stability of this model was more illusionary than real.

The economic downturns and social changes of the late 20th century began to reveal cracks in the nuclear family ideal. The oil crisis of 1973 and subsequent recessions eroded the financial basis for single-earner households, pushing more women into the workforce and challenging traditional family roles.

The transition from communal living and economic partnerships to the nuclear family setup underscored a significant shift in American values, from communal support to individual autonomy. Yet, this shift also laid the groundwork for the challenges and criticisms that would emerge against the nuclear family in the following decades.

Economic Realities and the Nuclear Family's Decline

The erosion of the nuclear family in recent decades is not merely a cultural shift but also a reflection of deeper economic transformations. The 1973 oil crisis and the recession that followed were early indicators that the postwar economic model, which had supported the proliferation of nuclear families, was under threat.

This economic upheaval heralded a period of wage stagnation and growing social inequality, challenging the feasibility of maintaining a family on a single income. The financial pressures faced by families were compounded by the rising costs of living and childcare, making the traditional nuclear family model increasingly untenable.

The introduction of no-fault divorce laws, starting with California in 1969, facilitated a rise in divorce rates, reflecting and accelerating changes in family structures. Women, entering the workforce in greater numbers, gained financial independence, enabling them to leave unsatisfactory marriages and challenging the traditional roles within the family.

This period marked a significant departure from the mid-20th century, when the nuclear family was seen as both an economic unit and a symbol of American prosperity. As Stephanie Coontz, a historian of family life, points out, the economic realities of the late 20th century exposed the nuclear family's vulnerabilities, showing it to be less a natural social unit and more a product of specific economic conditions.

Moreover, the financial burden of raising children has only grown, with the Brookings Institution estimating the cost of raising a child born in 2015 through age 17 to be $310,605, adjusting for future inflation. This economic strain has contributed to declining birth rates, as more individuals and couples choose to forego parenting, a trend that has significant implications for future economic growth and the sustainability of welfare systems.

As economic pressures mounted, the nuclear family, once a cornerstone of American society, began to look less like a universal ideal and more like one option among many. The recognition that families require extensive external support, from state welfare programs to community networks, has become increasingly apparent, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the limitations of relying solely on nuclear family structures for caregiving and emotional support.